Monday, August 1, 2011

Old School

The Apex of Civilization (1987)
It's shockingly easy to forget how far library services have advanced in the past 25 years. Even those of us who thought a self-correcting electric typewriter was the apex of civilization now expect -- and take for granted -- remote desktop access to most content. Last week I was reminded of just how much overhead can still be involved in information seeking. It made me want to assail the nearest campus with a bullhorn, shouting "You don't know how good you have it!" I always loved it when my parents said stuff like that to me.

Several months ago, I came across an interesting citation in ALA Fact Sheet 15: Weeding Library Collections, alerted to it by Karen Muller's Ask the ALA Librarian blog:  

Wynkoop, Asa. "Discarding Useless Material." Wisconsin Library Bulletin. 7, no. 1 (1911): 53.

I appreciated the literal deployment of the word "useless" to describe materials that had not circulated. I grew curious about how library weeding was discussed a hundred years ago, and thought a centennial snapshot might prove interesting. Since I am a modern man, I began my search in Google. An excellent summary from the Wisconsin Library Heritage Center appeared as the first result. Good start. It noted that that most of the Bulletin had been digitized as part of Google Books. Very promising. 1905, 1907, 1908, 1910 are available. 1917... yes!  As a UK football fan might say, "unlucky!"

Plan B. As a network-level denizen, I next opted to search WorldCat. I immediately found the record for Wisconsin Library Bulletin, and keyed in my zip code. As I had feared, the nearest copy lay 71 miles away, in the Beatley Library at Simmons College, past destination of my library-school papers, as bashed out on the aforementioned IBM Selectric. Like many a librarian who works outside of an academic institution, however, I have limited access to research databases, and virtually none to ILL or document delivery for such specialized titles. And at that pesky sub-network level, where objects actually have to be transported from one place to another, well, I live in New Hampshire and the bound volume is in Boston. (See Karen Coyle's recent blog post "Unequal Access.") Bottom line...road trip! 

I-93 South
On the up side, I know the trail well. I cleared my calendar for the next day, filled up the Matrix, and headed south. It was a Thursday, late enough to miss full rush hour, but...still a whisker shy of the Platonic form of a good day.. Luckily I had Old 97's newest, Grand Theater, Volume 2, to keep me happy. That is one cheerful-sounding band. Rather than shatter all that good humor, let's just say that the drive allowed me to hear all 13 songs twice. Parking around Simmons can be tough, too, but I lucked out with a garage that only charged $13 for the first hour. Positively vibrating with...something, I

Target Database
walked a few blocks to the Library, and began to  troll the compact shelving. Found the WLB run from 1911, after a heart-stopping moment when a stack of microfilm boxes entered my field of vision. (Please, not that.) Suddenly, there it stood, exactly where it was supposed to be. Success! The old-school high. It really is a thrill to find something after so much trouble.

In skimming the WLB version of the article, I noticed it had in fact been reprinted from the April 1911 issue of New York Libraries. As now, the topic of weeding was sweeping the land. Might as well have the original, I reckoned--and Simmons' ancient bound periodical collection came up aces again. The text of the two versions proved identical, but the NYL version did yield one new nugget: Asa Wynkoop, the article's author, held the august position of New York's "Inspector of Public Libraries." What an excellent title. What a fine idea. Where are they now--those Inspectors of Public Libraries? We'll actually get to that question and to "Discarding Useless Material" in next week's post. But first, let's finish the old-school retrieval process.

No copy and paste here, no instant printing. Shades of 25 years ago at Simmons, I spent some quality time with the photocopier. Instead of searching for coins, one now obtains a visitor card, goes online and adds value to that card. So there's that improvement, which takes only a few minutes longer than finding change for a 5-dollar bill. One copier appears to be working but is occupied. One is out of paper. One bears an abstruse message about "key reset" and does not respond to any command. When the single functioning unit is free, it turns out to work no better than I recall from my student days, as these scans will attest. I have new respect for the scanners at Google, the Internet Archive and everywhere. But at last, I had the information in my hands. Now all I had to do was get home with my treasure.

Not so very long ago, some version of this experience was the norm.Clearly it can still occur. If only Mr. Wynkoop had had the courtesy to publish his piece in 1910 (already scanned and available through Google Books and Hathi Trust), I could have learned in 5 minutes what ate up most of a day. On some level, that's what we all expect; it's startling to be reminded how completely things have changed. The productivity improvements unleashed by digital access to content can hardly be overstated. But it can also be easy to forget that mass digitization is still a work in progress, that gaps remain in the electronic version of our professional record. And equally startling that some of those gaps can still be filled by print. With some effort. 

Old-school information retrieval was (and is) time-intensive, labor-intensive, expense-intensive. Often it's impossible to know beforehand whether the item you're seeking is worth the investment. A citation is just a starting point. You have to be pretty damn motivated (obsessed? foolish?) to drive 150 miles, spend $40 on gas, tolls, and parking, and burn a full day to retrieve an article that turns out to consist of three long paragraphs. Most contemporary students would not consider this rational behavior. I'm not even sure I do.

But I am glad to have the article. I'm glad to know that old-school still works when needed. I'm also glad that for the most part I can search, click, and view without this insane degree of overhead. I look forward to the day when the entire run of the Wisconsin Library Bulletin is available digitally. But in the meantime, I'm also glad that Simmons had these 100-year old print volumes, and that their use will now be counted. As of last Thursday, they are decidedly not useless materials.

Use Study in Progress


  1. I'm really glad I looked up that "old" master's essay. In it, something related to the discussion of usefulness, in the context of research on 19th-century British legislation & the "stability" of the texts in question.

    "Apart from the rare reproduction of the legislation as an appendix to another volume, the texts remain in their archival format, usually in the form of microcards that are seldom removed from their boxes. They are always there *should* someone need to use them, but tend to fall into disuse because of the neglect that this stability has caused.... What I advocate, then, is pulling these legislative texts out of their archival slumber so that they might become regular objects of our study, adding to our understanding of textual interaction."

    Now on to see how much of my bibliography has been digitized....

  2. A research trip to the UK? Well, I might put up with micro-cards for that...

    In all seriousness, though, the savings to researchers made possible by digitization really ought to be calculated as part of their ROI. Granted, the benefit goes to the user rather than the producer -- but the time and expense avoided by having digital access are significant.

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