Posted by: Steven Harris | June 19, 2009

To Preserve and Protect

A few events have me thinking about the long-standing academic library philosophy of building comprehensive collections for the purpose of preserving, protecting, and archiving our cultural heritage. I am wondering to what extent there might be a philosophical shift going on to move towards serving current needs and not worrying so much about being the cultural time capsule. This is an argument that’s been going on for years: access versus ownership. Aside from having the permanancy of ownership, however, there has always been a kind of archival approach in most academic libraries. Is it changing now?

  1. A blog called Awful Library Books is geared mostly toward public libraries. It identifies (humorously) books that really don’t need to be in a public library collection anymore. Got me thinking. We often think that this “awful” stuff needs to be in an academic library for historical purposes. But how many of these do we really need to save? Can we really know if there is any “just-in-case” need? Maybe the fact that we don’t know says we should keep it in the collection, but can we afford to? Maintaining something in a collection does cost money, both in staff effort and in opportunities to add something else to that space.
  2. An article by Faye Chadwell about how patron-focused collecting is becoming more and more common, even in academic libraries: Chadwell, Faye A.. 2009. What’s Next for Collection Management and Managers? User-Centered Collection Management. Collection Management. 34(2):69-78. < >. She talks about various purchase-on-demand projects and about how ebook collections with an on-demand component can give immediate satisfaction to the library user. No waiting. Click, read.
  3. Wired had a blog entry entitled “Eighteen Challenges in Contemporary Literature” which really discusses how new technology is disrupting the processes of reading and canon-formation. But it got me thinking about how the demands of readers are really changing. That means libraries need to change to meet those demands. But does it also mean that we need to maintain our archival mission? How can we do both on limited resources?
  4. I was giving a presentation recently about the need to augment our ebook collections in my library. The argument was mainly that there are many remote demands that can be more readily served by electronic collections. The collection that we opted to license is a “rented” collection. Our library patrons now have a huge number of ebooks at their disposal, but there is no “perpetual access,” as we say in the library world. We have it as long as we pay the rent. All goes away, if we don’t.
  5. I was at my mother’s home recently. She’s moving into assisted living. My siblings and I were trying to clean things up to put the house on the market. She has TONS of books that none of the children really want. I know from experience that these will be a hard sell for a library donation. We’ve been taking them to “good will.” No telling what happens to them after that.
  6. In a blog post entitled “Better Than Owning” Kevin Kelly point out the benefit of “renting” services in the cloud or on the Internet. He compares this remote service to a traditional print library. We don’t own the books in the library, but we can make use of them. I wonder about pushing that concept even further. The LIBRARY itself doesn’t own the resources, but it can make use of them and provide access to its own customers.

All of that to say that I’m obsessing about this conundrum. Is there really a professional groundswell moving academic libraries toward a “current use” versus a “future use” philosophy? Do we want there to be such a groundswell? I support the idea that my library should save many things, regardless of the current demand. But I also want us to serve as many current demands as possible. My management task is to figure out how to do this. Many questions. Few answers.


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