Monday, August 8, 2011

Discarding Useless Materials

NYPL on opening day, May 23, 1911
In April 1911, just one month before the New York Public Library opened its grand new main library on the site of the old Croton reservoir, New York State's Inspector of Public Libraries Asa Wynkoop contributed two short articles to New York Libraries: "Gifts of Books" and "Discarding Useless Material." The full citation appears in a previous post, where I also describe my pursuit of these obscure writings. I was curious to know how weeding and deselection were described a century ago--when there was no electronic content, when books were much scarcer, and when the great print collections in the US were just beginning to be built.

A few added lines to the sketch. A hundred years ago, in 1911:
  • 11,123 books were published, according to the American Library Annual. That's less than 10% of the current rate of publication.
  • UC/Berkeley's new Doe Library opened with 160,000 volumes. (Berkeley's entire collection at the time consisted of 210,000 volumes.) Doe was built with decades of growth in mind, to hold 800,000 volumes. As of 2009, Berkeley reports holdings of 11 million book volumes.
  • Human memory was a primary backup system. New York Libraries reported that "a fire destroyed the copy--nearly ready for the printer--of the Tentative selection from the best books of 1910, together with all the notes on which it was based and the books themselves." The list "will be reconstructed in large measure from the memories of those who have been actively engaged in the preliminary work..."

Berkeley's Doe Library under construction in 1909
As ever, though, space and other resources were in short supply. Most libraries had to confront these limitations, and some scrutiny of collections was in order. Mr. Wynkoop's hard-headed, practical advice, though aimed at smaller libraries, resonates surprisingly well today even at the research level. In effect, the abundance of print collected over the past hundred years has rendered even the largest libraries "small.".

The first article, on "Gifts of Books", sought to prevent the acquisition of unwanted material in the first place. Mr. Wynkoop recommends: "Never place on the shelves a book which [the library] would not select and buy if it had the money." He goes on to say "it should further be borne in mind that it costs a library far more in the course of years to keep and care for a book than to buy it. Every book on the shelves is a positive and continuous expense, and it is a simple waste of a library's resources to incur this expense unless the book is likely to yield an actual return."  As concise a case for caution in regard to "free" books as I've come across. Note also the century-old focus on ROI.

The second piece, "Discarding Useless Materials" addresses the management of books that have reached the shelves. In contemporary terms, it encompasses cost avoidance, lifecycle costs, discoverability, and collection sustainability. Overall, Inspector Wynkoop has some strong words for the profession (emphasis added):
"Librarians show a good deal of timidity and lack of a definite policy [in] the discarding from their shelves of obsolete and useless material."
"When a book once gets on the shelves, it seems to acquire in the eyes of most librarians a peculiar virtue and reverence, irrespective of any service it may render."
"In how many libraries where costly additions of new rooms or buildings have been necessitated to accommodate the growing collection, could this expense have been spared and the money utilized for positive enrichment of the collection, had the shelves been freed from the dead material with which they are encumbered!"
"Good live books are often lost or buried among dead ones. It has been shown by experiment again and again that a collection of best books, when grouped by themselves, receive twice as much use as when scattered among old and obsolete material."
In short, he speaks about weeding and deselection directly and vigorously. Mr. Wynkoop also has little patience for agonizing over deselection decisions, and here his argument takes an interesting turn.
"There is no intrinsic reason why [elimination of unused books] should be such a difficult or delicate task. It is certainly easier to know the value of a book which has been on the shelves for years than that of a book which has not yet been bought. Every time books are selected for purchase, other books are rejected, and rejection after purchase and after a test of years is certainly an easier matter than rejection before purchase where not tests of actual value have been possible."
Here is a perspective I had never considered, namely that deselection occurs throughout a book's lifecycle. No library buys every title published. Every library deselects extensively from the endless stream of new publications. Deselection at that point is a form of speculation. Deselection that occurs after ten years on the shelf without a single use is a clearer and more defensible decision.

The Inspector keeps a stern eye on costs throughout his argument, especially "the fallacious idea that the main expense of a book is its original cost." In recognition of the "reverence" of  library boards for "mere size and numbers", he suggests "establishment of a storage department, away from the public shelves, to which all obsolete and useless matter can be transferred." It's a bracing and eerily relevant read from beginning to end.

In his closing, he contends that a good library "is not a mere accumulation of books but a selection, and this selection should represent not a mere succession of past acts but a continuous and active process." In my own closing, let me just doff my hat to the good Inspector and humbly quote Hunter S. Thompson, among others: "Res ipsa loquitor." Good sense stands the test of time.
Photo Credits:

NYPL: - Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Bain Collection - Reproduction number: LC-DIG-ggbain-09235

Doe Library: UC/Berkeley Library History Room,

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