Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Saving the Books

In the December issue of Perspectives - the American Historical Association's monthly journal - IBM historian James W. Cortada has an essay titled, rather provocatively, "Save the Books!" Cortada notes that librarians, "faced with space constraints in storing books and with declining budgets for maintaining the collections they have today," are either creating "off-site storage facilities and are learning how to make those conveniently accessible to scholars, or they are culling their collections of materials that patrons do not appear to use frequently."

Cortada goes on to say that as digitization projects advance, the "pace of disposing of such materials is about to pick up sharply over the next few years." He says this without, so far as I can tell, any actual evidence whatever other than the assumption that what has happened with some hard copies of newspapers and journals will also happen with books (he's clearly of the Nicholson Baker school of thought on that front). "In short," he writes, "librarians have proven perfectly capable of disposing and destroying physical copies of vast quantities of materials and of being confident that their reasons were sound and noble."

Debates continue to rage in the library and preservation communities about how best to maintain collections of newspapers and paper journals given their deterioration rate, high storage costs &c. Many libraries have certainly learned their lesson about getting rid of journal runs after the digital versions proved too expensive or went kaput; they're dialing back on the digital-only versions. The library world also remains very unsure how best to deal with digitized books; they make wider access much easier for basic use, but as Cortada notes, searching through a digitized book eliminates entirely the"serendipitous effect of walking down an aisle of books on a topic of interest or the ability to work with the original artifacts as read in their day."

All libraries cannot keep all books ... or even most books ... or even most books they'd like to keep. In any form. It's just that simple, and no one should think otherwise. However, the discussion within the library community is not generally about how best to get rid of their materials, but how to ensure that all readers can have access to whatever they need within a reasonably short amount of time. Efforts like the Five College Library Depository and others have proven very successful, and those will continue to grow and expand as we move ever more rapidly into the 'digital era.' Libraries are cooperating more than ever before to ensure that useful and accessible copies of titles will continue to be available to historians and other researchers as they need them.

Cortada's own personal research interest - the history of computers and computing - poses what I concede is a serious problem. "Nothing seems so out-of-date than a user manual for PC-DOS, or a book on how to write in a programming language published in 1960, let alone a volume on designing computer architectures published in 1958, or 1978, or even in 1988. All of these are routinely discarded because they are 'out-of-date,' and, to be sure, rarely checked out, let alone even looked at." Most libraries, faced with the need to save space, probably would gladly jettison materials like this. And in most cases, the manuals wouldn't be missed.

Of course there is a need for some copies of these titles to be available, as Cortada points out: "they are the ephemera of one of the early days of the emergence of what historians will certainly someday conclude was one of the most important technologies ever developed by humankind, and clearly of the 20th century." But the vast majority of libraries certainly don't need to keep materials like this around; there should be dedicated repositories (not just one, but several) for scholarly areas of this type which systematically collect this material, store it, and make it available - as conveniently as possible - through interlibrary loan or other methods as necessary.

Cortada adds what seems a bit of a strange argument at the conclusion of his essay: "Could a historian of books appreciate their 'application' if they did not see examples, hold them in their hands, and read them? Historians of computing find that they too must touch the machines and use them if they can to appreciate their usefulness when compared to previously available information handling tools, techniques, and devices." In answer to the question he poses, clearly not. But Cortada's second sentence seems to be arguing for the preservation of computer equipment itself, rather than the books about how to run it. I'm not sure even now how a digital version of DOS for Dummies wouldn't suffice (though I can certainly see how a photograph of a first-generation computer wouldn't be particularly effective for understanding how it was used).

Following the body of his essay, Cortada offers up a few paragraphs headed "What We Should Do." He argues - and I agree entirely - that historians should involve themselves in discussions with librarians about retention and preservation. Indeed - many librarians are not historians and may not appreciate the necessities of historical research. This is not their fault, and historians should not expect every library to share their personal collecting priorities. But certainly the two fields should engage each other in discussions about those priorities and how best to reconcile research needs with budgetary and space constraints.

Cortada also argues for a "major survey of private collections in North America to discover materials that are currently not in the control of librarians, but which can later be acquired once libraries recognize that a particular collection is worth preserving." I'm not sure how this would work or be paid for, but I certainly wouldn't object to it. I hope that Cortada will consider donating his own research collection (some 2,000+ books, he notes) to an institution and make it available to future researchers in his field - perhaps he already has done so. [Update: Mr. Cortada emails to say "I intend to donate my collection of books to an academic library when I am finished with my writing and publishing phase of my life; in the meantime I will continue to add to the collection in an organized manner". I'm glad to hear it.]

While I have some objections to Cortada's tone, which is a bit unwarrentedly shrill, I cannot fault his goals (my own major research focus is book history, after all). Historians and librarians must colloborate, must communicate, must work to understand each other (to the extent possible). One of the reasons I opted for a dual-degree history/library science program is that I think it's much more difficult to understand where researchers are coming from until you've sat in their shoes, and on the same token it's hard to "get" library decisions without knowing the foundations on which they're based.

I'll be the first to say that I will join Mr. Cortada at the barricades if the dire predictions he makes start coming true. But I don't think things either are or will be as bad as he suggests. I do think the discussion over his article and views should continue: I'm going to email him and suggest that he submit the article to American Libraries or Library Journal, because I think just getting it out to historians is probably preaching to the choir. Save the books, indeed - just do it sensibly.

1 comment:

Lizbeth said...

I am in complete agreement with you on this topic. I only hope that you're correct in saying that things will not be as bad as Cortada predicts, and I also hope that more attention will be brought to this subject as time progresses. Count me in at the barricades if Cortada's prediction comes true. Thanks for the interesting post.