Wednesday, January 03, 2007

what's a public library for anyway?

two recent articles have called attention (rather critically) to one library's weeding practices: one in the Washington Post and one in the Wall Street Journal. First the Washington Post came out with this:

Hello, Grisham -- So Long, Hemingway? With Shelf Space Prized, Fairfax Libraries Cull Collections
By Lisa Rein Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 2, 2007; A01

You can't find "Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings" at the Pohick Regional Library anymore. Or "The Education of Henry Adams" at Sherwood Regional. Want Emily Dickinson's "Final Harvest"? Don't look to the Kingstowne branch.

* * (snip) * *

Along with those classics, thousands of novels and nonfiction works have been eliminated from the Fairfax County collection after a new computer software program showed that no one had checked them out in at least 24 months.

Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region's largest library system is taking turnover to a new level.

Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system's return on its investment by each foot of space on the library shelves -- and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone -- even if they are classics.

"We're being very ruthless," said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system since 1982. "A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that's a cost."

* * (snip) * *

So librarians are making hard decisions and struggling with a new issue: whether the data-driven library of the future should cater to popular tastes or set a cultural standard, even as the demand for the classics wanes. Library officials say they will always stock Shakespeare's plays, "The Great Gatsby" and other venerable titles. And many of the books pulled from one Fairfax library can be found at another branch and delivered to a patron within a week.

But in the effort to stay relevant in an age in which reference materials and novels can be found on the Internet and Oprah's Book Club helps set standards of popularity, libraries are not the cultural repositories they once were.

"I think the days of libraries saying, 'We must have that, because it's good for people,' are beyond us," said Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association and director of Princeton Public Library. "There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire. Everybody's got a favorite book they're trying to promote."

That leaves some books endangered. In Fairfax, thousands of titles have been pulled from the shelves and become eligible for book sales.

Weeding books used to be sporadic. Now it's strategic. Clay and his employees established the two-year threshold 18 months ago, driven, they say, by a $2 million cut to the budget for books and materials and the demand for space. More computers and growing demand in branches for meeting space, story hours and other gatherings have left less room for books.

And nowadays, library patrons don't like to sit at big tables with strangers as they read or study. They want to be alone, creating a need for individual carrels that take up even more space. And the popularity of audiovisual materials that must be housed in 50-year-old branches built for smaller collections only adds to the crunch.

To do more with less, Fairfax library officials have started running like businesses. Clay bought state-of-the art software that spits out data on each of the 3.1 million books in the county system -- including age, number of times checked out and when. There are also statistics on the percentages of shelf space taken up by mysteries, biographies and kids' books.

Every branch gets a printout of the data each month, including every title that hasn't circulated in the previous 24 months. It's up to librarians to decide whether a book stays. The librarians have discretion, but they also have targets, collection manager Julie Pringle said. "What comes in is based on what goes out," she said. Classics such as Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" are among the titles that haven't been checked out in two years and could be eliminated.

Librarians so far have decided to keep them. As libraries clear out titles, they sweep in new ones as fast as they can. A two-month-old program called "Hot Picks" is boosting copies of bestsellers by tracking the number of holds requested by patrons. This month, every Fairfax branch will display new books more prominently, leaving even less space for older ones.

"We don't want to keep what people don't use much of," Clay said. Circulation, a sign of prestige and a potential bargaining chip for new funding, is on pace to hit 11.6 million in the Fairfax system this year, art of a steady climb over the past three years.

No other system in the Washington area is tracking circulation as quickly -- or weeding so methodically. Montgomery County, a similar-size suburban system, has not emphasized weeding in several years, said Kay Ecelbarger, who retired last month as chief of collection management.

In the District, library director Ginnie Cooper said she has not tackled weeding and turnover policy in the system, which is struggling to increase circulation. She hopes to address those concerns with a recent infusion of cash from the D.C. Council.

There are no national standards on weeding public library collections.

As Fairfax bets its future on a retail model, some librarians say that the public library may be straying too far from its traditional role as an archive of literature and history.

Arlington County's library director, Diane Kresh, said she's "paying a lot of attention to what our customers want." But if they aren't checking out Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," she's not only keeping it, she's promoting it through a new program that gives forgotten classics prominent display.

"Part of my philosophy is that you collect for the ages," Kresh said. "The library has a responsibility to provide a core collection for the cultural education of its community." She comes to this view from a career at the Library of Congress, where she was chief of public service collections for 30 years.

The weight of the new choices falls on the local librarian. That's especially hard at the Woodrow Wilson branch in Falls Church, one of the smallest in the Fairfax system. It's a vibrant place popular with Latino and Middle Eastern immigrants, the elderly and young professionals. Branch manager Linda Schlekau, who has 20 years of experience, says she discards about 700 books a month.

"Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill" sat on the top shelf of a cart in the back room one day in late December, wedged between Voltaire's "Candide" and "Broke Heart Blues" by Joyce Carol Oates. The cart brimmed with books that someone on Schlekau's staff had pulled from the shelves. Sometimes she has time to give them another look before wheeling them to the book-sale pile. Sometimes she doesn't.

The Oates would return to the shelf, "because she's a real popular author at Woodrow Wilson," even if "Broke Heart Blues" isn't, Schlekau said. The Voltaire would go. An obscure Edgar Allan Poe volume called "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" might be transferred to another branch.

Schlekau hesitated over the volume of O'Neill plays, which was in good condition but had been checked out only nine times in its lifespan at the library, falling short of the system's new goal of 20. She sighed. "The only time things like this are going out is if they're [performing the plays] at the Kennedy Center." But, she said, she's disinclined to throw O'Neill into the discard pile: "That's the English major in me."

Now, obviously, i have not been a librarian forever, nor have i been a librarian in all of the nation's libraries; however, i do have a MILS from a rather respected school and believe i have a fairly firm grounding in the principles of librarianship and i think that if, in the past weeding books had been sporadic then that was a fault in and individual library or system. Weeding is a painful but very necessary part of a healthy collection (just as the human body needs a healthy elimination system~just think where you'd be without yours). Which brings us to another point~the absolute necessity of a collection development policy (which includes weeding guidelines and a mission statement~which the collection development policy is a natural extension of.
If your mission statement says that you are to be a cultural repository and historical archive that is a very different role than a library whose mission statement says that it wants to serve the popular interests of the community and many communities have different resources for different needs (some don't). As far as keeping items whose circulation statistics don't justify it, Kresh has the right idea, if you have a personal commitment to it, you need to justify it yourself, by promotion, get those circulation statistics you need (and i have been known to sometimes weed a high circulating item to replace it with an item i think might be of higher quality in the same area~fiction area. And every good librarian knows that weeding increases circulation, you avoid it at your own peril.
Rein also seems to be blaming the technology (the computer printouts telling the librarians what hasn't circulated in 24 months~actually, i do 12 months at my branch though i make an exception for the classics). The technology is just a tool that is used to do what we had to do by looking at those little cards, or tic marks, or whatever annoying and tedious manual system we used before (and did you notice that the librarian WITH the brain, discretion, training, and judgement makes the final call?
At least the Post article was a little more objective than the Journal article that followed its lead:

WALL STREET JOURNAL Should Libraries' Target Audience Be Cheapskates With Mass-Market Tastes?
By JOHN J. MILLER January 3, 2007; Page D9

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" may be one of Ernest Hemingway's best-known books, but it isn't exactly flying off the shelves in northern Virginia these days.Precisely nobody has checked out a copy from the Fairfax County Public Library system in the past two years, according to a front-page story in yesterday's Washington Post.

And now the bell may toll for Hemingway. A software program developed by SirsiDynix, an Alabama-based library-technology company, informs librarians of which books are circulating and which ones aren't. If titles remain untouched for two years, they may be discarded -- permanently. "We're being very ruthless," boasts library director Sam Clay.

As it happens, the ruthlessness may not ultimately extend to Hemingway's classic. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" could win a special reprieve, and, in the future, copies might remain available at certain branches. Yet lots of other volumes may not fare as well. Books by Charlotte Brontë, William Faulkner,Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have recently been pulled.

Library officials explain, not unreasonably, that their shelf space is limited and that they want to satisfy the demands of the public. Every unpopular book that's removed from circulation, after all, creates room for a new page-turner by John Grisham, David Baldacci, or James Patterson -- the authors of the three most checked-out books in Fairfax County last month.

But this raises a fundamental question: What are libraries for? Are they cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been thought and said? Or are they more like actual stores, responding to whatever fickle taste or Mitch Albom tearjerker is all the rage at this very moment? If the answer is the latter, then why must we have government-run libraries at all? There's a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the recreational habits of bookworms.

Fairfax County may think that condemning a few dusty old tomes allows it to keep up with the times. But perhaps it's inadvertently highlighting the fact that libraries themselves are becoming outmoded.

There was a time when virtually every library was a cultural repository holding priceless volumes. Imagine how much richer our historical and literary record would be if a single library full of unique volumes -- the fabled Royal Library of Alexandria, in Egypt -- had survived to the present day. As recently as a century ago, when Andrew Carnegie was opening thousands of libraries throughout the English-speaking world, books were considerably more expensive and harder to obtain than they are right now. Carnegie always credited his success in business to the fact that he could borrow books from private libraries while he was growing up. His philanthropy meant to provide similar opportunities to later generations.

* * (snip) * *

The bottom line is that it has never been easier or cheaper to read a book, and the costs of reading probably will do nothing but drop further.

If public libraries attempt to compete in this environment, they will increasingly be seen for what Fairfax County apparently envisions them to be: welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille's newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Wal-Mart.

Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn't merely describe the words of a language -- it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends.

The particulars of this task will fall upon the shoulders of individual librarians, who should welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral, as librarians traditionally have done. They ought to regard themselves as not just experts in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System, but as teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.

The alternative is for them to morph into clerks who fill their shelves with whatever their "customers" want, much as stock boys at grocery stores do. Both libraries and the public, however, would be ill-served by such a Faustian bargain.

That's a reference, by the way, to one of literature's great antiheroes.Good luck finding Christopher Marlowe's play about him in a Fairfax County library: "Doctor Faustus" has survived for more than four centuries, but it apparently hasn't been checked out in the past 24 months.

Mr. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of "A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America" (Encounter Books).

Now, as you might expect, this librarian feels a bit of a rampage bubbling up on this particular subject (i start feeling especially rampagey when non-librarians start pontificating about subjects they seem to have very little knowledge about but that's probably just my taurean nature).

First off, Miller sounds like more than a bit of a elitist snob to me, speaking as a biblioaddict and as someone who has spent much too much on books, i can tell you, even if they are getting more affordable, they are still damn expensive (especially if you read three to five a week). And it really shouldn't matter what your tastes are, the libraries are there to serve everyone, especially the disenfranchised (and yes, Mr. Miller, there actually are some people out there who CANNOT afford to quench their reading thirst, there are even some people out there who don't have computers, or MP3 players) and not ALL of them have cheap mass market tastes~some of them actually DO read classics (and many of the books you refer to Hemingway, Lee, etc, WERE among the popular books of their day (as they say "the cream rises to the top"). Any book that is not available at your local library is often available through inter-library loan for free or a nominal charge (that is if it isn't available for transfer through another library branch~even those books that have been weeded for non-circulation so all is not lost).

As a librarian i was taught to be discriminating in the materials i chose to collect, but not judgemntal of my patrons taste; and i have ALWAYS thought of myself as much more than an expert "in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System" (in fact i never learned the Dewey Decimal System in Library School~i did have a class called Organization of Information and learned basic cataloging rules but since not all libraries use the Dewey Decimal System that seems a silly thing to learn about unless it's actually the one you are using~and it is so disappointing that someone so obviously as learned as you would know so little about what librarians actually do~We ARE and ALWAYS HAVE BEEN and WILL continue to be "teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance").

There are many levels of government libraries but i'm sure you are refering to the public library which are funded by tax payer dollars (and aren't all government libraries funded by taxpayer dollars to when it comes right down to it?). Do we really want to say to the people who are paying for these materials we know what you want but we know what you need (that smacks just a little of authoritarianism to me)?

It is the dynamic library and the dynamic librarian that will move into the future; and the static library that refuses to change will be doomed to failure. I am curious about the time you refer to when "virtually every library was a cultural repository holding priceless volumes," was that in your personal memory? And are you sure those were libraries, or were they perhaps museums? There are such things as archival libraries, and special collections, and larger branches within systems, your classics are all available. And all of the bestsellers of today will be weeded soon enough (believe it or not there might even be a gem or two among them.) Also, did you actually hear Mr. Clay's bragging tone of voice when he said he was being ruthless or did you just assume it from the Post's article?

oh, and by the by, Faust was actually a well known character before Marlowe wrote about him~just so you know (and if you had checked the Fairfax catalog you would have found that there are four copies of Doctor Faustus available), ALSO stock boys at grocery stores don't so much fill their shelves with what customers want because most of the shelf space in grocery stores is bought up by advertisers and the companies who manufacture the goods put on those shelves~you only think you get to make those decisions (the same thing is happening in many of the big bookstore chains)~the last bastion of true choice is the independents and of course

your local library.

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