Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Case of Bertrand Russell

The road to monographs deselection is lined with difficult decisions. Among the most vexing is the relative importance of use versus the inherent value of a work. In R2's first analyses of library circulation data, it has quickly become apparent that good books--even seminal books--are well represented among titles that have not circulated for many years. This points out one of the limitations of use as a metric for deselection. Use patterns are sometimes ugly, and often deeply unsettling, even to those of us who believe that data-driven deselection is the most rational basis for addressing the pressing problem of crowded and expensive-to-maintain stacks.

A case in point: Bertrand Russell. In one recent analysis for a small liberal arts college library, we determined that Russell's Philosophical Essays had not circulated in the past 24 years. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy identifies this 1910 Longman, Greens edition as a "major anthology of Russell's writings." Russell himself is "one of the most important logicians of the twentieth century", as well as a Nobel Prize winner (for Literature in 1950). Even the smallest academic library would want this titan of analytic philosophy represented in its collection.

And one has touched it in 24 years. This may be because these essays are included in more comprehensive works the library does hold. It may be because Russell is not taught. But the facts are clear: it is an important work that does not appear to be important to contemporary users. This may be a sorry comment on our culture; it may be an accident of timing and curriculum. We can't know for certain without further investigation. But let's assume for a moment that the situation is as described: Philosophical Essays by Bertrand Russell has not circulated in more than 24 years. What do we do?

If we decide that significance trumps use, we simply ignore the data and retain the book, along with our self-respect as an academic institution. This is a valid decision, and supportable to some degree. But what if there are thousands of worthy books that have not been used? How do we make room for more active titles...or for more users?

If, on the other hand, we decide to remove it, and a future logician demands access to this seminal work, what options exist to replace access? Here things get interesting, as there are several indicators of secure and convenient access:

  1. A public-domain full-text electronic surrogate currently exists in Hathi Trust.
  2. Within the library's statewide consortium, three libraries hold the exact edition, and dozens of libraries hold later editions.
  3. WorldCat holdings data indicates 1,866 holdings in 174 different editions worldwide. Within the library's home state, 98 libraries hold one of the 174 editions.
  4. A 2009 Routledge paperback edition exists as part of the Routledge Classics series.
  5. Alibris for Libraries reports 103 copies currently available for sale.
  6. Commercial eBook editions are currently available from ebrary and other providers.

In short, Philosophical Essays is as secure and conveniently re-obtainable as any book is ever likely to be. Removal of a little-used copy is a decision whose logic Bertrand himself would approve. And yet...actually withdrawing and discarding a title so important may be something none of us can actually tolerate, no matter how compelling the logic. Many tough decisions lie ahead for all of us. And as an old Dutch proverb has it, "he who has the choice has trouble."

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