The Librarian’s Love/Hate/Love Relationship with Books

The story that is buzzing around libraryland this week is the book weeding controversy at the Urbana Free Library in Urbana, Illinois. The gist of the story is over a weeding policy of Ebola-like aggressiveness that was implemented removing books (mainly non-fiction) that were older than ten years regardless of collection value, usage, wear and tear, and other normal considerations. Freedom of Information Act requests to the library have uncovered narratives that have gems like “our mission is no longer learning” (thanks to Liz Burns for pointing that one out) between declarations of hurt feelings and toes being trod upon. Last night, there was a contentious meeting during which more dirty laundry was produced as the library’s board, the staff, and the public made their discontent known.

In reading over the reports, my gut reaction is somewhere between poor planning, no staff buy-in, and poor implementation. The rush to get the books off the shelves before the RFID arrived was not a mystery appearance on anyone’s calendars. What exactly was happening in the weeks and months leading up to this event? The reaction from the staff tells me that the vision of the weeding project wasn’t communicated very well (if at all) so people could understand why they were being so severe. The reports place them somewhere between sad and confused as they carry out the directions. It turned the situation into what could generously be called a hamfisted directive that put temporary workers in the middle, the staff feeling left out of the weeding process, and the director looking more like a out-of-touch dictator. It’s a series of breakdowns leading to a noisy crash, the kind that draws out onlookers from all around the library world.

What has been sticking in my mind over the last couple of days is the combination of events along with the librarian reaction to them. In the center of this storm is books, the basic building block of library collections since, well, libraries first started. To me, this is just another chapter in the love/hate/love relationship that librarians have with books.

Allow me to elaborate.

Without a doubt, librarians love books. The profession hands out fancy, well known awards to them on a yearly basis (although we seem to surrender adult fiction to the Pulitzer people for some reason). In taking a cursory look at the ALA Annual 2013 Exhibitor Hall map, some of the largest booths belong to publishers and vendors who provide book housing or display furniture. Our trade journals have large sections devoted to book reviews of all kinds and the typical library publication is loaded with ads for them. They are omnipresent as conference tote bag swag that people have to ship home in boxes.

But if someone asks a librarian if they got into the profession because they like books or read, they bristle. “We are more than just books”, goes the retort refrain. This mantra is an echoing chorus through the professional world in the form of makerspaces, digital media labs, collaborative spaces, and other non-book based pursuits. Beyond these trends that re-purpose library space, the majority of our catalog interfaces would not convey this love of books. They are stunted portals controlled by the outwardly unimportant aspects of collection recordkeeping, interfaces that do not reflect our love of literature discovery and accessibility. We scoff Amazon’s model of recommending other titles, but we still yearn for something that can capture our fantastic knowledge of reader’s advisory, read a-likes, and related reads. The overall trend in the Urbana Free Library situation was to make space for reading and studying areas at the cost of book shelf space. In these actions, the book is an anchor weighing down the future of the library.

However, if you take away the books, the quest for professional identity begins anew. “What is a library without books?” is the navel gazing question that runs in the editorials, blog posts, and social media feeds in the library world. We will fret over eBook rights, licenses, and lending issues without more than a care over streaming video or music (even though we offer all three types of media). Librarians are still a strong presence at events like Book Expo America as opposed to the Consumer Electronic Show, even though people are more likely these days to bring in their personal devices to the library for help (and some libraries offering gadget petting zoos). There are still more profession awards for books than any other kind of material we circulate at the library. Without books, we seem to be set adrift, untethered from all of the other equally important principles of information access and intellectual freedom.

Personally, I don’t have anything against books. I understand their role for people who embrace that learning style. I know what kind of joy that books and reading can bring someone, whether they are two or ninety two. What bothers me is that I can’t figure out whether we as a profession are running towards or away from them. And, in either case, why we would be doing so. It’s not that we have to choose between books and everything else, but how our connection with them relates to the rest of our mission. Right now, I am wondering about that connection because our words and actions seem to be publicly acting out a cognitive dissonance.

What exactly are we doing here?

First Sale Doctrine as an Endangered Species

While the news that the Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari for the case Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. goes back to April, it was only last week that Publishers Weekly reported that the Library Copyright Alliance had filed an amicus brief for the case. If you hadn’t heard of this case before, now is the time to learn about it and follow it closely. To say that the stakes in this case are high is an extreme understatement as it could impact hundreds of millions of items in library collections around the United States.

The short version of the case is that Mr. Kirtsaeng purchased and imported textbooks from his native Thailand that were content identical but made with inferior colors and printing stock (in other words, cheaper versions of the same textbook printed in the United States). He then sold these textbooks on sites like eBay and pocketed the profits. John Wiley & Sons got wind of this and filed a suit to stop him doing so under various copyright based legal assertions. Mr. Kirtsaeng argued that his sales were covered under the First Sale Doctrine; since he purchased the book, he had the right to re-sell it. The district court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and held that the language of the First Sale Doctrine did not apply to foreign created works; as such, Mr. Kirtsaeng did not have the right to resell the book. In reaching the Supreme Court, the question before the Justices is this:

The question presented is how these provisions apply to a copy that was made and legally acquired abroad and then imported into the United States. Can such a foreign-made product never be resold within the United States without the copyright owner’s permission, as the Second Circuit held in this case? Can such a foreign-made product sometimes be resold within the United States without permission, but only after the owner approves an earlier sale in this country, as the Ninth Circuit held in Costco? Or can such a product always be resold without permission within the United States, so long as the copyright owner authorized the first sale abroad, as the Third Circuit has indicated?

Scary stuff indeed.

As libraries rely on the First Sale Doctrine to lend materials, this could mean that all foreign produced works (including those legally created by United States copyright holders and then imported) would not legally lendable. This would surpass the clusterfuck that was the wording and implementation of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act that made libraries quarantine their children’s collections because of lead content concerns. This is much bigger and far more reaching as it hits every kind of library in the United States. Every collection would need to be scrutinized to determine if the materials were of foreign manufacturing origin; the results could be catastrophic if not completely fatal to the lending ability of libraries.

There is light at the end of the tunnel here, but whether it is the outside sky or a train coming through has yet to be seen. The oral arguments will outline which Justices have which concerns and which way they might be leaning, but that is several months away. It will be interesting to hear how the arguments are framed and presented.

In imagining the worst, I’m wondering whether lending would continue as an act of civil disobedience (as suing libraries isn’t the best PR move ever), insist only on books printed in the United States (leaving distributors in the lurch in dealing with publishers), and/or taking the money we would have spent on the collection and investing it in other things like collaborative spaces, comfy accommodations, or updating and upgrading our technology portfolios. In any event, it’s certainly something to watch and follow closely.

If your library couldn’t lend out foreign works, how would that effect you?

Books in 2025 over at LibraryThing

From the Library Thing blog, Thingology:

The group aims to centralize and restart a site-wide conversation about the future of books and reading. It’s a conversation that’s been going on for years here and there on Talk, especially Book talk and the librarians group, in comments to my Thingology posts about ebooks and my Twitter stream. It needs it’s own group. It will also be refreshing to hear more from LibraryThing members–not technologists or industry people. After all, who better to discuss the future of books than the people who love them most?

Be sure to check out the Books in 2025 group since there are some discussions already going on (the current largest discussion is whether the disappearance of the physical book stores matter). I admire the concept of an ‘everybody in’ huddle where book lovers of all stripes are being called together. If you’re a librarian, this is good marketing research as to what people are looking for or expecting out of books. This wouldn’t be a bad time to ask your own questions about the future of the book, either. (Don’t marry it with the future of libraries!)

Library Beyond Print

Photo by ~ Phil Moore/Flickr At the end of last week, there was an article in the Boston Globe talking about a prep school discarding all of their books and converting the library into an information center, complete with Kindles & Sony E-readers, plasma televisions streaming internet video, and coffee bar. Most notably in the article, the headmaster sees books as “an outdated technology, like scrolls before books”. The reaction on Twitter (where the article was linked to me) was mostly sadness and outrage at the decision. (Here’s a quick search regarding it.) I can’t say that my gut reaction wasn’t along those lines; but the more I think about it, the more such a decision makes sense to me.

From the collection development point of view, a non-fiction collection represents a static snapshot of the world as it understood at that moment. In general, from the moment a non-fiction book is printed, the information within starts becoming obsolete. On a long enough time line, this book will be replaced by a new one that reflects the new research, new understandings, and/or new information that has been uncovered on a subject. I will concede that some subjects are going to remain unchanged barring a revolutionary breakthrough. However, when it comes to non-fiction of dynamic subjects such as modern events, science, economics, computers, art, and sports, static print will inevitably be outdated on a regular basis. Within my own library system, parts of our print reference collection are being replaced by virtual reference library. The contemporary nature of subscription services and reference materials on a host of subjects (such as the ones I have named) make a virtual reference collection preferable to a print collection so as to reflect the most up to date information and make it universally available across all of our branches.

In terms of examining a fiction collection from a collection development point of view, the move by the prep school confuses me. Fiction literature, unlike its non-fiction counterpart, does not carry the burden of being dynamic and up to date. Why not keep print copies of the great classics, for they will always be the same? Keeping a print copy on hand couldn’t be that bad, could it? But I think the issue is beyond a collection one; this passage from the article was very telling to me:

School officials said when they checked library records one day last spring only 48 books had been checked out, and 30 of those were children’s books.

In my mind, it turns the issue into a circulation one. As I work on weeding our non-fiction collection at my branch, I’m looking at numbers as a factor as to whether or not I remove a book from the collection. (Don’t worry, it’s not the only factor.) But within your own library, if you have a book that doesn’t circulate, isn’t that the first step towards weeding it from the collection? In this drastic case, all of the books got weeded as one for anemic circulation numbers.

(Aside: In talking about this with The Unquiet Librarian, we are both left with the question: Where is the school librarian in all of this? I would presume under a gag order from the school, but there is no mention of a library staff member from the headmaster or the article. I would be curious what part this person has in the conversion process, if any.)

I think this type of move by a school is intriguing enough to see how it goes; an experiment, if you will. But I think the real question that librarians and library professionals should be asking themselves is this: are we married to a medium or a message? If we fight to preserve books for the sake of books, are we adding argument to our own irrelevancy? Nowhere in the article is it stated that reading is being discouraged; in fact, there is a distinct impression by one of the commenters that using online or e-readers is a second class citizen of reading. (William Powell: ““There are modes of learning and thinking that at the moment are only available from actual books,’’ he said. “There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that’s almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author’s ideas.’’) To this point, I cannot agree. It is the words that matter, not the medium on which they are found. An idea does not morph or mutate when it moves from print to screen; only the form of the messenger that relays them.

It is my belief that one of my purposes as a librarian is connect a patron to the literature or information of what they desire regardless of the medium. If a patron wants something in a non-print format (audio, e-book, or video), then I should do my best to get it to them in their preferred format. To outright defend the removal of the print medium regardless of the underlying facts and circumstances is a rehearsal of one’s own prejudices against words found in forms other than print. Librarians are for intellectual freedom with no stipulation as to how the mental investigative process runs; in that capacity, we should look to champion such an ideal in all possible mediums, regardless of our personal preferences.

The strength of the future library collection is not in the total numbers of titles owned, but the number of different formats materials in the collection come in. The book will never die, but the printed page that it is most commonly found in may fade into the background as the paperless book revolution marches forward. This is an exciting time as the barriers to information access crumble away with each technological innovation cycle. This is a time to innovate our services and materials to match this future need.

Photo by antonio.tombolini/Flickr