November 17, 2017

Zen and the Art of Weeding | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

Maybe it’s because I don’t have an actual garden, but I love weeding the collection. Yet even though I find it satisfying, it’s something that almost always gets put at the end of the "to do" list because… well, it’s the opposite of urgent. The books will wait; they have for years and years. The outdated web page is a public embarrassment that cries out for immediate fixing. The budget (small though it is) needs to be spent before the fiscal year ends. That decision about a database has to be made by the end of the week.

The books wait. And wait.

Adding without subtracting
I realize how out of control things are getting when I go into the stacks to look for a book on schizophrenia and notice that the books with publication dates older than 1970 outnumber ones published during the current millennium—by a lot. Or I go to pull a classic off the shelves for an exhibit and find that the only copy we have was dogeared and underlined decades ago by people returning for their fiftieth class reunion. Or I’m helping a student who’s taking a class from a new faculty member teaching a newly listed course and realize, wow, we don’t have any books on that part of the world published after 1954.

Like many college libraries, we build our collection around the curriculum and a majority of our book purchases are based on recommendations from faculty. We try to fill in the gaps by looking out for important books on topics of interest to students, by checking awards lists, and keeping an eye out for neglected or interdisciplinary areas. Every now and then we have a moment of cosmic convergence when an issue of Books for Understanding or one of the YBP Bestsellers lists that appear in this newsletter happens to come along just as we’re realizing how much we need to beef up a subject area. We try to keep up by adding new material. What we don’t do routinely enough is go to the shelves and remove books that are completely out of date, the kind of sources that, used in a student paper, are just as embarrassingly wrong as the information on that out-of-date web page.

Books still matter
When an effort to help a student at the reference desk reveals that our book collection on a topic is out of date, it’s easy to shift gears and find more current sources—scholarly articles in our databases, or a really good website from a government agency that has current statistics. And usually students go away happy so long as they have something to use. But books offer certain advantages for undergraduates.

The part of the research process that is most challenging and takes the most time for undergraduate researchers working with sources is getting enough solid background information that they can refine a vague topic into a specific research question. Their professors tend to forget how much their students don’t know. A scholarly article is written for other scholars and the contextual information provided is minimal. A government website may be full of good policy information, but it might not provide historical grounding. Books almost always provide an introduction in which the lens is adjusted to show the big picture. Books usually spend some time defining terms and setting context. They knit together specifics into a narrative whole in ways that individual articles don’t.

They also are shelved in a way that enables a different kind of discovery, and students who allow themselves the time to browse are able to see relationships that aren’t at all apparent in a database of texts. There’s a geography of knowledge involved, in which the physical act of scanning to the right or left shows how topics connect. To be sure, this doesn’t always work. LC classification is like an old map; it doesn’t show contemporary borders between disciplines, and whole fields of study have had to be squeezed into nooks and crannies. But even with those flaws, a visit to the stacks provides a sense that knowledge is connected, that it has a shape, that the knower is in the midst of it, part of the whole.

And there’s something contemplative and calming about being in the stacks. Maybe it has to do with the expanse of it, being dwarfed by the knowledge around you; maybe it’s the gravitational pull of books that somehow conveys "what’s the hurry?" Scanning the results of a database search feels relatively frantic. There’s nothing about a screen full of links that encourages one to dawdle, to explore, to discover.

We must cultivate our gardens
Weeding can be difficult, of course. It takes as long to choose a book to withdraw as it does to select a new one. Some faculty may object to discarding books, though in my experience objections are much rarer than complaints about students citing books that are past their shelf life. And a librarian can be seized by indecision. Is this shabby book actually a classic? Circulation reports can help, as can a laptop and wireless access for those moments when you think "why is this name so familiar? Did this guy win the Nobel prize or something?"  Even more time-consuming is the discovery that a subject area needs updating, that newer editions of worn-out classics need to be purchased. But it can be done. It needs to be done.

There are practical reasons to weed the collection. The space occupied by out of date books is expensive; that usually only sinks in when things are so tight new construction has to be considered. There’s the curatorial aspect of collection building: how helpful is it to hide new books among thousands of titles that are not useful? There’s the pedagogical function of the library, too. A college library introduces students to the world of knowledge. It’s too bad when that world is laughably archaic. What message does that send, that libraries are where dead ideas are preserved like specimens in formaldehyde?

Apart from the practical reasons, there are also the more ineffable benefits. That "what’s the hurry" ethos of the stacks can be soothing to my soul on a day with too many meetings. The time spent curating the book collection can put me in touch with ideas and lead to moments of discovery and delight. I can feel like a student again when I have the chance to prune a section of the stacks so that the best books are easier to find.

And who knows, I might even be inspired to start my own Awful Library Books blog.

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010.

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Columns:
Stuck in Neutral, Part II | From the Bell Tower

Zen and the Art of Weeding | Peer to Peer Review


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