20 Feb 2012

Academic Librarians responsible for the probable "wanton destruction of printed books"?

I recently came across an interesting and provocative journal article (Colin Storey, (2011) "Bibliobabble?: The surge towards a print?less e-library recasts academic librarians as “rare book engineers”", Library Management, Vol. 32 Iss: 1/2, pp.73 - 84) that addresses the dangers of academic librarians destroying a huge amount of the printed word in colleges and universities around the world. Historically, the printed word has been repeatedly under attack from natural disasters (the burning of the library at Alexandra), military inasions (the Iraq National Library) in 2003 and totalitarian regimes who organised public burnings of books they disapproved of (the Nazis in the 1930's and 40's). Somewhat provocatively, Storey maintains that it will be the supposed guardians of printed books and serials-academic librarians themselves-who will be responsible for the destruction of countless books as academic libraries move, seemingly inexorably, towards a print-free e-library.

Storey claims that the massive weeding programme currently underway to get rid of less-used volumes is being pushed by university administrators, many of whom have little interest in their libraries. Whole categories of books are being disgarded; multiple editions and reprints of classic fiction may disappear completely. The author acknowledges that weeding has always been part of a librarian's job, and with good reason: editions were out of date and misleading; the subject matter was no longer relevant to teaching strategies; and print editions being worn out. Now, however, librarians are removing books because of the absence of currently perceived cultural importance. Storey believes that the amount of weeding needed to be done means that thorough checking of the worth of individual titles will not take place:

As they have always done, academic librarians may discard such books based upon the absence of currently perceived cultural importance. Yet the sheer volume of material being discarded at this juncture militates against title-by-title, copy-by-copy micro-decisions on future importance and need. There is simply no time and few resources for such finesse.
Storey claims academic libarians may well be repudiating their roles as traditional conservationists as they dismantle collections acquired by their conservation-minded predecessors all for the sake of short-term political and economic considerations within their institutions.

As we all know, weeding is a vital part of managing and maintaining a collection. There are few people who mind having their library's collection updated from vinyl to cd or VHS to DVD. However, the drive to a digital library will mean difficult decisions will have to be made with regard to keeping certain editions of books. As a lover of the printed book, part of me agrees with the author's fear of the academic library going more and more digital and the weeding out of large parts of the printed collection. However, there are a couple of items to take issue with. I believe few will mourn the loss of the printed serial. It is so much easier that all of these be maintained on databases for easy retrieval for students rather than gathering dust and taking up space in a library. Also, the author gives very little practical examples of what librarians can actually do to successfully counteract (assuming they want to) university administrators' wishes that print collections be dramatically reduced. In an era of austerity and cutbacks for academics worldwide, it would take quite a brave librarian to launch a campaign that goes directly against their employer's wishes. Storey simply says what they are doing runs against the ethos of their profession without outlining a strategy to successfully counter the perceived threat. Storey also does not talk about the benefits of e-books to academic libraries. Space is at a premium in most libraries and the introduction of material available online may free up space for newer, more relevant printed material to be purchased. Also, needless to say, if a book is available electronically, many students can access it at the same time instead of just a handful.

Overall, Storey makes an fine case for the preservation of existing print collections at academic libraries but one wonders as digital technology increasingly encroaches on reading patterns whether he is fighting a losing battle.

1 comment:

  1. Ronan, if I remember correctly we actually discussed this article at a journal club last year which is somewhat coincidental! I remember that I was not particularly persuaded by Storey's arguments however, and thought many of his views were not very well justified. And as you also mention, he fails to offer practical examples of what librarians can actually do to successfully counteract university administrators' wishes that print collections be reduced.

    I also believe that it is not necessarily the job of the academic library to preserve, collect and archive all printed material, if they also have the equivalent electronic content which users can access more conveniently. Surely it is the function of national bibliographic agencies such as the NLI to collect and preserve 'everything in print' rather than the academic library, whose focus should be on maintaining a collection which adequately supports the research and learning needs of their users?

    I feel the debate should be about content not format - the latter is largely irrelevant these days, and the former is what really generates value.