Posted by: Steven Harris | March 14, 2010

The History of Right Now

I keep writing again and again about things that concern me. Not “I’d like to do something about this problem” kind of concern. Stuff that makes me nervous. Things I might be able to do something about, but I’m not sure if the approaches I’ve been advocating are the right solution. Like ebooks. Like patron-driven acquisitions. So I keep writing about them, talking to myself. Trying to figure out what I believe.

Like giving up the  preservation impulse in libraries to deliver a more here-and-now kind of service mentality. Me to library user: “What is it you want RIGHT NOW? I’ll get it for you.” That in and of itself doesn’t seem like a bad thing, but given the economic situation most libraries find themselves in (not just now–have for 20 years really) it’s difficult to serve two masters. Are we preserving all that is thought and felt in human society? Saving the culture for future generations? Or are we meeting all the information needs of the people currently sitting in the reading room, the reference department, even the library website? Do we cover the current needs like Gary “the glove” Patton used to cover his NBA opponents, with no thought of the long-term implications?

It occurs to me that for much of library history, we’ve thought of these impulses as one. We collect materials or offer information services AND we preserve forever all those materials and services. In the world of physical information objects and ownership of those, this was not an ambiguous or problematic thing. We had the item in hand. We just had to provide an environment where it could survive. Actually, I now realize that this WAS a complicated situation. If we let the people use the material, if we actually encourage the use, the physical object itself could be degraded or destroyed. There are, of course, many libraries in the world where use of the collection is discouraged, in the hopes of preserving the material forever, or close to it.

In the digital world, access to and preservation of information is, if anything, even more problematic. This is true for a number of reasons. Digital objects are actually quite fragile. Libraries often do not own the digital objects in their collections; they are simply renting them. Copyright of digital objects is complicated and arcane. Librarians are, of course, developing methods, standards, and principles for dealing with these issues. LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, and Portico are a few of several efforts to bring publishers and librarians together to solve some of these digital preservation problems.

I don’t doubt the value of digital preservation projects. Nor do I doubt that the things preserved are worthy of preservation. But I’m beginning to wonder if the marriage between information provision (service)  and information preservation should be dissolved. Maybe we can think about what information we currently provide and what we plan to preserve [forever] as two separate and distinct functions. We will provide any manner of information service like journal articles or ebooks (paid on an article by article or chapter by chapter basis) without concern for whether we have it forever. Someone wants it now. That is my only concern.

The preservation issue would be thought of completely separate from current need. I determine a few (very few) areas where my library decides it will be the historical repository of information. We collection and preserve in those areas without thought for current use.

Or a variant on this idea: what we provide for the here and now IS what we preserve and protect. We never think of any issue that is our bailiwick for cultural preservation other than the here-and-now of my local user population. My library becomes the history of now, the history of what was actually used in my library. Up to now, many libraries have been the preservers of what was never used in that library, collections of books that never got checked out, but they were there just in case. And they were there as the historical record. But couldn’t we just forgo that unused part of the record? Skip over it altogether and just save the stuff that someone actually asked for and used? If other stuff gets used in another library, great, they can preserve it. Spread across enough libraries, this becomes as much a cross section of our culture as my library trying (and failing) to preserve everything.

One objection to user-driven acquisitions is that the collection will become skewed to some eccentric and faddish today with no thought for tomorrow. I find it difficult to think that collecting based on a current guess about what the future will want isn’t equally skewed. Let our odd present-day foibles be our history, our gift to future generations.

I exaggerate to some extent. Every collection ought to have enough diversity to serve a diversity of reading and research interests. Collecting everything and saving everything, however, seems like a thing of the past. Serve every current need. Get that information to the user as quickly and efficiently as possible. Save that information if you can. Save those other materials that are part of your mission or purpose. Hang the rest of it!



  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by srharris19: Blog post “The History of Right Now” –

  2. Stephen,
    This “thinking out loud” to “yourself” is really useful to me, just so’s ya’ know! I find myself continually pondering aspects of “library” and “librarian” and wondering to myself about what will sustain these ideas, these places, what will allow us to free ourselves of self-imposed restraints? Will we simply allow circumstances to shape us, or is there the possibility of shaping our circumstances? Where is the balance?
    I find this profession filled with so many thoughtful, caring, and truly brilliant people; it assures me that we will continue to thrive so long as human culture has a need for information services (whatever that is/may become). I am so very hopeful that the challenges we face will indeed be seen as opportunities to rise above, to shine, to transform while asserting and claiming our value.

  3. Oops, sorry Steven for misspelling above!

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