On Mistakenly Shredding a Prized Collection

Brian Taylor

July 25, 2011

Shortly after I began my career as a librarian, the Web made its appearance to the general public. Even with the broad scope afforded me through my educational background, I didn'tbelieve the Web would amount to much. I could not imagine that this unimpressive resource would shake the very concept of the library as it had been known for hundreds of years.

The shaking hasn't stopped yet. College librarians are faced with the challenge of expanding digital media and study space while reducing print media. That reduction includes withdrawing books from the shelves, which, in effect, means selling, recycling, giving away, storing off-site (for those who can afford it), discarding, or shredding texts. Suddenly college librarians, among the world's greatest lovers of books, are viewed in certain corners as book destroyers.

If a library is a growing organism, then I've felt the growing pains keenly on our campus these last few months. In leading our library staff through an effort to remove certain books used only once in the past 25 years, if at all, I stand at the head of a series of events that inadvertently sent part of a reprint collection, written in classical Chinese, to the recycling center.

The volumes were not being used, but they should have been offered to another library or to the professor responsible for bringing them to our library, in the early 1990s. The collection's monetary value cannot be easily determined, but the most regrettable part of the error is the dismay of the professor who obtained the books.

In the wake of that mistake, I have watched a variety of emotional reactions ripple through our community, and I have realized that those reactions are based on what each person believes a college library should be. Our president has called for a review and revision of the "deaccessioning protocol," and a temporary halt to reducing our print holdings. The hiatus comes at a time when we are exploring the expansion of our library building into a unified space that would foster collaborative learning by creating more room for student gatherings, including a centralized dining facility. Based on the Alexandrian ideal of the library commons (the Mouseion) and following new data on student learning trends, the concept means that our library would be part of a Center for Student Life.

It is a college-altering moment, and during such moments it's good to take stock of the basics. Most librarians know Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science, published in 1931 by S.R. Ranganathan, an Indian mathematician, philosopher, and librarian. They are still influential, though librarians have modified his language to accommodate new media and contemporary usage. And so I consider Ranganathan's laws here, and how they might apply to the fluctuating state of college libraries.

"The library is a growing organism." That is Ranganathan's fifth law, and the one most widely accepted without modifying or updating. The law does not mean simply that library collections, staff members, and budgets will grow, but that libraries will change in reaction to the needs of users.

Libraries always have. Undergraduate libraries especially have been transformed into teaching-centered places. Evan Farber, director of the Earlham College library from 1962 to 1994, promoted the concept of undergraduate libraries based on a teaching mission. Today, the library's role in teaching information literacy (or "information fluency" or "research skills") is now so commonly held that it is taken for granted.

However, Farber's corresponding idea—that librarians should move away from "the university-library syndrome," a collection-centered, "bigger-is-better" view of the college library—was largely overlooked. Why?

Certainly there was more than one reason, but the most powerful was academe's relationship with books. Gutenberg's world-changing technology has become a potential obstacle to the college library as a growing organism. Most academic libraries pride themselves on having built large collections of books and periodicals. Accrediting bodies and professional organizations still emphasize volume counts. It's a little-known fact that 25 to 40 percent of those volumes go unused for 25, 50, even 75 years.

Retaining books with little or no use is appropriate for university and research libraries. Their mission is to preserve the record of human knowledge and to support doctoral and postdoctoral research. But as Farber implied, a college library that exists to support an undergraduate curriculum should contain primarily books that are accessible to the students and that receive a reasonable level of use. Instead, today's college libraries are struggling with huge, underused collections that crowd out students, whose need for both quiet and group-study spaces increases every year.

"Save the time of the reader." In Ranganathan's fourth law, the interpretation of "the reader" is expanded today to mean the user or the patron. The idea is that time spent in the library should be honored with the best, most comprehensive, and most efficient service possible.

In an undergraduate library, the goal is to create a seamless, barrier-free support system for student learning and research. For undergraduates, learning to conduct research might be compared to learning to drive. A good driver does not need to understand all the workings of an engine. Likewise, research does not always need to be a highly complex effort that only professors and librarians enjoy. Providing a helpful environment and creating systems that are user-friendly is something libraries have been accustomed to doing for years.

"Every book its reader." Just as "reader" has broadened to "user," "book," in Ranganathan's third law, should be recognized now as including any form of media that users will find among a library's resources. Ranganathan advised that all items among a library's resources should be useful and accessible to at least one of the library's users.

In addition, resources should be used at a level that justifies the space they occupy. Contrary to widespread predictions of deserted libraries after the electronic revolution, most college and university libraries are experiencing more use than ever before. As print subscriptions have been replaced by robust electronic versions, our college library cleared part of our first floor for silent study. The usage rate has increased 30 percent since the early 1990s, when we began to shift our focus from print resources to space, materials, and instruction to promote student learning.

"Every reader his or her book." In Ranganathan's second law, every member of society is entitled to use of the library. He also said librarians have an obligation to meet the needs of their particular audiences.

At a college library like Augustana's, the primary user is an undergraduate. When our new library was opened, in 1990, we designated it "the living room of the campus," foreseeing that students would use it as a comfortable space where they could hang out and think freely; find easy access to periodicals, books, and computers; find reliable librarians to teach good methods for using those resources; and drift over to the library's coffee shop when they wanted food, drink, and conversation.

Now we are considering whether that living room should expand to become a study and a living room, with a dining room attached.

"Books are for use." Except for a library's rare books and manuscripts, Ranganathan's first law says that books and other resources should be readily available for actual use, and not just viewed as symbols or artifacts. Most books published after 1850 are not scarce. Library books have been crowding out users since the publishing explosion of the mid-20th century.

When libraries began, manuscripts were rarely touched by more than the privileged few. Books were chained to the shelves. Even as recently as 1951, Augustana sophomores did not have access to our library stacks; only juniors and seniors could select and retrieve books there. Efficient interlibrary loans and the robust resource-sharing of library consortia are relatively recent phenomena.

But it is difficult to move on from the idea that a book is valuable simply by virtue of being a book.

It is no longer appropriate to treat most print resources as protected objects, or the college library as a museum for books. Buildings simply are too small to shelve every book acquired in the past in addition to new publications. Excellent colleges have library collections so large and crowded that they are daunting to the students. In addition, the books occupy hundreds of square feet of valuable space. Most colleges do not, and will not, have sufficient budgets to expand storage facilities or build ever-larger libraries.

And even if we had the money, would larger collections and buildings be appropriate? The issue goes beyond available space. The purpose of the undergraduate library is to educate students and promote their success. We must challenge ourselves to ask what is best for our students' success.

Even as libraries adjust to change, they face a sixth truism that was not on Ranganathan's list: What's old is new again. For those of us who love books and stacks, it is hard to believe that they are no longer scarce but are, indeed, almost too plentiful. It may be equally difficult to believe that a student would use a library to alternate between electronic and print resources, and to move from quiet study to group instruction to dinner—and back again—all within an afternoon. On the other hand, new studies of student learning support the ideals that were at the foundation of the ancient Alexandrian Mouseion, the concept of the Athenaeum, and the 19th-century student unions of Oxford and Cambridge. In all of those places, reading, study, discussions, lectures, recreation, and dining were shared in one place.

An exception to today's plentiful and widely duplicated print resources is the cache of special collections that many college libraries protect, and that the best teaching libraries use to benefit student learning. Augustana has an exceptionally strong collection of rare books and manuscripts, used often as a teaching resource. Special collections may become the defining aspects of college libraries, especially as other library resources are delivered electronically and are increasingly the same from one library to the next.

And yet there always will be the question of which books should be considered valuable enough to keep at hand, in print. How will a college select books to form the best teaching collection for its students? How will it keep that collection at a manageable and inviting size?

And what will be the iconic symbol of the academic experience for college students of the future?

Carla Tracy is director of the library at Augustana College in Illinois.