ATG Article of the Week: Lies and Damn Lies: Issues in Collection Development

Lies and Damn Lies: Issues in Collection Development

by Steve McKinzie –  Library Director, Catawba College, Salisbury, NC

One has to admire the take-no-prisoners tenacity of Rick Anderson.  For him there is “No Such Thing as a Bad Book,” and as head of collection development at the University of Utah, he is the very one that ought to know.   He manages a library’s selection of materials and has to deal with these issues daily.  Of course, in suggesting that there is no such thing as a bad book, Anderson never insists that some books may not be badly written or badly argued.   Many are both.  He rather contends that even seriously flawed books may have a utility to the researcher.  His “no-bad-book” argument rests squarely on the noncontroversial contention that every collection development policy worth its salt has to consider utility as well as quality in its book selection process – a position that most of us in the field would find altogether compelling.

Now, if Anderson had stopped here — if he had offered less provocative examples, I probably wouldn’t be trying to write something of a rebuttal.  I would have held off saying anything.  Rick is mainly in the right.  Librarians do have to consider utility, and they do have to collect “bad” books – that is, ones that are poorly written or outlandishly contentious.  I would be the last to argue that we remove Mein Kampf from the collection because it is too racist, that we jettison a Danielle Steel title because it lacks literary merit, or that we refuse to add Ann Coulter’s Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right because the author has a penchant for contentious and hyperbolic rhetoric.

No, all of these titles could – and probably should — have a place in a given library’s collection.  Anderson is on safe ground on insisting that they and books like them have a certain utility – a specific usefulness outside of their actual quality that earns them a place on the shelf in research collection.  But Anderson doesn’t stop here.  He takes an additional step.  He insists that research libraries should also include (and if I am not mistaken, actively collect) fraudulent and deliberately misleading scholarship, like – as he suggests — Bellesiles notorious Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, a book that Anderson concedes to be filled with deliberate error and misleading fabrication.

Let’s be clear here.  Mr. Anderson is wrong in maintaining that the title. Bellesiles’s Arming of America deserves a place in the stacks – classed, one can only assume, in the regular history section of the university library.  The book should not be there, because it suffers from a simple but enormous problem.  It purports to be something other than what it actually is.  Oh, to be sure, it has all the trappings of scholarship — all the earmarks of a well-executed, historical monograph, a book prodigiously footnoted and meticulously researched.  One can imagine it standing alongside classic early American historical works such as Edmund Sears Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: the Ordeal of Colonial Virginia or David McCullough’s John Adams.  But by any court of analysis, Bellesiles’s Arming of America has no place among such titles.  Far from being the product of objective and careful scholarship, Arming America invents sources.  It distorts events.  It fabricates data – all with a calculating intent of misleading and deceiving the reader.   Students don’t need an example of sham scholarship to decipher, and they don’t need a book to demonstrate how an author “twisted or misrepresented his findings.”  Everyone (and university students most assuredly) understand what it is to cheat and to lie.  They learned that on the kindergarten playground.     

In the final analysis, I have no problems with Rick’s other example:  Ann Coulter.  I could certainly see a library adding one of her titles to the collection, despite its rhetoric and despite its partisan right-wing contentiousness.   I would feel the same way about the rantings of Keith Olbermann or the railings of some other incendiary figure on the left.  They all have their place in a given collection.  Or to employ Anderson’s apt phraseology, they have their “utility.”  Moreover both Coulter and Olbermann write overtly controversial opinion books.  Such works are an altogether different animal than the the rarified, dispasionate world of scholarly mongraph – particularly scholarly historical analysis.

Part of my concern here stems from a past life.  Before my days as a librarian, I took more than fifty graduate hours in history in three different graduate schools.  I grew to love the field, and though a good bit of water of has gone under the bridge since those days, I have never really been able to shake off my grudging admiration of historians or my growing appreciation of their craft.   Historical scholars preserve our sense of place in the flow of events.  They help us see where we have been and where we may be headed.   Oh, to be sure, I have disagreed with some of the great historians – both past and present.  I have quarreled with their conclusions.  I have challenged their presuppositions.    But there was one thing I held as sacrosanct – one thing I was always sure about.  I knew they were telling me the truth – at the very least telling me the truth as they saw it based on the evidence as they understood it.  A fundamental honesty characterized the field.

 Arming of America by Bellesiles betrays that fundamental trust and that foundational characteristic of historical scholarship. Go ahead and add, if you insist, Arming of America to your library’s “sham and fabricated scholarship” collection, if indeed your library actually has such a section.  You would have no objections from me on that score, but beyond that I have clear reservations.  I strongly advise keeping such a title out of a library’s history stacks.  If  you do elect to include it, it would tend only to mislead the unwary, thereby serving (and let’s be honest enough to admit it)  a tenuous and altogether dubious utility.

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4 thoughts on “ATG Article of the Week: Lies and Damn Lies: Issues in Collection Development

  1. Steve’s arguments are eloquently and passionately put, but I believe they are built on several mistaken assumptions:

    First, the assumption that a meretricious book can teach its readers only meretricious things. True it is that college students already know “what it is to cheat and to lie.” But what many of them don’t yet know, and need urgently to learn, is how to recognize particular types of cheating and lying, particularly those that come disguised in scholarly trappings. As I suggested in my SK posting, the Bellesiles book offers an excellent opportunity for a professor to expose such problems and encourage critical thinking about what constitutes honest scholarship. Obviously, such issues can be addressed in the absence of the book itself, but a real-world example gives the issues the weight of urgent reality. I think a racist book can be used to teach students about racism in ways that a book on the topic of racism can’t, and the same can be true of a book of dishonest pseudo-scholarship. Steve asserts that “students don’t need an example of sham scholarship to decipher”; I disagree, but more importantly, I think that’s something for their professor to decide, not for a librarian to decide preemptively on the professor’s behalf.

    Second, the assumption that the purpose of book selection in the library is not only to ensure that good books are included, but also to exclude books that run a high risk of “misleading and deceiving” scholars. Obviously, here I disagree as well — not because I’m in favor of deception, but because I think trying to eliminate falsity (or even deliberate deception) from the collection is a sucker’s game. Any research library worth its salt will contain many books and journal articles that, to some degree, deliberately mislead with intentional falsehoods. (How many purely honest and truthful autobiographies are there?) To argue that the Bellesiles book must be excluded on these grounds is to argue that all deliberately deceptive content should be excluded. This would be impossible not only from a practical standpoint (who will read and evaluate the content of all the books in the collection?) but also from a philosophical one (which librarian’s understanding of truth will be the controlling version?). Now, I can imagine Steve responding along these lines: “Obviously, we can’t go through the whole collection and weed out all the lies. But that doesn’t mean we have to include a particular book like Arming America when we know that it’s fundamentally dishonest.”

    This brings me to the third incorrect assumption under which I believe Steve is laboring: that an important purpose of the research library is to showcase fundamentally honest authors who perform good-faith scholarship, and to punish dishonest authors by denying them access to the audience we serve. This may sound paradoxical, but I don’t believe the library serves the purpose of truth by acting as the truth police. We serve truth by supporting scholarship, and scholars often need access to untruth, whether the untruth is wielded deliberately or not. Our controlling question, I believe, should not be “Was this book written in good faith?” but rather “Will access to this book support the scholarly work of my patrons?” In this particular case, it’s difficult to see how a research library could serve scholars studying the rhetoric of gun control in 20th-century America without providing access to the Bellesiles book – not in spite of its failings, but precisely because of them.

    One last point: Steve misrepresents my position when he suggests that I advocate the deliberate collection of “fraudulent and misleading scholarship.” No: I advocate the deliberate collection of those resources that will be useful to the scholars we serve, and I maintain that the objective quality and even the honesty of those resources is a relevant but secondary factor. I am most certainly not saying that we should go out of our way to collect bad or meretricious books, only that the low quality or dishonesty of a book can’t be the controlling factor in the acquisition decision if our ultimate goal is to serve scholars. Offering our patrons a book like Arming America does indeed entail certain risks. But then, education is a risky business. There are no guarantees that students (or faculty) will use resources wisely or even responsibly, that they’ll understand what is being taught, that they’ll always recognize the differences between opinion and fact (or truth and lies), or even that they’ll use their education for good rather than evil. The important question is: faced with these risks, how should we respond? Steve seems to think that we should respond by protecting students from exposure to lies and deception. I think that approach probably makes sense in an elementary school library, but not in a research institution. I believe we should do what we can to help our patrons recognize and think critically about lies and deception – and I see no way to do that without exposing them to those things, and therefore accepting the risks that come with exposure to them.

  2. gilsont January 6, 2012 at 6:04 pm - Author

    As some readers of Against the Grain may remember, this discussion between Steve and Rick continues a lively exchange they began almost two years ago. While this round was started by Rick’s article No Such Thing As a Bad Book? Rethinking “Quality” in the Research Library ( recently posted to Scholarly Kitchen, back then it was Steve’s article in the Sept. 2009 issue Against the Grain entitled “The Case for Getting Rid of a Celebrated Book,” ( that got the ball rolling. In that original article, Steve made the case for removing Michael A. Bellesiles’ Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (along with its fabricated research) from library collections. Steve argued that “our commitment to scholarly standards and the integrity of our collections demands” that libraries “summarily jettison” Bellesiles’ book from our collections. Rick gave some serious thought to Steve’s arguments and then respectfully disagreed. In a post to the ATG NewsChannel (our website) entitled (In My Humble but Correct Opinion) – Academic Libraries and the “Arming America” Problem: A Response to Steve McKinzie ( Rick parts company with Steve. Using Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf as an example, he observes “that some kinds of research are served — and, in fact, can only be served — by recourse to inaccurate, unfounded, dishonestly presented, and poorly written articles and books.” (By the way there is also a response from Steve following Rick’s post.)
    Obviously Steve and Rick refine and strengthen their arguments in this recent interchange adding a discussion of Ann Coulter’s book Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right as well as other compelling observations. However, we thought a number of you would be interested in getting the “complete story” by revisiting these past point-counterpoint discussions. Enjoy! And feel free to add to the fun by expressing your own opinions.

  3. In the exchange between these two esteemed gentlemen, they do a fair job of arguing from principle and both make some valid points. Although I don’t have a dog in this fight (i.e. I’m not a professional librarian), I have a couple questions pertaining to compromise for both of them. I apologize in advance if my questions belie a woeful ignorance of the inner-workings of a bibliothecae doctissimi.

    First off, for Mr. McKinzie… I wonder if you would consider a compromise that would seem to satisfy the principle of scholarly access to “damn lies” in a library’s collection. I can imagine a situation described by Mr. Anderson where a professor would want his students to have access to the Bellesiles book. Would it be a violation of your principle if you were to retain the “damn lies” books requested by a faculty member so that students could request them, yet keep those titles out of the general circulation/reference loop? This would seem to satisfy the pedagogical purpose of retaining “damn lies” books without exposing the uninitiated to its obfuscatory (is this even a word?) contents.

    And secondly, for Mr. Anderson, my question for you is more of a question of principle than compromise. How famous/infamous does a “damn lies” book need to be before a library would consider retaining a copy for its collection? The Bellesiles book is some pretty low-hanging fruit to consider, but in an age of self-publication and ease of publication, where should the line of selectivity be drawn? Any time we are being selective, we could be accused of being the “truth police”. So which “damn lies” have enough “utility” to qualify them as worthy of retention in a library’s collection?

  4. Kirk Blankenship poses some fascinating question for Rick Anderson and me. I will leave Rick’s question for Rick to answer, but for me, he wants to know ‘if it would be a violation of my principles (or stated concerns) if a library were to retain the “damn lies” books requested by a faculty member so that students could request them, yet keep those titles out of the general circulation/reference loop?” The answer is easy: I would have no problem with such a compromise.

    If scholars fancy that a book such as _Arming America_ might help their students understand “bad scholarship” or might lead them to grasp something about the intensity with which Americans approach the question of guns in our country, I say, let them have at it. I am not opposed to people having access to the book. It is only when we classify and house such books in the usual way – arranged with an array of scholarly monographs on a like subject – that we run the risk of misleading or misdirecting our patrons. If a library wants to give titles such a _Arming America_ a special designated place that alerts readers about the book’s integrity (or to put it more accurately — lack of it), I say go for it. In answer to Mr. Blankenship’s question, I am all for that sort of compromise.