Sunday, January 6, 2008

But where do we keep the stuff?

Over at, the December 2007 Viewpoints column discusses library collections that may not currently be considered important but that may become so in the future. James Cortada, the author, seems to focus primarily on collections that would be important to th history of computers, understandable since that seems to be one of his major focal points.

I've read it several times n0w, and what I keep coming up with is not that he doesn't have a point - because he certainly does, and it is something that we should be concerned about. Instead, I feel like what he's saying is intended to make historians rush out to their university libraries and start monitoring the collections, just in case we weed anything, so that they can protest any weeding (deselection, whatever) that gets done.

He has another valid point in his fifth paragraph, when he says:

We have the well-documented ugly case of the mid-20th century when they hastily microfilmed millions of pages of newspapers, in some cases so poorly that one can barely read them, not completely photographing an issue, or all the multiple issues of a paper that appeared daily, and doing it in black and white and losing the rich colors, for example, of late 19th- and early 20th-century iconography. This act was followed by the physical destruction of well over 90 percent of all collections of paper-version newspapers in the United States

However, shouldn't the question also be asked: did we learn from those mistakes? It sounds to me as if he is saying that we blindly refused to learn from those mistakes.

In the years to come we can expect others to join the list, such as possibly early editions in the Idiot and Dummy series that were sold by the millions but which are also discarded by the millions. We all know that someday historians will need to consult such books to discuss the role of computing in 20th-century life. How many other classes of materials will be lost if already visible trends are allowed to continue?

Every one of these items takes up space on the shelf - space that is valuable in today's library, and with a value that's constantly increasing. Can I justify keeping a copy of UNIX programming for dummies when the same item wouldn't be an appropriate purchase for our library today - not because of the subject matter, but because the treatment of the subject is too general for our library, in my opinion (computer science not being a subject area on which I focus).

I do like that he presents some options to the historians to approach librarians & work in conjunction with the libraries. Unfortunately, I can almost hear the conversations that could rise from this with *some* historians (hey, I was a history major, and I still know people like this). It's a slightly different take on the "oh noes! the library threw books in the trash!" news reports that we sometimes see in various local news reports, but the idea that:

The AHA should also apply for grants to fund a major survey of private collections in North America to discover materials that are currently not in the control of librarians, but which can later be acquired once libraries recognize that a particular collection is worth preserving.

is a good idea - but where does he propose that we PUT this stuff? Maybe Cortado can make a donation to a university that's long had a strong computer science program - so they can use those funds to process and house these items. I can't justify keeping much of it where I work.

As an aside, I did submit this article to Uncontrolled Vocabulary for this week - it may or may not get discussed, but this is my response either way.


Greg Schwartz said...

Hey Laura,

Would you consider changing the settings for your Atom feed to display full-content rather than just headlines?


Laura said...

No problem, Greg. Done.

Greg Schwartz said...

Thank you!