Not Worried About Circulation

The shocking truth about print books: 49% of our stacks has never circulated since 1996. #academiclibraries #printbooks
This tweet came through the other day, and frankly it didn’t bother me the way it used to. It leans on a little bit by Raganathan’s first law, which is “Books are for use.” If they’re not being used, then why keep them? I like to make the arguement that we can’t always anticipate how things will be used by others. Consider Mendelssohn’s “rediscovery” of Bach. Books are not just for current use, but they easily translate into future use.

There is some precedent for this; the logical methods of observation and refinement at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution enabled the creation and improvement of the microscope and the telescope. In turn, these tools both grew and shrank our sense of the world, enhancing the idea of hierarchies. Much social and scientific organization followed that path and destroyed its predecessors. We build the tool to change things, and then the tool changes us. -Quentin Hardy, How the Internet is Destroying Everything

This is the logic that leads most folks into a postmodern tailspin, where everything eats itself. It’s a fun place to be, and the revolutionary excitment is great, but it leaves you with a hangover. Hardy leaves his editorial with this thought on David Weinberger’s illustration of the internet as dragon eating-its-tail: “Instead of giving us of a new and better way of seeing the world, the Internet is a tool that embodies how we have wanted to see the world for some time. We have built it according to our new ideas about the world, and it gained a power that is destroying pre-existing structures.” Which is all that and then some, but:

Though of course, when a Harvard researcher values something because it affords a more accurate picture of reality, the end of hierarchy and a quest for ultimate understanding seems a long way off. -Quentin Hardy, How the Internet is Destroying Everything

 It’s pithy, but it stings because it is true. The internet relies on massive underlying power structures, they are just in different hands that those who made books, although there’s some overlap, clearly. A Harvard researcher is part of a big support system, that elevates his status and gives him or her a part in an institution where he can create something not only with broad impact, but lasting impact. Same for a New York Times writer. What shouldn’t be bought is the easy bill of sale for something that actively destroys lasting value in order to create current value, because frankly, Weinberger isn’t making that trade either.

So I am not worried about the end of books as material objects—in archives and private collections, at least. I think they will always be needed and valued. The changes that most college libraries are undergoing have created an era of unparalleled opportunity for collectors and teachers, like me, and who can foresee what the outcome of this reshuffling of printed materials will be? I look forward to the apocalypse as much as any romantic, but if we are witnessing new forms of creative destruction, I think we are also seeing a counterbalancing, reflexive trend toward the creative preservation of the past using both traditional and digital means. -William Pannapacker, We’re Still in Love with Books

There’s a lot of shifts coming up, and yes, it’ll be nice to have more shelf space, but libraries also need to protect the culture of learning over time, not just its resources. So yes to creative destruction, yes to weeding more, yes to being more criticial about the books we take in, but think about your core values as opposed to the values that are sold to you, because often, you’re paying a price. Value is more than money, and it’s our job to build value over time. That includes not just current use, but future use.


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