The Book Traces project at the University of Virginia aims to demonstrate the historical and informational value of individual copies of library books containing (as many of them do) unique archival information. It is hard to make decisions about which books “require careful, full engagement” and which are too “common” to do so. It will take the collaborative work of librarians, book historians, and field specialists to develop best practices. We have not yet found a lot of good ways to make those conversations happen.
Department of English, University of Virginia
To discount the “powerful emotional attachment” to libraries as mere nostalgia is a willful misunderstanding of what has gone wrong at academic libraries. It is telling that book circulation in academic libraries “runs contrary to the experience of public libraries and bookstores, where print continues to thrive.” Of all people, why would scholars and students abandon books?
First, historical statistics from the Association of College & Research Libraries are flawed because they never distinguished circulation of bound periodicals from books. The initial big drop in circulation/reshelf numbers was almost entirely due to periodicals going online. This led librarians to a flawed assumption that soon all reading would be digital, and led to a fad for preferentially buying ebooks. Yes, ebooks are easy to access online but, as the author himself points out, they are inferior for deep reading. If more new library books are ebooks, print books on the shelves will become more and more out of date; this will create a feedback loop that further depresses print circulation.
Finally, the idea that “no library can be completely universal” is perfectly true, but trying to be universal is part of the problem. Nearly all academic libraries outsource book selection to “approval plans,” so that every library buys essentially the same scholarly books regardless of faculty research specialties, curricula, or geographic location. Academic libraries are doing students a huge disservice when they simply reduce book collections without developing any plan to boost print circulation or to reconnect with a culture of literacy and reading. Instead of spending millions on generic collections, academic librarians ought to treat the college community more like a real community with specific issues and interests reflected in a curated collection of books. Libraries have emotional power specifically because the books a person has read become a reflection of their deep self. I will be surprised if the group work, data processing, or “new forms of digital scholarship” replacing the books ever turn out to have as much impact on the formation of identity.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Dan Cohen replies:
I am all in favor of finding ways to engage students with books and other printed materials, and appreciate Rebecca L. Lubas’s ideas here. Indeed, the first thing students at Northeastern University see when they walk into the library is an area of staff recommendations, arranged more like a bookstore than library stacks. We also host a popular series run by our archives and special-collections division called “Neighborhood Matters,” which explores important topics of local history and culture through presentations, documents, and film, and is open to the public. As appealing as these activities in the library might be, I am pessimistic, however, that they can stem the long decline in the use of college book collections that I identify in the piece, which has many factors beyond just positive encounters with the written word, as compelling as that often is.