Collection Development as Fairness

One of the questions I perennially consider is how to justify a large research library, especially in the humanities. It’s certainly not because I don’t think the humanities are important, but because they seldom have direct, practical applications and seldom lead to money-making, they don’t draw the attention that fields such as science or business do. Some fields draw attention because of their currency as well, but humanities collections have a long shelf-life. People are, after all, still reading Homer, Sophocles, Plato, and Aristotle for enjoyment and study, not to mention Shakespeare or Rabelais or Cervantes, or even Wordsworth or Eliot, George and T.S.

The most frequent argument I encounter is that collection development, like public service, must be devoted to the user. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’m sometimes tempted to say that collection development is a public service, if we understand the terms properly. Collection development should be devoted to the user, but the question then becomes, who is the user of the research library?

Most librarians have an easy answer to that question. The users are those people who come into your library, who currently need your services. In an academic library, it’s standard policy to collect materials needed to support the current curriculum, which usually makes everyone happy, unless the university starts up a new research program and the library has no materials to support it because they’ve never collected them.

However, I think this is an insufficient definition of the user of the research library. The user of the research library shouldn’t be confused with the current users. I think it was Edmund Burke who described society as a partnership between the living, the dead, and the yet unborn. This is also a good way to think of a research library. The living are certainly benefiting from collection decisions made by the dead, and we the living selectors owe it to the researchers yet unborn to collect not just for the moment, but as much as possible for all time.

I’ve been thinking of putting these thoughts into a coherent article to try to get another line on the vita, and I’m considering building my basic argument around John Rawls’ notion of “justice as fairness,” hence the title of this post – collection development as fairness. Rawls in A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism laid out his argument. I just read his Justice as Fairness: a Restatement in prelude to teaching Rawls this semester, and that book is considerable shorter than the thousand or so pages of his major works, so if you’re interested in knowing more about Rawls, I’d suggest that as a start.

Rawls describes society as “a fair system of social cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal,” which seems a good definition to me. He then bases his concept of justice on two principles.

“Two Principles of Justice

(a) Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all; and

(b) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).”

Politically, these principles have sweeping applications, but in general I, at least, think they show a good start toward defining justice in a liberal society. But he doesn’t just stop with these principles. He goes on to discuss justice between generations with his “Principle of Just Savings”:

“Since society is to be a fair system of cooperations between generations over time, a principle governing savings is required…. The correct principle, then, is one the members of any generations (and so all generations) would adopt as the principle they would want preceding generations to have followed, no matter how far back in time.”

I have something like this in mind when I think of the research library, and of collection development as fairness. Adapted, the principles might read:

Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate research collection; the research collection is to be accessible to all; and that the research collection should be to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged researchers. According to the principle of just collecting, the least advantaged researchers (or users) would be those researchers who are not yet born, and thus have no say in what we collect, or rather don’t collect, now, and the impact this collection will have on them in the future. The user of the research library is also the user of the future decades hence. What we don’t collect now, they won’t be able to study.

4 thoughts on “Collection Development as Fairness

  1. I would be very interested in reading such an article if you get it written.
    As a caveat, I must disavow any real knowledge of Rawls other than the odd quote that shows up here and there, so I’ll take your recommendation to heart.
    But, I must ask, if we use Rawl’s definition of society has there actually ever been one? Or, are we falling back on restricted definitions of citizen and perhaps other terms to put us in the clear?
    By the way, I enjoy your blog quite a bit. You write the sorts of things that I strive to in my finer moments, yet rarely attain.

  2. Thanks for the compliment, Mark.
    Rawls should be considered in the same way as other normative political philosophers. He aims to establish a theoretical defense of liberalism and to provide ideal criteria by which to judge societies. Ideally, this is what a society would be, according to him, and these are the principles of justice it should live by. We can use Rawls’ normative theory to provide a liberal critique of any society, including, of course, our own.

  3. I think the Rawls would provide a nice frame for understanding and justifying a large research library and would make for a fine article. (It would also make for a swell research paper topic/slant for some enterprising young writer in your seminar.)
    I wonder, though, whether his approach encourages an overly narrow focus (in this post anyway) on who exactly uses the research library as opposed to what it’s for, perhaps even if it’s not used widely or at all. Someone (I can’t for the life of me remember who) once described the stacks of the great Lion & Marble branch of the New York Public Library as the DNA of our culture–that is, the primary source of cultural memory and production. Thought of in this way, research libraries collect not only for past, present, and future researchers, but also for those who never bother entering a reading room.
    I may not be suggesting anything that far from what you say here particularly if the DNA analogy were spelled out–as I think it can be, rather directly and at length–and if we think of “researcher” in an “original position” way. Still, I think it’s an analogy that perhaps expands and deepens the justification for having research libraries in the first place a little beyond Rawls. They do something for all of us and for those who will study us when we’re no longer around to remember ourselves.

  4. Good points, Roblin, and a reminder that when I write the article I’ve got to add in the O.P.
    I agree completely with the DNA analogy concept, though I wouldn’t put it quite that way. Research libraries should collect the human record as fully as possible. But that becomes hard to justify when librarians and library patrons have conflicting goals and urgent desires. Immediate services and curricular needs drive the thinking of a lot of librarians, and they cost money, too. Think of our Article Express service, a very popular service. For every 2-3 articles delivered through that service, that’s a book we won’t be buying.
    So my goal is to try to find a useful analogy in Rawls for justifying large collections for those who argue that libraries should be “user-centered,” and and that’s a large group. I’ve no problem with it, except for the typically narrow construction of who the library user is.

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