More on the Humanities in the Library

My last post generated a short conversation on Friendfeed. I’m not much of a controversialist, so it’s always interesting to be criticized. Last time I was merely reflecting on a couple of recent reports and their possible relationship to scholarship in the humanities. Dorothea Salo took issue with the post, and rather than respond on Friendfeed, I thought it worthwhile just to address the criticisms here. Also, I came to the discussion a bit late since I just noticed it today. Working two jobs right now is taking up a lot of my time.

The first criticism is more about what I didn’t do in that post than what I did. The quote in full:

Interesting, but dodges the hard questions. What are we going to have to STOP DOING in order to do the new stuff? Because we ARE going to have to stop doing SOMETHING. There aren’t enough resources in the world.

I have a range of possible responses to this, from the snipey to the less snipey. The less snipey is that it seems I’m being criticized for failing to do something I never set out to do in the first place, which is hardly a meaningful criticism. After all, it was a blog post, not a management treatise. Thus, I wasn’t "dodging" the "hard questions." The supposedly hard questions were merely not part of the subject of the blog post. The topic was what I saw as a possible future of humanities scholarship and research libraries in about a thousand words.

I’ll get back to what we might stop doing in a moment. Before I do, I’d like to take a look at the second criticism:

Well, from my POV, I get cynical about posts like this because as a librarian working in a new area, I get damn-all help or support from librarians in general, non-technical librarians in particular, and humanities librarians ESPECIALLY. So until they get outta their comfort zone a little, I read such posts as this as "we don’t have to change a bit! really! lalalalalala let the world fly by…" instead of "we’ve got some hard decisions to consider and some changes to make."

Now it seems that I’m being criticized because she doesn’t get enough support for her work in her library. That’s never a good feeling at work, but I’m not sure how my post contributes to it. I’m really not sure what she does in her daily work or whether I would support it or not, but I’m an open-minded librarian and not especially reactionary, so who knows. I’m not sure what is meant in this context by "non-technical," but whatever it is I probably qualify, and I’m certainly a humanities librarian, so I suppose I’ll stand up for my own.

Apparently I don’t want to get out of my "comfort zone," and also I’m saying we don’t have to change a bit. My comfort zone is pretty large, but I suppose that could still be true. Do any of us want to get out of our comfort zones? I work in the humanities. I don’t see those science librarians getting out of their comfort zones to understand how the humanities operate, so I don’t think it’s just we humanities librarians who are special in that regard. The most serious criticism is that I’m arguing that some changes won’t or perhaps shouldn’t be occurring. That’s not what I’m saying at all. What I will say, and what I have said before, is that some things just aren’t changing, and the traditions and practices of humanities scholarship are among those things. It’s not a question of wanting or not wanting "change." It’s a question of looking around at what scholars in the humanities are actually doing, and for the most part they’re doing the same things they’ve been doing for centuries, and they’re not showing any signs of rapidly changing. Rather

The world of information may be changing rapidly, but humanists for the most part just don’t care. That change may in itself become a major object of humanistic study, and when it does it will be addressed in scholarly monographs and articles. We could only speculate on why change is slow, but I suspect that it’s the way they’re trained, the long years of discipline they undergo mastering a tradition. It also has to do with the nature of such scholarship. Humanists engage texts and arguments; thus they need texts and arguments to engage. Giving them a nice data set won’t please them. Libraries are there to serve scholars, not the other way around. It would be hubris to say scholars in the humanities need to change the way they work because we librarians just aren’t happy with their slow pace. Humanities librarians may be among the slowest to change, but it seems to me they’re still changing faster than humanities scholars might be comfortable with.

As for what we might give up, I don’t have many concrete answers. Part of my goal is to try to articulate in a small way what an ideal research library might be. Whether or not any library can live up to the ideal doesn’t really matter. Just because we fail at a worthwhile goal doesn’t mean the goal isn’t worthwhile. It just means we’re failures. That’s hard to take sometimes, but unpleasant truths are no less truthful for their unpleasantness.

Some libraries subscribe to fewer journals. Some cut their book budgets to the bone. Some give up buying European monographs. I’m not interested in the question of what libraries should give up, but of what they should provide. If research libraries can’t at a minimum provide the resources that their current cohort of scholars needs, then those research libraries are failing in their most important mission. If that means that humanists still need those scholarly monographs, but librarians aren’t buying them for whatever reason, the library has failed. Period. To some extent, we’re all failures, but we should have the courage to admit it, not challenge the facts of scholarship.

As a practical matter, I in fact don’t have a lot of hard decisions to consider. However you might feel about that, it’s true. While my library isn’t the richest or the biggest library around, it’s reasonably well endowed. I should also note for those of you not in the humanities, collecting in the humanities is cheap relative to the sciences. While some of those STM serials might be $10,000 a year and rising, that’s not the case in the humanities. Some of the best or most important journals might be a couple hundred dollars. Monographs are often under a hundred dollars, at least ones from this country. It’s not humanities collections that are breaking library budgets.

As for giving things up, we would have to look at the library more broadly than just humanities collection development, which to some extent was the main topic of my last post. Some of the changes seem quite easy. A reference librarian retires. We don’t have as much reference as we used to. But hey, we need a digital photographer if we’re going to digitize stuff. Let’s take the reference librarian line and hire a digital photographer instead. It’s library science, not rocket science. Regardless, I’m not the one making those large decisions for any library, and I’m not in a position to speculate on the future of every part of the research library or how every library should address their hard questions. I just write about what I know. The problem might be that I just don’t know that much.

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