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.