Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Philistines and Dinosaurs

Last week, I traveled to St. Louis to deliver a presentation on "Rethinking Library Resources: Sustainable Print Collections in a Digital Age." From a speaker's vantage point, it was an excellent experience, equal parts CNN and Fox News. How, you may well ask, is that possible?

CNN first. The event's sponsor was Missouri Library Network Corporation, better known as MLNC, led by the energetic Tracy Byerly. Among other services, MLNC provides training sessions for its members in Missouri, Illinois, and Kansas. To enable broad and low-cost participation, MLNC's Associate Director Keith Gaertner has put together a multi-faceted infrastructure for distributing presentations: a mix of live audience, teleconference, and webcasting. My in-person session was broadcast to five remote sites, with reciprocal audio/video, and over the web via WebEx. This enabled dozens more people to listen and watch, comment and question, all without leaving their own libraries.

The MLNC Situation Room
For a presenter, the experience is slightly disorienting. It's as if you've suddenly become Wolf Blitzer in the Situation Room, surrounded by multiple video displays, each showing a panel of librarian-avatars--like a live version of Second Life or something. All that's missing is the John King-style touchscreen. In the photo at left, Tracy checks in with four of the remote sites just prior to the presentation. In short, the full CNN.

The Fox News sensation dawned later, after 90 minutes of making the case for data-driven deselection. I had described the low and declining circulation of print books. I had outlined the lifecycle costs of managing monographs on the shelf and in storage. I had talked about other potential uses of library space. I had presented options for carefully managing down redundant print collections in the context of secure digital versions (Hathi Trust), accessible digital versions (eBooks), emerging shared print archives, and multiple copies available through ILL. Ultimately, I suggested that there exists--right now--ample opportunity to begin considered and coordinated drawdown of print collections, and to contribute to the collective collection, assuring that no content disappears.

At the conclusion of Q&A, a distinguished gentleman in the back row commented how much he appreciated the neutral tone of the presentation. In his experience, discussions around deselection too often posit the conservators as "dinosaurs" who can't recognize the decline of print and the activists as "philistines" who are oblivious to the value of what they are dismantling. "Rethinking Library Resources" looks at data, at middle ground, and at tools for making progress. In effect, he validated our argument as "fair and balanced", resulting in my unlikely Fox News moment of zen, to mix a couple of cable metaphors.

Strangely enough, media and politics can play major roles in the relatively mundane activity of weeding library collections. The prospect of removing books from library shelves can trigger primal reactions, as the University of Sydney recently discovered. This is exactly why the "data-driven" aspect of deselection espoused by SCS is so important. It is critical that withdrawal candidates be identified in context and that withdrawal or preservation decisions be informed by archival commitments and availability of other copies. There are millions of low-use books that are held by hundreds of libraries; many of them are also available digitally or on-demand. This leaves plenty of scope for immediate action without endangering the integrity of the scholarly and cultural record.

Rescued from caricature, the views of both the dinosaurs and the philistines merit attention. There are real issues to be debated here.

Point: Dinosaurs: Print still has enormous value. Not everything is available digitally -- or available in satisfactory form or resolution. Sufficient copies of print must be retained to assure that no content is ever lost, and to rectify problems found in digital versions. Print sometimes includes content or context lacking in the digital version. To some degree, the original artifacts matter. Full books are still mostly read in print form. Libraries typically own print, which assures access over time. There is always the risk of discarding something valuable. Research libraries are as much about future use as present use.

Point: Philistines: On the other hand, print use actually is declining. In many libraries, low-use books limit space available for users. It costs serious money to retain monographs on open shelves ($4.26/year per volume) and noticeable money to store them in high-density facilities ($.86/year per volume). Electronic access is in most cases preferable, especially for remote users and for multiple simultaneous users, not to mention procrastinators. A great deal of low-use content is readily re-obtainable in the unlikely event that it is needed. Retention of no-use print locks up resources that could be used for other purposes--this is on some level a misuse of scarce resources.

To husband our collective resources effectively, we need to respect both of these viewpoints. Although it can be great fun, we need to avoid polarizing the discussion, and to proceed cautiously and rationally, balancing data and experience. But we do need to proceed. As a profession, we have a problem to solve. And we do need to learn how to make a case that honors both past and future--while allowing us to survive and serve our users in the present.


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