Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Art Books: A Special Case?

Imminent weeding, storage, or transfer projects often prompt vigorous discussion about the value of local print collections. As we’ve considered in a recent post, Browsing Now, the prospect of losing direct, hands-on access to books is of particular concern to students and scholars in the Humanities. They argue that library stacks constitute the ‘laboratory’ for their disciplines, and that the ability to browse onsite collections is essential to their work. There are pros and cons to this position, but at heart it asserts that the values of ‘library as place’ and ‘library as collection’ are tightly linked. We’ll continue that debate another day.

Today’s question is related but narrower. Are there disciplines that warrant special treatment—i.e., exemption from weeding, storage, sharing, or consolidation—because the characteristics and use of their literature are different? In other words, are there subjects where locally-held print books are so superior to the alternatives that they must be retained in situ? Let’s consider a prime contender for exceptional treatment: books in Art and Photography. And let’s consider a current real-world example.

Wesleyan University has decided to close its Art Library and move the 25,000 books now held there to the Main Library. There are good reasons for this, including the fact that this move will unite a collection that is now split between the two buildings. These are well articulated in a recent article in the student newspaper, and in the excellent WesWeeding blog maintained by the Library. 

Still, faculty and students are concerned. This is a substantial and concrete change, which will directly affect convenience and user work habits. University Librarian Pat Tully and her staff have kept all activity and dialogue transparent, and have managed to engage the campus in a productive discussion of this difficult topic. And while all disciplines will be affected by this move (since the main library itself must be weeded to accommodate the transferred art books), art students and faculty will face more change than most.

It’s important to note that there are really two separate components to this change. One concerns the loss of a specialized, conveniently-located branch facility, close to studios and classrooms. In a sense, a branch library of this sort is embedded among its primary users. Its value as an informal community center built around shared interests is clear, but this is not unique to Art. A branch library for Physics, Education or Music offers the same advantages. The presence of relevant library resources may enhance this embedded environment, but social and collegial activity would occur—and will continue to occur-- even without shelves full of books. Since this is not fundamentally a collections issue, we’ll set it aside for now.

For our purposes, a second set of questions is of more direct interest. Are art books actually different than books in other subjects? Are books in art and photography used differently than books in other disciplines? And if so, what should we do about it? Part of my curiosity here stems from observation of my step-daughter Emily’s library use. Initially interested in anthropology, she mostly used the library’s online resources. When she became a studio art major, however, stacks of print books began to appear on her coffee table with some regularity. Why?
  • Art books are different. Obviously, books in art & photography are more likely to include images. Print images are typically of higher resolution and greater fidelity than digital images. A recent Slate article by Jim Lewis notes that "a well-produced photography book might get as high as [...] 600 dots per inch, [...] about 8 times finer than an Apple monitor. The result, especially on high-quality paper, is much greater detail and a much subtler range of tones." Even if digital images were of comparable quality, however, many are simply not available in that form. As publishing consultant Emily Williams notes in the Digital Book World blog, "books are complicated bundles of copyrights." Just because a publisher has the print book rights to an image doesn't mean it has the digital book rights. In short, print books still rule in the arts.

  • Art books are used differently. Because image quality is so important, art books are used not only for close examination of a work, but also in support of studio assignments. Art students often bring books into the studio, propping them open next to their easels for inspiration or to complete an 'in the style of' assignment. While similar portability may be possible with a PC or an iPad, the quality of those images is likely to be unsatisfactory. So at least some art books become tools for use in the studio. 

  • So what should we do? The simple answer is to treat art books more conservatively. For deselection, this may take care of itself, since print books in art do tend to circulate more actively than some other disciplines. Because of rights and resolution issues, the transition to eBooks will be slower, so most libraries will continue to purchase new print books in art. But we might benefit from monitoring user behavior more closely. This could include instituting re-shelving counts, to capture in-house use. It would also be useful to know when the quality of digital images reaches the point where a tablet replaces a book propped up next to the easel. 
Caution: Images At Work

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