Deepening the Conversation

thinking about questions of authority, technology, learning, and 2.0 in academic libraries


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raindrops on roses and weeding the stacks

note: when I started writing this, I had no idea where it was going. I now think I may be able to tease a rational and supportable plan out of this. But it is still a bit rambly, and I think there are several posts here.

I just spent 25 minutes or so in the stacks, weeding in one of my subject areas. Let’s call it subject O, a subject that is heavily monographic as well as data intensive. A subject that is global and historical and looks into the future. A subject that should be using books, really, I can’t imagine it without books.

Generally speaking, I enjoy weeding, even if I find it to frequently be an emotionally complicated experience, professionally speaking. I like that I actually lay hands on the collection (something I rarely get to do). I like that I can see gaps here that I can’t always ‘see’ in the catalog. I like that weeding completes a circle that also includes reference interactions , materials selection, and library instruction sessions. I think it is interesting that so few of our books circulate much — and how much they used to circulate (this is the first major weed in 40 years, so I don’t think that only the good have been left on the shelves; no one has removed any!) and I think about the nature of a small college library supporting the needs of its undergraduate students (as in, is it even possible?)

The weeding provoked thoughts that I enjoy most are those around how weeding makes me think about the nature of libraries and their role in the educational institution. This often leads to the frustrating conclusion that if librarians were given more respect and status (and if their jobs were better understood) in the academy, everyone would be better off. Because looking at books — individually and in collection — is a very telling view.

Today, oh, today, I weeded in ‘O’. And went through shelf after shelf (in O, OA, OB) handling book after book that had not circulated since the early 1970s, and suddenly realized that even the brand spanking new books– the books I was checking for pullcards but wouldn’t weed — hadn’t circulated. And I started to realize that the last five shelving units had not circulated this century. Maybe a handful had circulated in the past 10 years.

Are we wasting our money? Should we stop buying books for this subject? I am struggling to reject the notion that we should drastically reduce O’s monographic budget line until they begin working with instruction librarians to build better assignments, assignments better able to meet their pedagogical and content goals, and which force students to use library resources.

But maybe I shouldn’t fight it? Maybe I should actually suggest it.

Eighty percent of this department does not request books. The departmental library liaison—a hesitatingly friendly colleague — fights me tooth & claw about removing books, all the while sighing that she can’t get her students to use them, but they’re important and we can’t just pull them because no one has touched them in 40 years. O doesn’t use library instruction (but I do hear that O’s students won’t/can’t/don’t use the library and that their work ain’t what it ought to be). O won’t describe their program to me (or the website) or their areas of specialization, so all I have to go on are book requests. From less than 25% of the department.

So, would it be outside our mission –library and campus — to decide that we are wasting money buying books for this department right now, and stop wasting the money? And support our importance to the handcrafted education we’re always going on and on about by saying the department can have library money back when they are willing to put the effort into getting their students (who are the only ones we support) to use the discipline specific and apparently very important library resources effectively? (which would have the added benefit of leading towards buying “the right books” as opposed to the “who knows what” we’re currently buying)

Would it? really? would it be so bad?

I’m really wishing I could rationalize this into a place that isn’t just wishful thinking. I don’t want to punish the department, or the students, but right now, they aren’t using what we have. And we can keep throwing money into books on the shelves which aren’t going to be used because the department doesn’t seem to know how to make their students use the resources they say they want their students to use.

And we can help them with that. So, since they don’t use us in area IL when they really really need it, are we doing right by them (or their students!) to continue to buy the materials they want when they go entirely unused, and it is within our domain to change all of that?

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