What to read in February: our fave picks for spring

My post about why I no longer collect books demonstrated once again the significant cultural differences between the two nations I know best.

Describing my own relationship to the book, using my work in library gift processing as a central formative illustration, created barely a ripple on the western shore of the Atlantic. From conversations with readers over here, it is clear that nothing I wrote upset anyone terribly. A notoriously dyspeptic blogger flamed me, slapping the book burner label on me, even going so far as to wish that there might be a special hell for such heretical librarians. More thoughtful readers wrote with varying degrees of support or disagreement, but my description of mass book disposal clearly touched a sensitized nerve. For those who kann, here are some of those responses (one, two, and three).

What I did not address in that post, but will do here, is describe my views on the obligations of libraries to collect books, or, as I commented on one of those German blogs, nearly all books. My view is that this is a collective obligation of libraries, an obligation that transcends both borders and library type. In other words, major research libraries do not bear this burden alone, since even with their broad reach there will be myriad titles that never land in their collections. In nations that have the capital and technical means to build and maintain libraries, there are collectively hundreds of thousands of libraries, ranging from a Canadian prairie town public library to the Harvards of the world. There are special libraries with highly specialized profiles collecting items that the rest of us would find mind-numbingly uninteresting. All of this is good.

Where I agree with the writers and commenters is that libraries have something of an obligation to manage the books that land in their possession. This starts with having a clear collection policy, a document that should permit a library to block a gift before it ever comes in the door. For example, no academic library I’ve worked for would consider collecting mass-market paperbacks, or only in rare circumstances, so having a policy that such gifts will not be accepted only makes sense. Mass-market paperbacks should go to a used-book dealer, or be put on the shelf at the bed and breakfast for people to take, etc. Fiction generally finds a home.

Once a gift has been accepted, however, it’s incumbent upon the library to process the gift carefully, as I outlined in my previous post. This entails both having procedures and actually following them, something that turns out to be harder to do than one would suppose. In particular, before discarding any book, they should pass through at least several levels of consideration: adding to the collection, selling to used-book dealers, selling to the public, giving them to another appropriate library (appropriate being the operative word, not blindly dumping them on some library too unwise to say no), or as many have suggested, just giving them away to anyone who wants them. One does, as I outlined as well, have to exercise sensible judgment. Given the mass that can accumulate, wasting time finding homes for books such as, say, math textbooks from the 1960s or for a cheap edition of a novel that practically every library owns, is simply not a luxury most can afford. Disposal must remain an option.