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Using your Librarians

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon discovers the wonder of librarians.

Last week I wrote about some of the frustrations I have with libraries and the burgeoning practice of moving items to offsite storage, and I am afraid that what I wrote may have unintentionally come across as a condemnation of librarians and/or library science. After speaking with some librarians about the subject it seems rather clear that they regard offsite storage, at best, as a necessary evil. And although my evidence is purely anecdotal, I also had an impression that there is some disagreement between library staffers and library administrators as to answer the question of what should be moved offsite when there simply isn’t enough room at the library.

The question of what to send offsite is not one that has an easy answer. I asked at several libraries what the policy was for deciding which items stay and which go offsite and found that there wasn’t a great deal of consistency among them; different facilities base their decisions on different criteria. One thing was fairly consistent, and that was that every one said that the frequency with which an item was used played a large part in the decision.

On the face of it this would seem to be a logical thing – it is far more practical to keep a book that is used frequently than to keep a book that is used once every decade or two. And some libraries, particularly those of academic institutions, have a responsibility to their users to keep more germane materials at hand. But do all libraries have to be practical?

Aside of the fact that by moving obscure items offsite and rendering them unbrowsable you are condemning them to a further self-perpetuating cycle of obscurity, I have another problem with this practice – if all our libraries focus on primarily keeping books that are used frequently there is a risk of homogenization. It may well be impractical, but I am of the opinion that the potential of serendipitous discovery of some delightful and strange old book should play as large a part in deciding what to keep as frequency of usage.

I have a feeling that I am crankier about this than the average person, most likely because I’ve spent the past few months looking for books and periodicals in libraries which have all been sent offsite. And so I’ve spent far more time this year talking with librarians than I have in previous years. This has led to a startling discovery, which is that I know very little about both libraries and librarians.

I’ve long thought of myself as pretty library-savvy, and certainly not the kind of person who needs to spend a good deal of time pestering the librarians with questions. I can remember the flush of satisfaction I felt when I first came across worldcat.org, and thought that I could now effortlessly find any book in any library in the world. It turns out that I was in a fairly advanced state of ignorance, one in which I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

For instance, worldcat does not have a complete list of all the books in all libraries. It is a magnificent resource, I use it all the time, and it has attained the status of being one of those few things in my life that I feel are indispensable. But it is not complete. My understanding is that libraries have to pay a fee to have all their holdings listed in worldcat, and some smaller or underfunded libraries are either unable or unwilling to do this. Does this mean that their holdings cannot be found? Not at all – they can be found in another catalogue, called the OCLC, but you need a librarian for that.

I receive a great deal of joy from discovering my ignorance, provided that it is concurrent with discovering someone who has the means of enlightening me. And so recently I’ve had a wonderful time finding out how much I don’t know about libraries, courtesy of a number of reference desk librarians. I’m simultaneously delighted to have been made aware of how knowledgeable and helpful these people are and terribly dispirited that I’ve already spent so much time in libraries without availing myself of their help.

Perhaps most of you who read this already know all about the esoteric abilities of the reference librarians, in which case you can scoff at boors like me, whose typical scope of questions ranges from “where are the restrooms?” to “how late are you open?”. But I’m willing to bet that most library patrons are not-so-blissfully unaware of how limited their library experience has been. In the past few months I’ve been given passes to private libraries to which I don’t belong, had books found that I thought no longer existed, had things looked up for me hundreds of miles away, gotten tutorials in how to research far more efficiently, and received answers to dozens of questions that I didn’t even know I had yet.

It reminds me of when I finally realized that the dictionary is so much more than just a book of definitions – reference desk librarians are the etymologists, the orthoepists, and the collectors of citations of the library.

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5 Responses to “Using your Librarians”
  1. offsite storage is necessary because books take up space and libraries continue to buy new books: where can we store it all? book browsing is changing; people can find more online. google will digitize *every book* it can find. so people will find more online and can then request the book from wherever it might be hiding. but the problem is that the kind of person who searches for books online isn’t the sort who waits three weeks to get that book. I’m glad you understand the role librarians play. Because we have all the books, and if you want to see them, you’d better be nice to us. And bring us cookies.

  2. Books are cultural objects. They are not just information. You might say that the content is what matters. There is more to an older book than what is between the pages.

    The binding, the paper, the typeface, the design, even the illustrations are considerably different between old and new books.

    A book is a device just like a computer is a device. How that device is put together and presented is just as important in some ways as the content.

    A book that is well designed with quality paper, fine bindings, quality art prints, and exceptional design is as important to keep as an electronic copy. Sometimes it is more important to keep. An art book on Monet or Van Gogh is more than just a series of images.

    Cheap paperbacks and old hardcovers that are falling apart are not that impressive. I can see them being replaced easily with the kindle or electronic books.

    The problem is that many people don’t recognize fine books as more than just information.

  3. [...] of appreciating librarians and archivists, check out this article on“Using your Librarians”. So reference librarians rejoice! There is at least one human out there who appreciates what you do [...]

  4. Cybrarian says:

    “The OCLC” is not just for librarians. Many libraries provide access to the full WorldCat database, not the watered down subset found in worldcat.org.

  5. [...] Even in a small town, there’s no lack of places to go sit down, drink coffee, and use a laptop. Maybe that’s why I’m always so sad every time I hear that an academic library is thinking of going “gigantic computer lab with a coffee shop.” Campuses already dedicate a lot of space and money to computer labs. The library is the only place with these crazy low-tech things called books and archives. I realize that libraries need computers, but it’s really just a question of space–inside the building and inside the budget–that has to be balanced against the specific mission of the library itself. If you devote all that space to study rooms and computer infrastructure, you run into a lot of problems. [...]

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