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?

9 thoughts on “The Librarian’s Love/Hate/Love Relationship with Books

  1. I’m reminded of a long-ago instructor who pointed out that the railroad industry nearly destroyed themselves because they thought they were in the business of trains, when really they were in the business of moving people and goods. We are in the business of learning, relaxing, entertaining, communicating, sharing – and it doesn’t matter what medium we use to meet those ends

    • That’s a wonderful example. I think there is a similar distinction between books and reading; we use the former to facilitate the latter, not the other way around.

    • It does matter … otherwise you could be a coffee shop, a cafe, theater, etc. Your ‘long-ago instructor’ missed the lesson of the railroad industry: stick with your product and make it the best it can be. Indeed, railroads are enjoying a resurgence as an efficient and cost-effective way of moving mostly goods (and people in the cities). Libraries are about books. Let new technologies shake themselves out — who knows if e-books are here to stay or not. In the meantime, libraries should exploit their deep resource of valuable knowledge that resides in books … some that may be decades old and unavailable anywhere else. The last thing libraries need right now is the self-doubt and fear that seems to be percolating down from some of the more elite ‘marketing is everything’ type of administrative librarians — they are a real danger to the public and the profession.

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