by Ann Okerson (Advisor on Electronic Resources Strategy, Center for Research Libraries) <[email protected]>
“Books do furnish a room” was the nickname of an Anthony Powell character named Lindsay Bagshaw and provided the title for one of the novels of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Many of us would agree with that lovely sentiment, and there are great universities who take the maxim seriously. For example, Princeton has had a student center rotunda filled with donated books — one distinguished scholar contributed his set of the flagship journal of a learned society of which he had been president. Georgetown houses rarely summoned old periodicals in a gorgeous space used mainly for formal university events.
But there are those, including Rebecca Shuman in a recent article in Slate, who would make that sentiment an axiom of library design. There must be books, she argues, not just so people can read them, but because books induce a reflective and contemplative spirit not otherwise easily achieved. The Linonia and Brothers Room in Sterling Library at Yale has proved that for many decades now, offering a choice collection of important books and great old green overstuffed chairs and sofas, whose springs, as you sit on them, still resonate with the brilliant minds and gentle snores of earlier Yalies who studied and reposed there. For all that, the space is not nearly as heavily used as spaces with library computers or spaces that have comfortable and well-wired seating areas, with most-heavily used books and study materials in proximity.
The fact is that a collection of codex books is both a beautiful and useful thing. What books should be in such a collection and how they should best be, as we say nowadays, “discoverable,” are important questions that librarians everywhere are addressing. But it is also true that not every book a library owns needs to be in a traditional open-stack collection. Librarians know that better than anyone, and we have been building off-site repositories for decades now. These repositories work amazingly well. They are less beautiful and inspiring than most reading rooms or vast echoing corridors of open stack shelving at the heart of a campus, no question, but they often prove as or more useful and effective, to say nothing of more economical, than adding lots of those echoing corridors of open stack shelving that fewer users much visit these days or foregoing other necessary spaces.
Making decisions about what remains within arm’s reach and what waits obediently for an automated system to retrieve it in 24 hours more or less is a serious business. Librarians’ good professional judgment, good communication, and immense respect for faculty and student concerns all play a part. Mistakes can get made, no question, and they should be promptly fixed.
Blurted generalities, on the other hand, help no one. In the case of the recent Slate article, the complaint was raised about moving 40% of a small college’s collection offsite — i.e., about 170,000 volumes. That college’s library has access for its students and faculty to the full collections of two other peer colleges within 50 miles and to millions of volumes in all of the state’s libraries, available for rapid delivery by courier. Gaining access to these millions of items might well be more valuable to the college’s community than putting 170,000 lower-use items off campus. The library also provides access to countless numbers of information resources (journals, books, data, government publications, videos, and so on) in electronic and other formats.
On the basis of much evidence, this college is being very well served indeed by its library; and where there’s controversy over what is undoubtedly a complex decision, it’s a matter for that community to thrash out, not for less-informed outsiders to make the object of soap-boxing. The Slate article engages in hyperbole and emotion, with far too little understanding of what makes a library a library nor of the tough space trade-offs that need to be made today at our colleges and universities.