Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Books: Important Symbol or Annoying Physical Reality?

The question in the title is something that I've spent a lot of time considering. It's plagued me almost since the very beginning of my career, but I think I know the answer now. "So," I can hear you asking, "what are books? Are they an important physical reality? Or are they a magical symbol?" My answer: Both.

Why am I bringing this up now? Lately there's been a flurry of controversy about libraries DARING to get rid of their books in favor of other things - study space, computer labs, learning commons, coffee shops, etc. Part of me thinks those must have been slow news days, since libraries have always weeded their collections. But, slow news days or not, there has been a lot of outrage and I can't ignore it. Since I'm most definitely a bibliophile, I can understand the impulse to treasure the printed word. However, as someone who's hip-deep in what is probably going to be a multi-year weeding project, I can also speak to the annoying, dust-covered reality of old books. So here I am with a blog post.

Here's a brief list of the specific things that prompted me to sit down and write this post:

First, there was a click bait article, "Save Our Stacks: It's not about the books. It's about the books representing the last place on campus where intellectual contemplation thrives." (That link is one I created using DoNotLink.com, so you won't be rewarding them with hits if you want to read it.)

Second, there was a conversation on Twitter in response to that piece of click bait (the conversation started with the tweet I embedded below, but I highly recommend looking at the rest of what was said - especially Tom Bruno's contributions to the discussion):

Finally, there was another tweet a little over a week later:

I don't want to descend into the "you have no idea what you're talking about, outsiders!" territory, although it's tempting - there are lots of comparisons to be made to other service professions on the tip of my tongue. But no... as tempting as it might be, that's not the point of this blog. I want to help us all be better librarians, and after a certain amount of griping it becomes counterproductive. Instead, I want to talk about my desire to find a middle ground, a way of accommodating the visceral responses of those who fetishize the printed word while still serving their real needs.

That phrase, "their real needs," sounds a bit high handed even to me - and I'm the one who wrote it. But really, I can't help thinking about Jakob Nielsen's piece, "First Rule of Usability? Don't Listen to Users," and a related quote from Steve Jobs: "It's not the customer's job to know what they want." I'm not Steve Jobs. I'm not even Jakob Nielsen. As much as I might admire those men for their clear vision, I don't feel comfortable dismissing community voices. This means I can't go into "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" mode with collection development. Books are absolutely a symbol, and an important one at that. As I've said many times before, no matter what else we might be/do/have, "the library brand is still books."

All of this means that no matter how annoying the physical reality of books might get, gathering dust, attracting bedbugs, rotting in colorfully staining ways, I can't disregard the symbolism. So I communicate as much as I can with my community when we weed. We have posted a sign near our book sale area that explains how books end up on those shelves. I give faculty in related departments a heads up when we are weeding, doing everything I can to solicit their feedback. When I run into people in my community who don't want to listen, I deal with it on a case by case basis - sometimes giving in to their wishes, sometimes insisting on the library's needs, and sometimes finding a compromise. 

My point is that we need to respect the dual nature of the books within the library's walls. As Chris Bourg said, "It's about the books AND the symbolism of the books." And, no matter what, always remember to stroke the spines of the nastiest ones. 


How about you? Do you have a preferred method for dealing with the false dichotomy?


  1. In the large library system I work in, there are different approaches to weeding. For some of the more old school non-weeders, they really try to keep materials circulating if they are the last copy, even if they're in bad shape. I weeded a book that had its cover completely torn off (held together with a rubber band) last week. It had a hold on it, so I called the patron and explained, and put an interlibrary loan for them.
    I think when the cover needs a rubber band it's pretty clear-cut, but there is one supervisor who doesn't want to get rid of old nonfiction. For example: typing books from the 90s, a videogame programming book from 2008 that is missing its cdroms. She says no. What can I do?

    1. Wow. I can't imagine a reason to want to keep those in a public library system. Maybe in a college system where someone studies the history of computers/computing, but maybe there's a way to figure out why she wants to keep them and then work from there.