There is Only Use.

From Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, we find these words

numerous libraries, already straining under the exponentially rising cost of journals, especially in the sciences, managed the cutbacks [in budgets] by reducing the number of monographs they purchased. The result for library users was perhaps only a slightly longer wait (p. 3)

Why “perhaps only a slight longer wait”? If costs are rising “exponentially”, budgets cut repeatedly, thus leading us to inferred that purchases must’ve been cut dramatically, then why do the library users only suffer a slight inconvenience? The answer is that the purchases cut were fat, not bones.

These may be words you cringe to read. These may be words I cringe to have written when later looked back upon. Indisputable, however, is the fact as much as half of a library’s holdings never circulate. Librarians aren’t very good at figuring out which books from their purchases will get used. This is an inherently difficult task, comparable to publishers trying to figure out which tomes will become bestsellers, entertainment moguls, which movies will be blockbusters, and bloggers which posts will garner WordPress Freshly Pressed massive drive of readers. However, as I’ve discussed before (see point #3), it’s not as if librarians are presently operating with the tools and data they need to make purchase decisions that would result in purchases actually being used. To me, this is good news! It means that librarians can get much better at selecting books if they were given better feedback on how well they’re doing.

But this is old news, stuff that I’ve blabbered on before. Today, I’d like to tackle this issue from a different angle; specifically, I’d like to address the objection that academic librarians, at least those working in big universities, aren’t, and shouldn’t be, trying to buy books that they think will get used. Instead, because these libraries are collections of records, much like how the New York Times is a newspaper of record, librarians should be collecting, well, for the record. Collect stuff that’s invariably nebulously defined as being important, stuff that’s central to knowledge-generation, stuff that supports the mission.

Yes, I may cringe to look back upon these words, but I reject that paradigm. Use is the only proper metric to judge a library’s performance. Being a collection of record, unless one really has the resources to buy, house, preserve, and make accessible every piece of content fixed in any tangible medium of expression (and no one does), simply means that there is a trade off between current use and future use. It means that big academic libraries, unlike small public libraries, put a greater weight on a use materializing in the future even if no patron is looking at the material today. It means that big academic libraries, because of their greater resources, can afford to be more patient; they can wait longer before tallying up their usage statistics; they can give their collections more time — years, decades — to prove their value.

Nonetheless, the value, the tally when it is finally done, is use. There is no escaping the judge that is unromantically utilitarian. A collection of record is not collected for perpetual waiting. A collection of record must be eventually stripped of plausibles, of maybes and perhaps; its potential must be realized. And potential is actualized, is realized, is validated and stamped worthwhile, only through use.

There is only use. By inference, there is little room for personal aesthetics divorced from utilitarian concerns. The crux of being paid to do a job, of drawing a salary as a librarian, is that one’s own judgement on what is beautiful, good, and deserves to be collected matters little when unsupported by usage. I can gamble on buying a book that I absolutely love on my own dime; I can gamble my institution’s money on buying a book that I absolutely love only rarely and only after I have justified the gamble by buying other useful books.

Yes, I may cringe. But not today.

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