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?

Fifty Shades of Unsurprised

I was waiting for it to happen ever since it entered the pop culture mainstream and so it has finally come to pass:

Florida Library Removes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ Erotic Trilogy, From Shelves

The Brevard County Public Library system in east central Florida has pulled copies of the books from its shelves after officials decided they were not suitable for public circulation.

“We view this as pornographic material,” Don Walker, a spokesman for the Brevard County government, said in an interview on Friday. “I have not read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ but I’ve read reviews of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ From what I understand, it’s a lot about male dominance and female submissiveness.”

Brevard public libraries ban bestselling book over sexually explicit content

The Brevard County Library director decided to take it off the shelves of the county’s 19 library branches.

They originally had bought 17 copies of the trilogy.

But after ready reviews, they decided the book didn’t belong in their collection.

“Well the criteria is we don’t put pornography on our bookshelves and that’s in general right now what the tone of this book is,” said Brevard Co. Government Communications Director Don Walker. “I mean if you read any of the reviews, they’re saying that it’s a book that’s based largely on male dominance, female submissiveness, soft porn. I’ve heard it described as mommy porn.”

Fond du Lac Public Library says ‘no’ to controversial bestseller

The best-selling book “Fifty Shades of Grey” will not be found on the shelves at Fond du Lac Public Library.

Library Director Ken Hall said there were no plans to purchase the controversial book, which delves into romance and sadomasochism.

“‘We don’t collect erotica’,” Hall said he was told by the person who orders books for the library — and he supports the decision.

Fond du Lac Library Declines to Buy Controversial Bestseller

Public Library officials are explaining their decision not to purchase a popular, yet controversial, romance novel. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is a New York Times best selling book and will soon become a major motion picture.

The novel also contains a lot of sex. One book reviewer even dubbed it “mommy porn.”

“We have to take a look at the work as a whole,” FDL Public Library Director Ken Hall said. “What is in the book other than salacious material? So far, we haven’t found anything in it(other than salacious material).”

Based on anecdotes I’ve heard from librarians over the last couple of years, this whole situation sounds like a replay of the Madonna “Sex” book controversy from the 1990’s. Some libraries won’t order it, some will find the book being challenged (both successfully and unsuccessfully), some libraries circulate it and then realize what they’ve done and pull it (opening themselves up to another kind of controversy), and the rest libraries will just treat it like any other material. Over the next year or so, there will be a steady output of librarian based intellectual freedom naval gazing in which the objective and theoretical principles of collection development will square off against the on-the-ground reality of local collection policies and community needs. The tension between the two viewpoints will rise but not resolve itself.

Lather, rinse, and repeat as each successive book comes out in this trilogy. We’re in for a couple of iterations of this issue.

Personally, this sort of controversy brings up the question, “How is this book different than anything else in your average romance section?” Apparently, based on quote above from FDL Director Ken Hall, the difference between Fifty Shades and those other romance books is that the latter actually have something called a plot.  So long as Jane is trying to find her place in publishing world or Bob is trying to overcome the death of his wife, they can get all the nookie they want. But if I was to cut out all of the plot elements and just palce the erotic scenes run back to back, it would be potentially unacceptable for inclusion. I’m glad to know there is such a fine distinction between romance and smut.

In any case, I feel that Banned Books week should be paired with “National Update Your Collection and Challenge Material Policies Because You Probably Need To (No, Seriously, Do It)” week. While Fond du Lac can point to a policy in place, Brevard just looks incompetent by adding the book to the collection and then unilaterally removing it based on reviews (the same reviews available to anyone with an internet connection). I have a feeling that there is more to the Brevard decision since the quotes from officials down there don’t pass the smell test for me, but that’s something for time to tell.

My prediction is that, in ten years time, this will be another fabulous footnote in some library science textbook on intellectual freedom. What do you think?

UPDATE: The lovely and awesome people of Twitter have pointed out a post on Heroes and Heartbreakers linking to a search of the Brevard County Libraries catalog showing books that are erotically on par or even more explicit than Fifty Shades of Grey. In responding to my post on Twitter,  Robin Bradford and glossaria note that library carries authors such as Zane (specifically The Sisters of APF: “the indoctrination of soro ride dick”), Lora Leigh (“known (specifically) for her hot anal sex scenes”), Anne Rice/Roqualaure (Sleeping Beauty trilogy), Anais Nin (including Delta of Venus), and Joey Hill. This does beg the question as to whether this removal is more about this particular book than erotic literature collection in general.

(h/t to Robin and glossaria for sharing their expertise!)

UPDATE: Sarah Mae Harper shared a link to this story on the Brevard Library System book removal. Pull quote:

While the naughty novel doesn’t check out with local library officials, a quick look at the Brevard system’s online catalogue reveals a solid stash of some of the most erotic and enduring literature.

Copies of “The Complete Kama Sutra” are available through the Cocoa Beach, Mims/Scottsmoor, Palm Bay and Titusville branches. Also up for grabs countywide: “Fanny Hill,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Fear of Flying,” “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lolita.”

So what makes “Fifty Shades of Grey” different?

“I think because those other books were written years ago and became classics because of the quality of the writing,” Schweinsberg said. “This is not a classic.”

(Thanks Sarah!)

For All the Content in the World…

From the Monkey See blog at NPR:

You used to have a limited number of reasonably practical choices presented to you, based on what bookstores carried, what your local newspaper reviewed, or what you heard on the radio, or what was taught in college by a particular English department. There was a huge amount of selection that took place above the consumer level. (And here, I don’t mean "consumer" in the crass sense of consumerism, but in the sense of one who devours, as you do a book or a film you love.)

Now, everything gets dropped into our laps, and there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.

It’s an excellent read and a reminder of the increasing stream of content that is generated and available on the market. With the barriers to content creation (and more importantly distribution) falling, there is less interaction with a middle man to complete a transaction. That, in essence, the content stream will only get bigger as time goes on.

I think the post also invokes the notion that, as a library, not only can we not purchase every piece of content that comes out (nor be able to store it if we could) but it places an importance on collecting that which matters to our patron communities. For all the books, music, newspapers, journals, magazines, and sheer data that is created on a daily basis, it’s up to librarians to make the most sense of it for their patrons. That is something that will matter more as time goes by.

(h/t: Daily Dish)

CD stands for ‘Collection Dinosaur’

From Business Insider:

The chart is entitled “The Death of the Music Industry” but has nothing more to offer to justify that explanation in the original post. Rather than speculate on that and in looking at it from the library perspective, all I can see is a shifting of collection budgets from CDs to digital content. And in going towards digital music content, that brings up a whole new ballgame regarding vendors, what they offer, how they offer it, and the rights and licenses that would be involved with that. There will need to be robust platforms in order to provide support for an increasing scheme of digital music content.

Unfortunately, this graph needs about four more years worth of data to give a better picture on when the CD will be virtually obsolete and how much digital content will take over the market. But those CDs we own are going to be museum ready in the next ten years. I think it emphasizes the importance of having a website that can handle more digital content that will be coming down the pipeline.

Edit: Changed some wording in the last paragraph. Thanks Steve for pointing it out!

The Textbook is Dead, Long Live the Etextbook!

Picture by goXunuReviews/Flickr

Via Chronicle of Higher Education:

For years observers have predicted a coming wave of e-textbooks. But so far it just hasn’t happened. One explanation for the delay is that while music fans were eager to try a new, more portable form of entertainment, students tend to be more conservative when choosing required materials for their studies. For a real disruption in the textbook market, students may have to be forced to change.

That’s exactly what some companies and college leaders are now proposing. They’re saying that e-textbooks should be required reading and that colleges should be the ones charging for them. It is the best way to control skyrocketing costs and may actually save the textbook industry from digital piracy, they claim. Major players like the McGraw-Hill Companies, Pearson, and John Wiley & Sons are getting involved.

To understand what a radical shift that would be, think about the current textbook model. Every professor expects students to have ready access to required texts, but technically, purchasing them is optional. So over the years students have improvised a range of ways to dodge buying a new copy—picking up a used textbook, borrowing a copy from the library, sharing with a roommate, renting one, downloading an illegal version, or simply going without. Publishers collect a fee only when students buy new books, giving the companies a financial impetus to crank out updated editions whether the content needs refreshing or not.

It’s that last sentence that really grabbed me and was the underlying rationale for writing this post. To me, it totally screams “We need you to sustain our business models!” They can’t make students buy their textbooks, so they are going to roll them into a fee instead. I realize that it solves a legitimate problem (students who cannot afford textbooks) while thwarting a industry concern (pirated copies of textbooks), but I’m having a hard time weighing those aspects against a blanket fee that could not be avoided. I’m wondering if students would be allowed to keep their textbooks from semester to semester, since some can act as a resource for advanced topcis.

(For the efforts of full disclosure, I did borrow a textbook rather than buy it for a class one semester.)

The questions I have are whether college and university libraries would be given the option of adding either the electronic copy and/or the physical book to their collections. That idea may seem rather inane under this model, but I’m looking at it from the angle of historical progression; as in, how people’s thoughts and theories on subjects changed over time through different textbooks and editions. It’s the preservation of the logical progression of the thinking of a subject. I expect to be controverted on this point; I can see academic librarians reading this and saying to themselves, “We have enough old crap as it is, we certainly don’t need old textbooks as it is.” So, I’m sure someone will be happy to set me straight.

Moreover, I would be curious to hear reactions from academic librarians. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Or just a thing? How does it impact you?

Fear and Licensing in Las Library

In reading about the Netflix/library hubbub[1],  the issue in my mind is not how Netflix was used. I believe that the actions of these libraries and librarians are a symptom of a larger issue for the profession: the coping (or non-coping) with the expansion of licensed content as part of the collection.

This run-in with Netflix is just the tip of the iceberg that is slowly bearing down on the libraryland ship. We are moving from a collection model where we would purchase and lend materials to where we act as an access point for leased or licensed content. The relatively safe model protected under the first sale doctrine is being eroded and replaced with agreements where ownership rights stay with with the provider. In forgoing ownership, libraries must abide by a series of contractual rules and terms that have been created by an outside entity. As the number of vendors offering these kinds of business increases, librarians are obliged to enforce a variety of contractual clauses, terms, and conditions.

Libraries are surrendering content ownership at an alarming rate in exchange for convenience. In doing so, the library moves toward a future where the collection is no longer owned and maintained but leased and licensed by entities that operate in the best interest of their shareholders, not the patron community. It’s a future in which final determination of access is taken out of the hands of librarians and placed into that of outside third parties.

If this doesn’t bother you, it should.  

So what can be done? Just as business models regarding digital content are being shaped in the marketplace right now, the library has a role in what that model will look like. Libraries are no longer act as a receptacle at the end of the information production line; they are now active and involved in content creation. In addition, we retain a very important business model chip: money. As it becomes a rarer commodity due to budget cuts, it becomes a more valuable one in terms of buying power. 

So, this begs the question: why aren’t companies like Netflix, Amazon, Apple, or Sony working with libraries? (Redbox does; Starbucks does; I am eager to find other examples but I wanted to post this sooner.) I have a couple of answers in mind, but the one that strike me as being the best is this: companies don’t want to give up any level of control of their content. In creating terms for libraries to use their content, they would have to cede some level of control to us in order to make their product available to our patrons. With the current bevy of EULAs, TOSs, and other agreements that allow them to retain absolute ownership, there is no reason to make a any sort of accomodation or deal with libraries.

(Still not convinced? Check out the quote in the ReadWriteWeb article from Steve Swasey, Netflix’ vice president of corporate communications:

Netflix "frowns upon" this type of use, said Steve Swasey, Netflix’ vice president of corporate communications, but indicated no plans to enforce the rules. "We just don’t want to be pursuing libraries," he said. "We appreciate libraries and we value them, but we expect that they follow the terms of agreement."

“Appreciate” and “value” sound like the words used before that boy or girl you have a crush on in high school tells you that they just want to be friends. They won’t sue libraries for misusing their service, but they sure aren’t lining up to come up with something that is a better deal for both parties[2]. And that’s a problem that libraries need to address and quickly. Libraries risk losing out on the next generation of content management and the ability to write their own destinies when it comes to collection development. We need to renew our efforts to take control of our content as well as to work with businesses in creating new opportunities and ventures.

The clock is ticking.


[1] In roughly this order: Tame the Web, Chronicle of Higher Education, Information Wants to Be Free, Read Write Web, Fast Company, LibraryLaw Blog, with a good overview from

[2] Here’s an idea off the top of my head: Netflix creates a site license for libraries, up the number of DVDs that can be borrowed from Netflix by a library, and give Netflix a share of overdue fines collected from their DVDs. Libraries move less well known movies off of the shelves of Netflix, Netflix gets nearly free advertising as a service within libraries (“we don’t have it, but we’ll Netflix your request”), patrons get movies, libraries share overdue fees with Netflix, everyone wins. (Yes, I know I just railed against licensing and not owning content, but since Netflix is in the business of lending and not retailing, I think this better fits their current business model.)

The Library Reloaded: Collections

4249561113_7734cbbc8b[1] Tonight, we hosted my brother and sister-in-law for dinner. While I was cooking, I had asked them for their thoughts on what libraries shouldn’t lend. (The picture above is the PG version of the list created, recopied by me for better presentation.) I’d had asked them for their help because there has been a question gnawing on my mind since the weekend.

What is a collection?

In my opinion, the most common answer to this question is a very dull textbook one. It’s usually a list of mediums plus maybe a statement about how it is a reflection of the community that it serves. The better (and more accurate) answer is that everything falls on three lists: things we lend, things we don’t (or shouldn’t) lend, and things we could lend but we don’t. It’s this third group that I find to be the most interesting because I think it is something that people involved in collection development should consider more deeply. Allow me to illuminate with some examples of what I mean.

  1. The Princeton Public Library lends out watt meters. This small simple device measures the amount of energy being used by electrical devices plugged into it. From regular lamps to household appliances, a customer can learn and alter their energy consumption behaviors. This can lead to direct savings in the form of lower utility bills.
  2. The Sparta Public Library lends out flip video cameras. While checkouts of this device could be people just trying it out, this camera can be used to record family history, events, sports, and other stuff that the patron wants to record and keep.
  3. Some Vermont libraries are lending out items such as garden tools, snowshoes, and children’s games. To me, it speaks to the life enriching efforts of the library and a true focus on the “needs assessment” of the surrounding community. It also proves the merit of non-traditional collections as an added feature of those respective libraries.
  4. Colleges around the world loan out laptops to students. Rather than shackling their student populations to the computer labs, the institutions give them the flexibility to do their computer based work from anywhere. It encourages students to perform their work in the environment that is most conducive to their work habits. (Ok, it’s certainly not always work, but you get the point.)
  5. DOK Library in Holland lends out art. While it is not the first library to lend out art, it is one of the more well known libraries to do so right now.

Moreover, the inclusion of these types of materials in a collection represents a lateral thinking when it comes to the collection. If we lend books on gardening, why not lend gardening tools? If we lend movies, why not lend digital camcorders? If we lend art books, why not lend art itself? It’s this third list that really captures my imagination and makes me look at the mundane items around me and ask myself bemusedly, “Could my library lend that?”

And it begs further questions for some items not mentioned. If we lend a map, why not lend a car GPS? If we lend museum guides, why not lend museum passes? Astronomy books & telescopes, knitting needles with knitting books, puppets with children’s books, carpentry books & stud finder devices, and so forth.

To be fair, I have heard of libraries lending some of these items right now (I just couldn’t find the links!); the real question is why your library isn’t doing it.

The only major objection I can muster to this type of non-traditional lending is that these types of items fall outside the normal scope of the library’s mission. The library simply provides the initial information for activities which require additional equipment, gear, or materials; it is up to the customer to acquire the requisite parts to further their interests. From a budgetary position, a library would be hard pressed to make expenditures that do not add or update current collection mediums (especially when many libraries are facing budget gaps due to smaller local, state, and federal funding). In addition, there are the usual concerns about storage, care, and maintenance of these non-traditional items. 

My answer to this objection is that we already take further steps when it comes to materials that we already lend. We offer crafting classes while having crafting guides in the collection; computer classes while owning computer texts; and story times while having a plethora of children’s books. It is my belief that the library works to provide life enriching materials to the community. Traditionally, this has been books and magazines; but as the technology has revolutionized the information and entertainment formats, the lending of such non-traditional fare is a continuation of supporting life enriching activities.

I’m not indifferent to the budget struggles that libraries are facing in this past and current year; it would certainly rule out some of the higher priced items offered for consideration. I don’t believe it would rule out some of the less expensive examples (like the watt meter and the gardening equipment); I would hope that it would make the staff creative in their potential selections for inclusion. As to storage, care, and maintenance, I would concede that it faces that same assessment concerns that are given to all of our materials. It certainly makes no sense to add anything that cannot be properly cared for. These are all very pertinent and legitimate considerations for any library to undertake in adding these types of items to their collections.

In approaching the addition of non-traditional items to a collection, my inclination would be to focus on three types of objects: the uncommon but situationally useful (like the watt meter), the useful but high turnover types of items (like children’s toys), or the things that take the next logical step from something currently being lent (like a car GPS). In addition, I hope that my fellow professionals will take a moment and think about the question posed above: what is a collection? For myself, it is not a matter of objects or materials, but the lives of the people it enriches.