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Hoarders on a Grand Scale

I’ve written a number of times about book weeding, which always seems to draw complaints from patrons, whether it’s in an academic or a public library. Probably more so in academic libraries, because there’s no one more fetishistic about books than professors who have been using the library for decades. Well, almost no one.

The latest story focuses on the library at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which is in Indiana, Pennsylvania, which is a real place and not just a vague region in the Midwest.

They’re getting rid of 170,000 books or so that haven’t circulated for 20 years. 20 years doesn’t seem like such a long time, but when you need space for coffee shops and study areas something has to go.

The response from some people is predictably hyperbolic.

“Unbelievably wrongheaded” and a “knife through the heart,” Charles Cashdollar, an emeritus history professor, wrote to the president and provost. “For humanists, throwing out these books is as devastating as locking the laboratory or studio or clinic doors would be for others.”

With that fantastic last name, he should have been an economist, but he’s probably heard that joke before.

Nevertheless, he’s completely wrong. No knife has gone through his heart, even metaphorically. And while libraries might once upon a time have been analogous to labs and studios, they haven’t been for a long time.

Since he’s emeritus, it’s possible that he doesn’t know that libraries now have searchable catalogs, and indeed there’s even a searchable catalog for hundreds of libraries at once, and he doesn’t even have to be on campus! If he asked a librarian about that, she could probably teach him how to use it.

And then the books could just be sent to him. Crazy!

With the number of books that have been published in the last few decades, few to no large research libraries have all their books in one place. Surely a historian who’s used libraries should know this.

If you’re Harvard, you send them offsite. If you’re Indiana University of Pennsylvania, you weed them. Unless you have a magical TARDIS library, those are your only choices.

At a lot of research libraries, particularly in Europe, people can’t even browse the stacks. They have to rely on catalogs. And yet humanists still manage to do research.

In a laboratory, you can’t just search a database and have the equipment you need recalled from storage, or access it digitally and use it in the comfort of your own home. Unless it’s a digital lab, then I guess you can.

The problem with complaints from professors is that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and when they do know what they’re talking about they don’t address larger issues, the largest being that EVEN IF libraries weren’t shrinking space for cafes, there would still be no place to put new books. This has always been true in every library.

If the professors are so concerned, they could check out all 170,000 books that hadn’t circulated, which would remove them from the list of books that hadn’t circulated in 20 years, or they could find the money to build larger libraries.

If they can’t do either of those, and they still object to weeding books on principle, then they can’t be taken seriously.

Even worse than the fetishists might be the know-nothings, also quoted in the article. A freshman student likes the weeding idea, and is quoted as saying, “If nobody’s reading them…, what’s the point of having them?”

Hopefully, she’s talking just about the IUP library, and not the Hathi Trust or the Eastern Academic Scholars’ Trust, both mentioned in the article as preserving a combined 22 million print volumes.

She’s to be forgiven, because first-year college students generally don’t know much, have no scholarly interests, and can’t imagine what it’s like to have scholarly interests that require the resources of big libraries.

Anyone who has pursued a topic of research in depth knows the value of having access to lots of books and articles on the topic, and with any reflection they should be able to figure out the reason libraries have books that aren’t currently being read is that someone might want to read them someday, and that’s all the excuse librarians need.

Some librarians who apparently either have never done advanced scholarly research or haven’t reflected on it mock libraries that have, or at least used to have, a policy of “just in case.”

Libraries still have that policy, though. It’s just that now they rely on things like the Hathi Trust or the Eastern Academic Scholars’ Trust.

Book fetishists like our earnest history professor are book hoarders. They want libraries to hoard every book ever received and leave it on the shelves, which somehow magically expand in a Borgesian manner to accommodate all new books.

What they don’t realize is that compared to librarians, those professors are book hoarders on a petty scale. 170,000 books that people at IUP haven’t happened to check out in 20 years? Peanuts!

Libraries around the country are combining to preserve tens of millions of books.

Maybe that’s why it’s easy for me to make fun of local book fetishists and hoarders. It’s not because librarians aren’t book fetishists and hoarders; it’s because they’re book fetishists and hoarders on such a massive scale that they make the local concerns seem ridiculous by comparison.

So, yes, some scholars at IUP will have to rely on ILL to get books their library doesn’t have, or no longer has, just like scholars at every other college and university in the country. What a terrible inconvenience for them, to have to accommodate themselves to the reality that no library can buy and store everything and that everyone has to share.

But librarians know, and can helpfully inform them, that they don’t need to worry about books disappearing. That might happen occasionally, but in general modern librarians are the most dedicated book hoarders the world has ever seen. It’s just that these days they keep their hoarding out of sight so it doesn’t make people worry about their sanity.

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Comments

  1. I studied history before I went to library school, and browsing the stacks really did suggest avenues of research that hadn’t occurred to me. Sure, there was an online catalogue, and I used that as well, but if you don’t know to search for something, you’re not likely to find it. I entirely sympathize with those who want open stacks, although I acknowledge the difficulty in finding space.

    • I also studied history before earning my MLS and I agree that there is something to be said for browsing the stacks. However… this university is deselecting 170,000 volumes that have not been checked out since before their freshman class was born. Those books have been sitting on the shelves, practically untouched, for these student’s entire lifetimes. Twenty classes of undergraduate students (and their professors) have browsed those stacks and didn’t find those books worthy of borrowing. When I look at it in that light, I fully support the librarians’ decision. It’s time to make room for other things be they more timely and relevant books or study space.

  2. Spencer Smith says:

    To quote myself… ” Serendipitous discovery is still important and is a true and intangible value, but kismet isn’t a business plan. “

  3. It isn’t just academic libraries. I currently work for a public library that has more books than our neighboring two libraries which have service populations 2-3 times larger than ours *and* we have a smaller, older building. We have so many books the library is unpleasant to be in. There are so many books that books are stacked on top of the shelves and some books are laid horizontally on the tops of the vertical books on the shelves. We have so many books that you practically need some vice grips or a crow bar to pry a novel out the shelves where they are packed like sardines. We have tons of books that have not circulated in 10 plus years. Our visibility is so terrible and space is so limited that we have to harangue patrons incessantly about where they stand, sit, or congregate which means we have a reputation for pedantry, officiousness, and pettiness in the community. We have terrible programming attendance because our funding is all put into books and we have no space to do anything interesting.

    This is not because the public is hostile to weeding. This is caused by management of the library itself. I once compared us to a book warehouse and was straight-out informed by the director that the term “book warehouse” is really “just as ugly word used by people who don’t want to deal with books.” Right, I became a librarian because I don’t want to deal with books… Dirty, awful books that dirty, awful people read! Who ever heard of books in libraries?! Seems perfectly logical.

    But what do I know? I’m just a lowly neophyte who only graduated 3 years ago and is, of course, obsessed with all things digital and trendy. What is that in the face of the experts in management with 40+ years of book hoarding under their belts?

    [/rant]

    • “We have terrible programming attendance because our funding is all put into books and we have no space to do anything interesting.”

      Please explain this, I can’t even.

  4. @Micah

    I’m not sure where the confusion lies because I mean exactly what I said. The vast vast bulk of our funding is used to buy books and a tiny percentage is used for programming. So we get out of programming what we put into it which is to say not much. Also the fact that books are packed to the rafters in every available space means that we are exceedingly strapped for space and that impacts what kinds of programs we can offer, how large the programs can be, and it also heavily influences general decor, services, and policies.

    Say having some kind of area for teens to congregate and sit which we direly need because we are located right beside the junior high and High School. We can’t do this because the library is so full of books no one checks out.

    Or say having display cases or exhibits using our quite good local history collection with many historical documents photos and artifacts. We can’t do it because we have so many books. They are just squirreled away in the archives where the general public doesn’t even know they exist.

    • What is “programming?” I get that too many books is a problem for any size library, although I am quite fond of this in used book stores. But I’m drawing the inference that the core function of a library is being superseded by an intent to transform it into an ersatz community center.

  5. The core function of a library is to be an educational and informational Center. And that involves a whole lot more than hoarding books, especially books that nobody’s even using.

    I feel like you’re being willfully obtuse. Programming is a core part of Library function and has been for decades. What do you think it means? It means story time. It means computer literacy training. It means book reading groups. It means all kinds of different educational programming that takes advantage of the resources at the library physical and electronic. The days when libraries were nothing but Dusty rooms full of books Bound in leather has long since passed. You might not like this but that is the reality. Insisting on staying on that path is a very fast road to obsolescence because most people including myself have no interest in paying tax money to support that.

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