Please not by Oversight

When “all for the best in the best of all possible worlds” strikes false, when things annoy me, when they don’t seem to be going my way, I try to sooth my crankiness by considering that things may, in fact, be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. In other words, I try to consider all the ways in which this thing, this terribly irritating and inconvenient thing, is done deliberately to benefit somebody else (or better yet, lots of somebodies else). This mental exercise actually makes me feel better because the alternative is that things are simply terrible through oversight and that nobody is benefiting from them being this way.

Let me illustrate by way of three examples. Reading J. Harvie Wilkinson III’s Cosmic Constitutional Theory was a mental pleasure but a pain for the fingers.  The binding of the book was so tight that to keeping the book open was no small task. The digits strained; Cosmic took a few hours stretched over a couple of days to finish, so for the fighting fingers, that was the equivalent of doing competitive Yoga in a sauna, running an ultramarathon in Death Valley in July, or rolling out of bed before 7 AM. Quite strenous! I tried to console the whining joints in my fingers by telling them that the extreme tight binding is to ensure that the book will last the long haul, that other readers coming after me will have a structurally sound bookcase, that the tight binding is the result of some printers/editors/publishers running the numbers and figuring out this is the best way to bind this book, that the binding will loosen up after some N number of readers, and all of these people’s enjoyment of the book will outweigh the discomfort caused to the (N-1) users coming before them. This makes me feel a little better.

Example two: as much as I appreciate the vast resources the libraries on my campus make available to me, I’m itching for them to make newly published books available on the shelves faster. Based on estimates done from my own experience as a library patron, the library is currently taking about 2-3 months from the date of publication to get a book on the shelves, ready for use. Note that this estimate is done for English-language books published by big commercial houses, that is, books for which the library has the least amount of processing to do.

From talking to a couple of people in technical services, the reason this process is taking so long — much longer than, say, a public library will take — is that selectors are insisting on reviewing the books in person and catalogers are insisting on the most complete record. So books will come in to the Acquisitions department, then sit on a the shelves anywhere from a few days to more than a week while waiting for a selector to come and review it. Once it gets a green light from a selector, then even if the book arrived at the library shelf-ready — with call numbers, bar codes, and electronic records already created — catalogers may deem the record inadequate in some way and so hang on to the book for as long as it takes to repair/supplement this record.

All these steps add time to the process, with the end result that the soonest a library patron can actually use this book is a few months after it’s published. Even more incredibly, the process doesn’t seem to speed up much even if a patron requests a book in advance and thus makes clear that somebody is eager to use it. When faced with such situations, I try the familiar tack of consoling myself. Library budgets are stretched; this is the best everybody can be doing; selectors are catching a lot of things during the review process and not just using the review time as consumption for their own bookworm pleasure; catalogers did studies and found that the perfect and not just “good enough” records are really key for users’ satisfaction; everybody knows that library patrons would like to have specific books they want faster and not a bunch of books that are collected for time-insensitive “collection of records” reason. People know, and people are deliberately doing things this way because they have empirical evidence showing that this is the best way to serve their clients. People know, and the work is being done deliberately to benefit the greatest number of patrons possible, and not to stick with some historical precedent (“this is how things have always been done”), or to protect people’s turfs (“Catalogers catalog. It doesn’t matter if the catalog will contain only stuff that patrons will find useful.” “Selectors select, curate, and review. We can always think of potential scenarios that will render our actions useful; it doesn’t matter how often such scenarios materialize, or how we know that they outweigh the value from getting the books on the shelves faster.”), or some other inane reason.

Example three: the law library at my home institution has a very restrictive access policy. Only the campus law students (current & past), faculty & staff, and other lawyers have preferential access. Everybody else is on a sliding scale of limited access (including graduate students from the same institution; that’s me! wail!). Two floors of the law library is completely off limits to non-lawyers (current and in training). Certain books are placed out of reach for either browsing or check-out to this disfavored rabble. To be clear, the law library staff has treated me very nicely every time I have set foot inside the hallow halls (nice halls!), and I also accept their stated reason that “the Law Library observes a very limited access policy which is fully enforced at all times” “[i]n order to insure that the Hugh & Hazel Darling Law Library facilities and services are fully available to the Law School community”.

I just want the assurance that decisions taken by the law library are taken into account by the rest of the campus library system. If these other libraries are not collecting law-related materials of general interest because “well, the law library has that”, then I’d like to point out that, in fact, some books owned by the Law Library are not available for use to non-law patrons. I’d like to have a sense that every time the Law Library changes its access policy, somebody is looking at that and thinking, “do we need to change our collection strategy to accomodate the reduced access accorded to our patrons?”. Even if the answer is no, I draw comfort from the fact that somebody thought about it and has good reasons for saying no. I’d like to know that the reason the campus staff has unlimited access to the law library and not the graduate students is not that the staff was at the bargaining table when the policy was drawn up and not so the students.

In short, I like the world to be a fair, just, and efficient place. I’d like that even more when fairness and efficiency don’t favor me.

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