Everything Connected, Nothing What It Seems

Over the weekend I was reading Knowledge Goes Pop, by Clare Birchall. It’s a cultural studies book on what the author calls “popular knowledge,” the sort of knowledge embodied in gossip and conspiracy theories, and uses a Foucauldian / poststructuralist apparatus to analyze this knowledge and its relation to truth, or what the author would call “legitimate” knowledge (scare quotes, of course). She also considers its relation to cultural studies itself, which makes a lot of sense. After all, cultural studies as a field of inquiry often shares a point of view with conspiracy theories, especially the belief that everything is connected and nothing is what it seems to be. Structurally, is there much difference between the conspiracy theorist arguing that the US government deliberately destroyed the World Trade Center and the academic arguing that all of us (excepting the few academics who agree with the author) are all complicit in some dominant political ideology that we don’t understand but which nevertheless manipulates us?

So far I like the book, though it manifests the typical ideological conformity of most cultural studies writing I’ve read. Anything “marginalized,” “subversive,” “radical,” “disruptive,” or “resistant” is good and worthy of our attention; anything “legitimate” or “official” suspect. It’s not that I mind; it’s just that the attitude of such politicized scholarship is so predictable in its assumption that things are marginalized because of some reason other than they’re stupid or useless, as if marginal were in itself interesting and subversive always beneficial, regardless of what is being subverted. This sentence sums up a lot of that attitude: “There is a risk that the aestheticization of conspiracy theory only serves to depolitize any challenging or radical potential it might have (we could, however, think this is a good thing in relation to right wing Militia groups)” (41). I’m happy to take that risk.

However, while reading it I decided to do a bit more research on some conspiracy theories. As I’ve written before, conspiracy theories are a minor hobby of mine. I find them fascinating as objects of study. In particular I was going to follow up on my favorite conspiracy theorist, David Icke. He’s the one who claims that many world leaders are actually half human / half alien reptiles that allow them to shape-shift and pose as humans as they implement the fascistic new world order on behalf of the Illuminati. Needless to say, he’s a lot of fun. He’s also a dynamic and amusing speaker. Search Google Video for — david icke freedom fascism — to see a six hour presentation of his on conspiracies. As an example of his style, in the second video of three he criticizes Bush for continuing to read a children’s book about a pet goat after Andrew Card has informed him that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. “Okay, Andy. After I find out what happens to this goat, I’ll be right out.”

Icke’s written a lot of books on his conspiracy theories, but the latest one seems to sum up his past books, so I thought it would be a good place to start: The David Icke Guide to the Global Conspiracy (and How to End It). I don’t know why I found it surprising, but according to Worldcat, of the 45 copies in American libraries, none are owned by academic libraries. Based on a very cursory glance through the holdings list on several other of his books, that’s for the most part true of his other books as well. Here and there an academic library may have one of the books, but almost all of them are held by public libraries, which means that eventually almost all of them will be weeded when they have passed their popularity date.

The question for research libraries is, does this matter? These books are part of what Birchall calls “popular knowledge.” They are decidedly not part of what we would call scholarly knowledge, which is typically what we buy. It’s obvious to me why few academic libraries ever buy these books. They’re books by kooks, right? We don’t buy those. We librarians act as filters to keep them out of our scholarly collections, and the scholars apparently agree with our decisions, because they’re not clamoring for more books by David Icke or other conspiracy theorists. There are few scholarly books on these kinds of theories, after all. Why would anyone want to study this intellectual gibberish?

The obvious argument against such collections is that scholars don’t take these things seriously. We tend not to have major research collections on astrology or self-help, either, because the unserious and intellectually suspect nature of these books makes them unimportant as contributions to the scholarly record, yet at the same time the books pose as argumentative non-fiction, which is one way to describe scholarly books. Conspiracy books are in many ways like scholarly books. They consider evidence. They make arguments. Only they tend to do it badly and are often unverifiable. Still, we collect other books that pose unverifiable theories about the world, especially in the humanities. Are most of the assertions of French theory any more verifiable than those made by the 9/11 Truth Movement?

However, we collect non-scholarly works as objects of study as a matter of course. Novels, letters, diaries, films. Why don’t we also collect conspiracy books in the same spirit? Perhaps it’s because of the pseudo-scholarly nature of most of these books. Novels rarely pose as fact. Films don’t claim to be true. David Icke presumably believes what he writes is true, and so do a lot of other people. Because of this pseudo-scholarly nature, perhaps the scholarly consensus to ignore these works makes more sense. Conspiracy books aren’t proper objects of scholarly study because they compete with scholarly study. Taking them seriously even as objects of study would give them some sort of interest, would perhaps validate them in some way. Is this why we don’t collect these things?

Are we the filters that guard scholarly knowledge, or even “legitimate” knowledge? Or is the truth darker? Perhaps academic librarians are part of the fortress guarding scholarly standards of knowledge, or perhaps instead we are all victims of false consciousness or even part of the conspiracy. Is this active non-collection or merely neglect? Are we repressing or merely ignoring conspiracy books? Do we not buy these books because we don’t want them widely distributed, thus “marginalizing” them? Or is it that we don’t want the theories to survive for later study, because we don’t want people to know the truth?

It could be the absence of conspiracy collections in most research libraries is the result of benign neglect, but maybe, just maybe, something else is going on. We could be either reactionary dupes marginalizing the subversive radicals among us, or tools of the Illuminati doing our best to suppress the disruptive truth about the conspiracy to establish the new world order. Either way it doesn’t look pretty for us. We may look like ordinary librarians widely dispersed doing out best to collect works of scholarship and objects of scholarly interest, but it might be naive to believe this, because it could be that everything is connected and nothing is what it seems.

Collection Development is a Customer Service

I attended another program at ALA, the RUSA President’s Program, which was called “Quality Service in an Impersonal World” (if I remember correctly). That’s the program that began with several librarians singing a song called “R-U-S-A” to the tune of The Village People’s “Y-M-C-A,” though they weren’t dressed as colorfully at The Village People. Regarding the song, let’s just say that it was very long.

The first speaker was Robert Spector, author of The Nordstrom Way, which apparently has something to do with the great customer service at Nordstrom’s. Having never shopped at Nordstrom’s that didn’t mean much to me. However, the guy was definitely a great speaker, which is always a pleasure to find at these conferences. Personally, I’ve never found anything insightful in “customer service” talk that isn’t already contained in Kant’s categorical imperative, and Spector more or less agrees, it seems, since he said something like, all this is just the Golden Rule applied to sales. The impression I got from the whole program was that we’re all supposed to think it’s about the services. Everything is about good customer service, and it’s the people who make up the organization that really count.

I sat with an old friend during the program, someone who also works at a private university with a large research library. When discussing the program later, we both agreed that this all-about-the-service-and-the-people ethic wasn’t necessarily the case at our libraries. Instead, the collections are the important thing. Certainly, there have to be people to acquire, catalog, and preserve the collections. Naturally, we also have people who instruct library users how to find what they need, which is where the “customer service” part would come in. But even without these people, and I’m one of them, the center would still be the collection.

Scholars don’t necessarily want people; they want stuff. They want books, journals, archives, manuscripts, data, and if the library has the stuff they’ll use the library regardless of the people. I’ve heard various stories about inhospitable research libraries, especially in Europe, that seem to make it as difficult as possible for scholars to get at their resources, but scholars go even to these libraries because they want the stuff. I’m not saying having a lot of desired resources means we should act like that librarian in The Name of the Rose or that we shouldn’t be helpful and friendly. I’m just saying that for large libraries, the collection takes precedence in a way that it doesn’t elsewhere, and that the service-is-everything attitude doesn’t seem as prominent.

I know this isn’t the case in smaller libraries. I worked for a couple of years in a liberal arts college library, which was probably adequate for most undergraduates, but definitely wasn’t designed to support scholarly research at too high a level. The library usually didn’t even have the books I wanted to read, for that matter. In smaller places, that’s what ILL is for, but for ILL to work, the desired articles actually have to be somewhere. From the way some librarians speak, ILL means libraries can stop buying a lot of stuff, but for a resource to be shared, some library has to purchase it in the first place. There have to be just-in-case libraries for the just-in-time approach to work at other ones. No library has everything, of course, but some libraries must have a lot for the system to work.

It seems that most of what I read about customer service comes from public librarians, who want to attract as many people as possible in libraries with relatively small collections. In fact, another interesting speaker in the program was a public librarian who talked about a service her library provides, where librarians greet patrons at the door and walk them through the library helping them find what they need. I think I’d find that a bit too much if I were the patron, but then again I’m already a librarian. I’m sure there are plenty of library users who really like this program, and it sounded like a good way to get out of the reference desk mentality, where the librarians sit and wait while fewer patrons come to seek them out. I’m all for a service mentality in research libraries as well, but still I think it’s important to remember that in research libraries, collection development is a customer service.

The Future in the Past

I finally got around to reading Robert Darnton’s essay on the Library in the New Age in the New York Review of Books, and was pleased with the conclusion both reaffirming the traditional importance of the research library and expressing some enthusiasm for the abilities of digitization projects such as Google Books to further scholarly research. He notes in the essay that words printed on paper is the best known long term storage medium, and that’s something for us to consider for the future as well as the past.

A month ago I read a post at Gypsy Librarian summarizing an article speculating about how much would be lost for libraries if some sort of disaster wiped out our electricity. (The article is also discussed at Logical Operator.) Given a sufficient enough world energy crisis and I suppose that future is plausible even if improbable, though if we enter some sort of Mad Max post-apocalyptic world we’ll probably all be too busy defending our desert fortresses against roving bands of toughs to worry much about research. Still, the point is an interesting one. The pre-microfilm research library was impervious to this sort of disaster. Books printed on non-acidic paper last a long time, and that fact has been proven with time. They don’t even need the exquisite care they sometimes get now. When weeding the philosophy collection in the open stacks, I several times came across sound copies of two and even three hundred year old books just sitting there.

While I’m a big supporter of digitization projects and like the ease of use and power of search that digital texts give us, I still worry about the future. Sometimes those of us who like printed books and are skeptical of some technological claims for future information bliss are accused of being too traditional, too rooted in the past. We must look to the future. See what the exciting tools are doing for us! I can see what the exciting tools are doing for us, and in many cases I heartily approve. However, it seems to me that some techno-thrill is centered merely on the present, not on the future. Traditional research libraries have always shown a concern for the future. The collections we have now that allow historical research are there because someone in the past collected them for future use. Darnton’s example of the Folger collection is an excellent example of this.

I found his discussion of the multiple Folios had some personal relevance because of a discussion I once had with someone from Project Gutenberg. I was working in a used bookstore at the time and during a slow period we were arguing about the future of books. He was convinced that the future of books was electronic, while I was making the self-serving case that print books would be around for a long time to come. Though he was in fact haunting a used bookstore, he said he could read any book he wanted on his Newton (this will date the conversation somewhat). Anyway, the discussion got on to scholarly editions of Shakespeare, a topic I have a bit of knowledge about. He informed me that scholarly editions were irrelevant, and that any old text could be put online and everyone would be happy with it. In other words, he was assuming that the works of Shakespeare were stable texts, that there’s just, for example, an unproblematic text of King Lear. For the sake of argument, I’d be willing to admit that the general reader of Shakespeare probably doesn’t care about the details, but that unconcern is built on the foundation of texts created by scholars working with multiple texts of Shakespeare to try to create a best text for the general reader. It’s just not true that there is a single, stable Shakespeare just as it isn’t true there’s a single stable text of the Bible, to name another book that the general reader often assumes is unproblematic. Editions matter to the scholar, and they should matter to everyone. Do all digitization projects consider this?

A concern for the future is a concern that what is being collected will be available for future use. Unfortunately, in many respects libraries are thinking less of the future and more of the present. Consider the example of scholarly journals. Until relatively recently, journals were purchased and that was that. The publisher could fold. The journal could dissolve. It didn’t matter. The journal issues that had been purchased were still there in perpetuity. Now, however, libraries routinely aren’t purchasing journals, they’re purchasing access to journals, which is very different. Though all would be lost if we lost electricity, less dire circumstances could still lead to the loss of said access. If libraries stop subscribing, sometimes they might lose access to back issues that they had once been able to get. The stability of online collections differs, of course. JSTOR seems to me about as stable as can be, though I don’t think research libraries should discard all their old copies of JSTOR journals. A research library would be quite foolish to start canceling subscriptions to necessary journals because they’re now in ProQuest, though, as good as ProQuest is at providing a lot of content.

All is subject to uncertainty, and no individual library of the past could be sure that their collections wouldn’t be destroyed by fire or natural disaster (though rarely has this occurred on a grand scale). Had that happened, though, the results would be disastrous for the individual institution and its scholars, but less so for everyone else unless the collection was very unique, because there are so many research libraries. Could we be so sanguine about the future? If publishers of the future started collapsing in some economic meltdown and their online offerings disappeared, would we still have what we had at one time purchased, or would then be reliant once more upon the pre-electronic collections?

I’m not trying to paint some gloomy picture of the future of research libraries or attempting to manufacture a crisis, because I don’t feel gloomy about that future and I don’t think a crisis exists. I don’t think libraries are dying. But I find it odd that most of the time I see projections and prophesies about the future of libraries, they all concern the way some technological contrivance is going to affect the way we deliver content and services, but rarely on what that content will actually be. We’re told, for example, that mobile devices are ever more common and that we will have to adapt to them. That’s fine for some things. I have a mobile device of my own and use it all the time, but I think they’re only useful in their place. I don’t think people will be reading scholarly monographs on their smartphone. With DRM and copyright being what it is, I can’t even see much of a future for reading scholarly monographs from libraries on dedicated ebook readers, which is too bad because that’s a future I’d like to see. However, a concern for the future is a concern for preserving the past. The future of a research collection is its past, in what it has preserved and made available. If we abandon the known, stable good of print, can we be sure that what we collect now will still be available 100 years from now?

I don’t know the answer to that question, and I’m not especially alarmed, but it’s a question well worth addressing. If the collections of the future are just the things we managed to digitize, then they might be relatively more impoverished than our print collections are compared to all that has been printed. If the digital versions don’t survive, we will have lost a lot. Right now we can’t address the problem because we are too concerned with the flux of the present to think much of the future and because there’s no way we can answer the problem of longevity and preservation without a lot of time passing by to prove the point one way or another. We take our multiple leaps of faith and hope for the best, because that’s the best we can do right now. Regardless, we must always be concerned not just with present flux, but with future stability. The research library always shows concern for the past and hope for the future.

Some librarians are criticized for resisting “change.” I put the term in quotes because it’s used so often in the library literature but is an almost contentless word. Change has no concrete meaning; everything depends on the specific change. Is it a change for the better or worse? Can we tell? What are the reasons for change? Are they good ones? A concern for “change” is usually poised as a concern for the future, but there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on what that future might be. This makes perfect sense, and I’d be very skeptical indeed of librarians who claimed with certainty to know exactly what libraries and library users would be like in twenty years. What bothers me about so much change rhetoric is its reactive nature, though. Instead, I prefer those librarians who change because they want to create a certain type of future, not because they think if a contemporary fad isn’t exploited that libraries will become irrelevant. For research libraries, that future seems clear. We want to create a future where the human record of the past will be widely and indefinitely accessible. The future of research is in the past and its preservation (and by past, I include the very recent past as well, so in a sense almost anything is the past, including those statistics from last year you’re using to make arguments about the present). How we go about preserving this past will determine the possibilities of future research, and for now the best bet might be to take the piecemeal approach suggested by Darnton. Digitize, but don’t forget to buy the books. Print isn’t dead, and it lives a long time. Insisting on buying print books isn’t a reactionary resistance to change, but instead a cautious consideration of future needs in a time of uncertainty.

The Librarian as Filter, Part 3

I should subtitle this post “The Librarian is the Filter,” or perhaps “The Librarian is the Filter.”

My first librarian as filter post received a couple of comments, and since I don’t get many comments that fact alone was exciting. Maybe I should be more provocative, but in general I’m too willing to see the other’s point of view to provoke too much.

Here’s part of one of the comments: “The mayor of Oak Lawn, IL, said, “There is a difference between censorship and sponsorship. If someone wants [Playboy], that’s fine, they can buy it at a store.” It appears you would agree with that mayor’s statement. Do you?”

My initial response was that I assumed “the mayor of Oak Lawn is responding to a censorship or banned books controversy of some sort. The censorship/sponsorship distinction doesn’t seem to me to make much sense. I don’t think that a library not buying Playboy constitutes censorship, if that’s what you’re getting at, though I also don’t see how a library buying Playboy constitutes sponsorship of its content in any usual sense of the word.” Certainly the implication of my initial post was that the librarian’s job was to decide what to do in the collection, and that not putting something in the collection (in my case Self-aggrandizing Amateur Philosophers or SAPs) was not censorship. In the case of academic libraries, putting scholarly works in the collection is a step towards establishing authority, but it isn’t sponsorship of the content so much as sponsorship of the process of peer-reviewed scholarly publication. Adding other items to the collection also isn’t sponsoring their particular content so much as recognizing their cultural or intellectual value. As part of the larger process of publishing, collecting, and disseminating the human record, the librarian’s job is to make such decisions.

My commenter, Dan Kleinman of safelibraries.org, is understandably concerned with pornography in public libraries, particularly if it’s available to children. My immediate response to this was that “if pressed, I suppose I would argue that not buying something is a matter of selection rather than censorship, but one of the joys of academic librarianship is not being faced with the selection controversies that plague some public libraries.

I wouldn’t want my young daughter hanging out in the public library reading Playboy or stumbling across Internet porn, but as long as the children’s section is kept free of pornography and creepy adults I don’t know that I have much of an opinion on the issue, though I suppose I wouldn’t want even the adult portion of the library to start looking like an “adult” bookstore.

This is such a local issue, as collection development usually is. The public library I visit the most (the Ewing Public Library in Ewing, NJ) seems like a decent enough place to me with what seem to be appropriate collection choices for the community, though I’ve rarely ventured outside the children’s section.”

Mr. Kleinman also noted that “I’ll expect you to be very guarded in discussing this topic. The ALA does not take kindly to librarians not carrying the party line.”

I don’t think I’m in any danger from the ALA regardless of what I say, since there’s little the ALA can do to me. The ALA doesn’t even have a party line for academic libraries as far as I know. Just to show how bold and provocative I can be, I’ll say that honestly I don’t care what the ALA has to say about these issues, because ultimately it’s not the ALA that decides what to select. That, as I’ve noted, is the librarian’s job.

However (and here I fear I will not make Mr. Kleinman happy), the implication of my position is that the librarian is the filter, not the ALA, but also not the “community,” whatever that term might mean in context. It’s the librarian’s job to decide what is selected, and if it becomes anyone’s job but the librarian’s, then there isn’t any reason to have a librarian. I realize there’s a move on nationwide to deprofessionalize certain aspects of librarianship, but I resist that deprofessionalization for collection development.

The librarian certainly acts with the interests and needs of the community in mind. I’m not talking about the librarian as lone decider of what gets in and what stays out, with no input from anyone. I would be a bad selector if I ignored the current curricula or faculty research or whatever might be very timely, but I would also be a bad selector if I didn’t keep in mind that the users of the library are not just the people currently around, but those of the future as well. The librarian’s job is to synthesize all these disparate demands as well as possible.

I don’t feel as comfortable addressing public libraries. I worked in a great public library for two years, but not as a professional librarian, so I can’t speak with much authority on the subject. But it still seems to me that the librarian is the filter there as well, much more of a filter than librarians in big research libraries, since collection budgets and space are typically much more limited. It’s the librarian’s job to decide these things. If the community is unhappy, then fire the librarians or get rid of the library, but librarians can’t be dictated to by the concerns of a group of citizens, no matter how large, and still remain professional. Even if every single person in the community wanted to get rid of something in the library, it would still be a violation of the professionalism of librarians to demand that the librarians themselves get rid of it.

Either trust the librarians or dismiss them, but don’t expect them to forgo all professional judgment. The librarian’s job is to consider not just the community, but the larger culture, and to present in microcosm the truth of the world as much as possible. Librarians have to consider not only the parents concerned that their children might be turned into homosexuals by reading about gay penguins, but also the gay children wrestling with their sexuality in a confusing culture.

So what about porn in the library? Honestly, I don’t like it. If my library, or at least the children’s section of my library, started turning into a haven for pornography, I wouldn’t go there anymore. I disagree with the view that every type of information should be made available to every person of every age, and I think most parents would agree. My concern isn’t one of prudery about sex or pornography so much as the knowledge that not all information is appropriate for children. Just as I wouldn’t ask my 8-year old daughter to read Descartes and understand his significance, so I wouldn’t show her a pornographic website and ask her to understand what’s going on. Having A Man with a Maid in the children’s section would be as absurd as having the Critique of Pure Reason there. Books and websites on sex education are fine, but no young child is going to be educated about sex by watching Youporn.

But that’s my judgment as a parent. Regardless, I still have to trust the judgment of librarians to filter or select. If absolutely everyone in the community is in disagreement with the librarians’ choices, then perhaps it’s time to get rid of the librarians or the libraries, though I can’t imagine that ever being the case. Individual librarians either have professional judgment or they don’t. They are either competent or incompetent. They have reasons for their collection decisions or they don’t. As a class, however, we have to trust that librarians have professional judgment and reasons for their decisions or there’s little point in having librarians.

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.

The Librarian as Filter, Part 1

Orwell wrote somewhere that unless one has some professional relationship to books, one has no idea how many bad books are actually published. The Internet multiplies bad publications a billionfold, but it’s still true of books as far as I can tell.

Besides the 100K+ books we buy every year, our library gets myriad book donations, and these donated books are diverted to the appropriate selector to decide whether they should enter the collection or be sold to used book dealers. Since I’m the philosophy and religion selector, I get most of the books that look too weird for any other category. Philosophy and religion between them are broad enough to encompass almost everything, I suppose, though if that’s the case my budgets should be much larger. So if someone relates their alien abduction and how it changed their life or is born again and wants all of us in library land to find Jesus, the book somehow gets sent to me.

The books that puzzle me the most are the ones from people on a mission from God, as the Blues Brothers might say. These are the self published ruminations of people who have a “philosophy,” for example. I put “philosophy” in quotes because of the nature of some of these books. These people aren’t “doing philosophy,” as philosophy professors would say; these are people who have a life philosophy or a philosophical system in the the old fashioned sense. There was a time when people outside the academy were considered philosophers. All one needed was to be brilliant and write compelling books engaging the perennial questions of life. In some ways academic philosophy has diminished this meaning of “philosopher,” since now anyone with a PhD in philosophy and an appointment as a philosophy professor somewhere is entitled to be called a philosopher. However, none of the academic philosophers I’ve ever met have ever claimed to be a philosopher in the older mode.

Not being an academic philosopher, but being somewhat philosophical, I’m perfectly happy to consider some of those outside the academy worthy of the formerly prestigious name of “philosopher,” but the old criteria remain. One needs to be brilliant and write compellingly and intelligently about the perennial questions of life. It’s not enough to self-publish your platitudes and send them off to a librarian, which is what so many people do with their books. They would all be “honored” if their book could be added to the collection of such and such library.

I got back to work today after a week off to find several of these earnest books. One is by a retired something-or-other who wants to tell us all about “his philosophy.” It’s a big, thick book, and so probably has the sort of detailed philosophical system that would have made Hobbes or Kant proud. Perhaps he just wants to share Jesus with me, but it looks like a book with a system. However, the author’s biographical blurb contains such an egregious and unintentionally comical grammatical error, that the effect of book’s thickness was lost on me. If I’m laughing out loud at the earnest biographical blurb, it doesn’t bode well for the material inside. Another book is by someone of indeterminable background who is doing his part, as he tells us, to make philosophy more accessible by putting it up on the Internet. Strange that no one has thought of that before. Whereas the first “philosopher” is obviously a systematizer, this second puckish fellow is an aphoristic “philosopher” a la Nietzsche who tells us plainly in one of his aphorisms that everything we need to know about life we can learn from reading his website.

Skimming through some of these books is one of the highlights of my job. I try to imagine what motivates the authors so much that they pay to have books printed up of stuff no one is likely to read. In my experience of these, it’s not the fact that the writers aren’t professional philosophers that will doom the books to obscurity. Most professional philosophy books are justly doomed to obscurity. It’s that the people can’t write well and don’t have anything original or interesting to say. I think of Dr. Johnson’s remark that someone’s book was both good and original, though unfortunately that which was original wasn’t good and that which was good wasn’t original. These earnest philosophical tomes are neither good nor original. I certainly understand the motivation to write, and I would love to publish a couple of the books I’ve written that languish eternally on my hard drive, but paying for them and shipping them around the country is the puzzler. It’s so easy to get information out in the world these days. Just publish a blog!

(Speaking of publishing books, I just finished revising a delightful comic novel about a young professor searching for love and a lost manuscript during a Canadian country house weekend. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll become a part of you. If anyone wants to hook me up with a literary agent, let me know.)

The fact that they want their books in research libraries shows part of the motivation. They don’t just want their work scattered into the indiscriminate winds of the Internet. They want to enshrine their work in the chapel of reason, the library. They want to be taken seriously and studied carefully, because after all they’ve written books. These are actual books, published by actual vanity presses, printed on actual paper. They’ve even saved the library the expense of paying for the books, which I’d be happy to do for anything good.

Here is where the authors are bound to be disappointed, because I rarely add these titles to the collection. It might seem that anything sent my way for free should just be thrown into the pile. After all, I could always send it offsite. But collection building is never indiscriminate, even at a big library. Space is still finite, though that’s rarely the issue. The question becomes, what is worth studying and what is worth preserving. Research libraries often become the last line of defense for collecting the human record, but choices must be made, and my choice is not to add things like this. Not everything in the human record is worth preserving, especially when you consider finite space and resources. You may think this sounds elitist, and you would be correct. If you consider the question, you will also probably agree with me.

Does this mean that I’m suppressing someone’s life work? Or that I’m censoring them? I don’t think so. I, along with all of my colleagues here and all of our counterparts around the world, are selecting what might be studied in the future. It’s a big responsibility, and part of the responsibility is to act as a filter.

In his address on “The Mission of the Librarian,” the philosopher Ortega y Gasset argued that librarians should act as a filter between people and books. In 1940, Ortega already feared information overload. One can only imagine how he would view the Internet. I think Ortega had a fine point, and I’ve been considering how librarians play the role of filter today. Librarians are champions of access to information, but we all, for whatever reasons, set limits on the information that can be accessed at our libraries. Choosing what will not enter the library is just as important as choosing what will; choice is inevitable and each choice effects the future of research.

Noblesse Oblige and Research Libraries

I’m all for mass digitization. The more information searchable the better, as far as I’m concerned. However, I suspect that if there ever is total digitization of print collections it will be decades and perhaps centuries in the future. More likely, I don’t think it will happen because of the sheer mass of print-only material already extant and increasing every year around the world.

This raises several issues. First, will it increasingly be the case that “everything is online”? We know that de jure this isn’t the case now, but de facto for many library users it is true, because whatever’s not online (or perhaps just very easily accessible) won’t be used. For the mass of information seekers, this doesn’t matter much, but for scholars at any level past novice it does matter. Will students become ever more reluctant to seek out the difficult data or the remote but appropriate archive? And if they do, in how many generations will we have an Idiocracy of scholarship?

Perhaps more important is the question of what obligation do librarians have to collect the human record past the popular mass of material? It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that electronic collections are mass collections. For most colleges and universities, this is a good thing. The rise of JSTOR and other large aggregate journal packages means that plenty of academic libraries that never had much of a collection can now have easy access to the benefits of this mass digitization. Even at Princeton I find that these journal collections sometimes provide easy access to journals in areas that were never collected, but that can be useful for some kinds of interdisciplinary research here. But still, the electronic collections for sale are still mass collections driven by the rule that if everyone doesn’t want it, nobody gets it. “Everyone” might be just a handful of the richest institutions, but the rule still stands. Commercial products are created to make money. Only so much ephemeral material can be included in a commercially viable package. Other digitization projects change this somewhat, but it’s not clear how Google Books or the Million Books Project or independent digitization projects will affect this. Even a combination of the largest of these projects contains only a portion of available material.

But what about those materials that aren’t digitized and never will be? Increasingly they will become niche items, even more so than they are now. Who will collect these? Who will make sure they’re available to the scholars of the future? In most libraries, there’s the assumption that the library can rely on some other library to collect the stuff that won’t be used often or may be of peripheral interest at most. In larger research libraries, especially at the richer private universities and the largest state universities, the librarians often have a different view, though. Some library has to be the library of last resort, and some librarians at the larger libraries understandably think, if we don’t collect this, who will? All libraries promote services and access to materials through borrowing, but ultimately some libraries actually have to buy those materials, and richer libraries have a obligation to collect the human record in a way that smaller and lesser funded libraries don’t, and a corollary obligation to make those materials known and available.

This obligation is sometimes difficult to justify, though oddly enough it fits in with the Princeton motto, “in the service of the nation and in the service of all nations.” (I’m not implying by this Princeton is in any unique position, since it’s not even in the top ten libraries by size in the country.) Though whatever means, individual or consortial, large research libraries have an obligation to collect everything they can. Consortial collection arrangements are tricky things, but ultimately they be necessary to avoid never having material that now seems ephemeral but may one day be important for scholarly research, if it’s available.

The phrase noblesse oblige seems elitist (and we know how some people bristle at any thing that seems “elite”), but in some respects it’s the only appropriate phrase. The largest and richest libraries should have a sense of noblesse oblige, a sense that ultimately they have a greater obligation to collect the human record. For a lot of people, including a lot of librarians, this mission doesn’t seem very important compared to other goals, but for historical and scholarly purposes it’s crucial. This ignores issues of digital divides, of rich and poor, of access to even minimal information, but it’s just as, if not more important for the future of human knowledge and understanding.

WorldCat Selection

To give you an idea of how exciting my job often is, I’ll tell you about the professional highlight of my week. Today I trained on the new WorldCat Selection service, and I’m all set up to use it.

Many of you might already know about WorldCat Selection. It’s an online collection development tool that brings records from multiple vendors into a single interface and allows selection and ordering all in one place. This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s sure going to save me a lot of time and make it easier for me to spend more money. That last part might be tough on my budget, though.

I’ve been waiting for this for about two years, ever since I’d heard we were talking to Cornell about using their Integrated Tool for Selection and Ordering (ITSO) system. Cornell teamed up with OCLC, and we’re all the beneficiaries.

I like it, especially because I hate the traditional model. Mountains of paper slips come in. I select a bunch of them. Handwrite my initials and a fund code. Send the smaller mountain of slips to acquisitions, where they they pile up on the desk of some poor acquisition staff person who probably feels completely overwhelmed having to manually enter all the info. It’s no wonder traditional acquisitions could be so slow and inefficient. I’ve been fighting against this model since I started working here, trying to do as much electronically as I could.

I buy English, German, French, and Italian books in philosophy and religion, and we have approval profiles set up with Blackwells for Anglo-American, Harrassowitz for German, Touzot for French, and Casalini for Italian. Blackwells’ Collection Manager is a decent ordering system, and since I’ve been struggling for years to get rid of the mountain of paper slips that pile up in my mailbox I started using it as soon as I could. Harrassowitz started delivering slips by email, which is better than paper, but you still have to copy and paste to order. I abandoned French slips and I’ve been periodically searching the Touzot database by certain parameters to generate my own electronic slips and avoid paper. There was nothing I could do about Casalini. My system’s hardly been ideal, but my choice was between that and a couple thousand paper slips coming to me each month. I’ve never understood the selectors who’d rather have the mountain of paper.

But no longer. Harrassowitz, Touzot, and Casalini are already in WorldCat Selection, and I’ve been told to expect Blackwells within a month or so. I can go in, see all the records from all three (soon four) vendors, select the ones I want to order and delete the rest, all with a few clicks. Right now there aren’t many vendors involved, but I assume the number will grow.

The interface is a little clunky, but our test group says OCLC has been very responsive to suggestions for improvements and it’s getting better quickly. For example, you can’t manage your approval profiles, as you can with Collection Manager. It would be great if OCLC could work with the vendors to include that in the interface. Also, the sorting right now is based on the Dewey numbers from the vendor records, which isn’t as useful for me as LC would be. You can set up a lot of exclusions (e.g., of keywords or languages), but it would be nice to be able to add keywords to the profile. For example, I would like to see everything with “philosophy” in the subject heading. It would also be nice to get separate email notices when new records have been loaded, which is something I like about Collection Manager. It’s a good reminder for me. There are other suggestions for improvement I could probably offer. Still, I think it’s going to be a useful tool, and I expect it to improve. It’s one small step towards Collection Development 2.0. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.)

My Harrassowitz, Touzot, and Casalini slips for this week have been loaded. The only problem is that I now have 400 records to look through.

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.