Thursday, March 14, 2013

Farewell to Alexandria Revisited

"What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." --Ecclesiastes 1:9 (New International Version)

Last June, I made a presentation on "Rethinking Library Resources" to the Academic Libraries of Indiana. Among other fine moments that day, I met David Lewis, Dean of the IUPUI University Library and an author whose "From the Stacks to the Web: The Transformation of Academic Library Collecting" I had been citing in my presentations. Over lunch, he recommended that I chase down a book from the 1970s called Farewell to Alexandria. [WorldCat record] [Hathi Trust record] Once again I found myself purchasing a copy of a book that had been withdrawn from a library, this time from the Moody Bible Institute, which doubtless inspired the quote above. [Amazon record]. In a sign that the used book market struggles (much as libraries do, though in different terms) to establish the value of a work, this title remains available at prices ranging from $1.98 to $176.61.

If you are of a certain age, cast your mind back to 1975, a full 38 years ago. (If you are not of a certain age, well, good for you. Trust your elders on this.) The library profession was near the end of an unprecedented building boom. Between 1967-1974, "about 570 new or expanded library buildings were built on the campuses of four-year and graduate institutions throughout this nation." All of this building generated, among other things, shelving for 163 million volumes. But print book acquisition was also at its apex during this period; in 1973-74, total shelving capacity increased by 25 million volumes, but 41 million volumes were acquired. Meanwhile, the Kent study was in its sixth and final year at the University of Pittsburgh, offering a glimpse into how few of those books might actually be used. OCLC had been in operation for only seven years; the MARC record was a youngster as well.The idea of resource-sharing on a mass scale may have existed, but in practice, a patron's best resource was the local print collection. Electronic resources were the dream of a few far-sighted individuals.

Library construction, 1975
It was in this context--a time when print books and library buildings were central to serving users -- that an unlikely event took place. On April 17-18, 1975, the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, a group of liberal arts colleges, convened a conference entitled "Touching Bottom in the Bottomless Pit" at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago. Organized by Daniel Gore, Library Director at Macalester College, the meeting drew 230 librarians to engage in "a national debate on space, growth, and performance problems in libraries." Speakers from Purdue, Berkeley, Earlham, Florida Atlantic, ISI, Universities of Georgia and Colorado, the Council on Library Resources and others tackled a difficult question: "Can library growth be curbed or halted without detriment to the central mission of libraries, namely the provision of books to readers?" A panel consisting of a state budget analyst, a Professor of English, the President of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, and the Executive Director of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science discussed "Opportunities and Obstacles Along the Road to the No-Growth, High-Performance Library."

Perhaps it was a bolder time. It's difficult to imagine confronting these questions quite so directly today--even when resource sharing, digital content, and networked systems have made the discussion and concerted action much safer. Over the coming weeks, as I work my way through Farewell to Alexandria, I'll be looking for information and inspiration to influence our contemporary conversation on these issues. I expect to find it, and to report on it. Maybe it's time to do again that which has already been done.

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