Digitizing Our Treasures

library-488692_640Many in the library world will by now have read The Aspen Institute’s Report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries, and if you haven’t, you should.  It is thoughtfully prepared and presented, and it makes an important point about the key role that the public library is geared up to play in the new world of technology and community. I completely support the idea that public libraries have to be putting their attention on preparing for the future. I don’t agree with the line in it about public libraries in the past being an amenity instead of a necessity–that’s never been true–but overall I think it makes many meaningful and useful points.

For me personally, it’s funny that it came along right as I have again been getting concerned about losing our past. Friends of mine who work for a prestigious university told a chilling story at dinner about going to the reference room of their prestigious university library and finding it empty except for some cheap furniture. The reference books, it seems, have been moved into random locations where they cannot be easily accessed, and the collection as a whole has been broken up.

Nobody in the public library world would find it surprising that a reference collection is being downsized. That’s what’s currently happening, as answers to questions are increasingly available online. But in the academic world, where sources must be meticulously cited so the next scholar can come along and use those same sources…those libraries are getting rid of their books, too?  What is the point to a footnote that leads to a book that no longer exists? Do we as a society no longer value scholarship at all? It is the nature of architects to find books things that interfere with the good use of space, but should the librarians be acting like we agree?

So that’s disturbing. Then I participated in a group where the leader took a creation story written by Virginia Hamilton and turned it into readers’ theater.  And I went back to my library, and of course we no longer own that book, though I know we once did. There are still 16 copies in our library consortium, though, so no need to panic, right? Right, except that in the great weeding frenzy that is taking place in libraries these days, I can’t find anyone out there who is making sure that we aren’t losing our last copies of things.

I have said before that I believe our patrons/taxpayers think that we are the curators of our collections. Someone recently expressed surprise that while museum staff think of libraries and museums being interconnected, librarians do not, and I think that is true. And it’s partly because we don’t want to be held responsible for our collections in the way that a museum feels responsible. “My library is not an archival library,” we say. “These things are available online,” we say. “If people were interested, they would have checked them out sometime in the last ten/five/three/two years,” we say.

As a children’s literature fan, I am particularly concerned about those books, and the fact that no one is taking responsibility for making sure they don’t disappear altogether. We can feel somewhat assured that a good percentage of adult materials are being digitized. Who is digitizing the children’s material? Who is making sure that Virginia Hamilton’s glorious collection of creation stories from ancient cultures–the stories that tell us about how the people who lived thousands of years ago thought and felt and how they connect with each other–who is preserving those?

It’s not a rhetorical question. I want there to be an answer to it. We are not just weeding our books from the 70s/80s with cheesy covers. We aren’t just weeding our old series paperbacks with yellow pages. We are beginning to take bites out of our collections that represent some of the best writing and scholarship that we have. It’s a little like in Ally Condie’s Matched–will only the 100 designated poems remain in the end? We’re not there yet, but we’re not fighting hard enough, either.

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