The Librarian as Filter, Part 2

Wishing a happy new year to libraries in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Princeton professor Stan Katz writes:

“For today I want to ignore the challenge to authority (and the library) posed by the World Wide Web and digital information, the world in which authority is hardest to establish and maintain — except to say that it is the great libraries that are probably our best hope of maintaining the concept of authority in an age in which truth seems only a keystroke away. I think, by the way, that it is easy to make the case that we need librarians to mediate digital information for us. I want also, at least for today, to ignore the extent to which humanists have complexified the concept of authority in a generation-long outburst of postmodernist casting of doubt upon truth. My tribute for the new year is to the ancient institution that has so nobly served those of us who care about knowledge, and to the trained scholar-technicians who have so patiently created and sustained it.”

This is a call for libraries and librarians to be, as Ortega asked us to be, a filter between men and books, or as we might say in updating the phrase, a filter between people and information, including digital information. The notion of authority is central to the academic library mission. In past discussions of Wikipedia, I’ve poked fun at some of the authoritative notions of librarians, but only because I think to apply the notion of authority to the Wikipedia is to misunderstand the nature of that source and its popularity and usefulness. Authority as such is still crucial, and librarians are still in one of the most important positions to determine that authority. Librarians are one of the groups deciding what’s important enough to be saved.

It’s possible that one day in decades hence this won’t be the case, that “everything will be digitized” or something like that. It’s possible. Certainly Google and others are digitizing like crazy, though Google at least is digitizing what librarians of the past found fit to salvage from the culture. If all information was indeed digitized, that would only create the problem of figuring out how to cull out the useless and awful from the useful and good. That’s a real problem even today, and search engines work hard to get us to the good stuff while eliminating the dross. Librarians routinely filter digital content, deciding which websites to catalog or link to or which databases to purchase.

Even if storage space were limitless, not everything deserves to be saved. We might very well have people’s personal blogs online for centuries after they’ve quit posting, but it doesn’t mean they’re worth saving. Even research libraries make decisions about what’s important to save or study, usually driven by current scholarly standards and trends, and these decisions have lasting effects for whatever reason.

Consider the study of popular culture, or perhaps mass culture would be more accurate. Research libraries in the past tended to ignore a lot of mass culture. The study of the popular culture of the past has been growing for decades, but research libraries still tend to ignore parts of it. I searched Worldcat for Harlequin as a publisher and came up with about 50,000 entries. How many of these Harlequin books are in academic libraries? Few, I’d bet. The most-owned item – Summer Lovin’ by Carly Phillips – is available right now in hundreds of libraries, but when I skimmed the list I noticed only two academic libraries – Rutgers and Texas A&M. The subject heading is “Atlantic City (N.J.) — Fiction,” so that would explain Rutgers. Go back 50 years to Mary Burchell’s Love is My Reason,” and you’ll see that only a few libraries have that, and only one public library. The research libraries rarely bought it, and whatever public libraries bought it weeded it decades ago.

Should we feel bad that Love is My Reason is so hard to find? I would say not. But what about for the study of popular culture? Shouldn’t we have at least some of these books available? Yes, we should, and we do. But it’s highly unlikely that anyone will want to study in-depth any particular Harlequin romance novel the way they might a Shakespeare play or a Hurston novel. Even when Harlequin romances are studied, they are studied as a genre, or for what they tell us about reading habits, or something like that. We don’t buy them, or don’t buy many of them, because individually they are of no literary or scholarly worth, at least as decided by every scholar who has approached them. Even if the thousands of Harlequin romances were all digitized and freely available, scholars would have to filter to get any meaning from them.This isn’t so much a matter of authority as a matter of filtering.

More closely related to issues of authority would be the type of books I mentioned last week, the tomes sent into me by Self-aggrandizing Amateur Philosophers (or SAPs for short). I have the work of one of these SAPs in front of me as I write. This particular book is a self-published effort consisting of unpithy ruminations from his website regaling us with “his philosophy.” (I would just point to the website, but I don’t want to give this stuff any exposure at all.) This person has taken the contents of a website, paid to have it printed up in book form, and sent it round the country to get librarians to put it in their collections. I checked Worldcat for this, and so far the only library copy anywhere in the country is at Cornell, where it will probably remain unwept, unhonored, and unsung for the next half-millennium. Not including this SAP in the collection is a method of establishing authority and of deciding what is worth studying. The individual work of no SAP is worth studying, and I think any student or professor of philosophy would agree with me. I wouldn’t want this in the collection, because I wouldn’t want some ignorant student wandering the stacks to stumble across this and decide that since it’s a “scholarly” book and it’s in Princeton’s collection it must at least be worth taking a look at. I could link to it from a research guide or philosophy website, but that would still imply it’s worth reading. It’s not worth it, and when the question is asked, who decides if it’s worth reading, the answer has to be, I do. That’s my job, especially when I’m not aided by the peer-review and other processes we have in place to help me.

If by some fluke of fate a Princeton philosopher wants to read this book, I’ll point to the website. And if for some bizarre reason anyone in the future needs this particular text in their study of SAP in the early 21st century, they’ll just have to ILL the book from Cornell.

Deciding a large portion of the fate of scholarship in the future is an important and sometimes unnerving mission. One never knows what might be important a century hence, and there’s always a sense of loss for some things that weren’t preserved, from classical manuscripts to early 20th century films. Regardless, it’s the mission of the librarian to filter and to establish authority of some kind as well as to preserve the best that has been thought and said in the culture for as long as possible, and I can’t believe that mission will completely disappear in the future.