Weeding Reference Books: Why?

Recently the librarians at the Ryan-Matura Library have been undertaking a massive project of weeding the Reference Collection.  Why weed?

As discussed in the previous post, readers interact with books in various ways.  Certainly the picture book, the beloved literary book, the cookbook, and the telephone directory all are treated differently, and yet they are all books.  To be sure many would want to save the literary book, the cook book –but who really wants a bulky local telephone directory from a few years ago? 

Information ages at varying currency, and we all know that the telephone book is easily out of date, though the current one is still more useful and once thought.In addition, the advent of e-books and reference and journal databases have made earlier, printed directories obsolete –with notable exceptions.  The New York Times printed indices from decades ago are still considerably superior to the content of the New York Times online index for the same years.  Some reference books –the Oxford English Dictionary, Encyclopaedia Britannica (10th edition)– remain iconic works of scholarship despite their age or format, or presence online (in the case of the OED).

The Library at Sacred Heart University exists to support the teaching and learning of the University –and not, alas, true faculty research, for which we have too little room in the present structure.  Superannuated reference books of less than stellar quality simply are no longer used, and have been occupying valuable space on our main floor, while students have lacked seating, especially at peak periods of the academic year.

Consequently, librarians are undertaking a careful, but thorough, weeding of the reference collection, with the aim of making more student seating available, and the remaining reference collection more useful and accessible.  As reference sources migrate to online formats (or have already done so!), the same librarians are evaluating new online resources –already Literature Online has replaced many of the old Gale volumes, WestLaw has replaced a great many legal volumes, and the Oxford English Dictionary Online supplements the iconic printed volumes.

Weeding is never merely a case of "out with the old." Professional expertise strongly suggests that quality printed reference works can be consulted more when they are not so obscured by unwanted and superannuated material.  Online reference sources frequently guide users to print materials not considered before because of the sheer labor of tracing the references.  As always, the current needs of teaching and learning in the University guide our decisions towards maximizing our investment of money and time and achieving effective learning outcomes.

(From) Strength In What Remains


(p. 181) Deo stopped on the steps of Low Library and Pointed across the quadrangle at another monumental building . . . . This one advertised itself with names carved in the granite frieze above its broad front: HOMER, HERODOTUS, SOPHOCLES, PLATO, ARISTOTLE, DEMONSTHENES, CICERO, VERGIL.  "That is Butler Library.  It's such a beautiful library.  I love it.  It's the library in my heart."  He was laughing softly.  "I loved that library.  I like to be back here, actually."

–Tracy Kidder: Strength in What Remains (New York: Random House, 2009)

Books, Uses, and Users

How do people use books?  If e-books are coming (….or not?), will they supplant printed books?  Is the end of printed books, at hand –leading to a far-off historical survey  "The History of The Printed Book 1450-2050"?

People use books in simply countless ways.  For a period in the twentieth century, "using books" meant "reading," and "reading" meant "cultural reproduction."  The text, in other words –the printed text– was simply an accessory, a means to an end, much the same relationship of "ingredients" to "food" –the latter being a far more expansive, culturally-laden term than mere instrumental "ingredients."

The evolution of the e-text has forced re-consideration of the printed text.  For librarians, "reading" often came to mean "engaging in cultural production or reproduction," but librarians were always deeply aware of the instrumental uses of volumes of printed paper, gathered into quires and sewn into durable bindings.  The uses are many:

  • The book not meant to be read all the way through: reference books.  Think the automotive or equipment bluebooks –consulted for various bits of information.  One definition of a reference books is, "a book not meant to be read cover-to-cover," but referred to for discrete bits.
  • The text-book –no fun to read, but intensely studied (even memorized) –replete with graphs, diagrams, tables, illustrations, and now even DVDs.
  • The cook-book –indispensable for kitchen knowledge –sometimes not read all the way through, but sometimes.  The sheer exuberance of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was so beautifully caught in the film Julie and Julia.
  • The technical manual –think how-to on steroids.  Some (yellow ones) are for dummies, but most are for very smart people, or at least, people trained in a certain field.  One could read all the way through Linux Network Servers, daunting as that might be to many.
  • The musical score –not a technical manual, and not always played all the way through.
  • The phone book –ever moved to a new community?  Could you live without it?
  • The multi-volume comprehensive account of something-or-other: for example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's life, or Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics.  One could read all the volumes –but who really does so?
  • Collected essays, either by an author, or on a topic, problem, or event.
  • The index, abstract, or guide to other items that have been published, somewhere.
  • The novel –ah, pride of place!  And other literary books –the gateway to true reading as cultural production.

Only a few of those are the clear referents of "cultural production," although they are all certainly cultural productions of one kind or another.

So what of e-books –when they come, what will they replace?

The first, most logical kind of printed book that e-books have already replaced (to a very large extent) is the multi-volume reference work.  Encycopaedia Britannica has swiftly re-invented itself to compete with the new Wikipedia, a resource that has its own problems.  Multi-volume reference works were always essentially databases, and the features associated with full-text searching (such as the ability to search lexicographical citations in the Oxford English Dictionary Online) offer substantial new usefulness.  Index and abstracts were never really very useful in print format –they were only useful because there were no alternatives.

Textbooks and technical manuals have followed swiftly –some computer applications now come with minimal reference material since manuals and user-developed sites are so plentifully available.  Collected essays –which behave like journal articles, but appear as bound monographs– have very successfully migrated to e-books.

Cookbooks and telephone directories, however, have hit a curious bump in the road.  Does anyone else remember the predictions of the demise of the telephone book? –and yet here in 2010 they are alive and well.  In part, this is due to the dreadful interface of most online telephone directories.  If I want to know the name of a pizzeria in Bridgeport near my workplace, WhitePages or some other source will be happy to tell me about pizzerias miles away, and I will have to dig up local establishments from buried listings, or use a very cumbersome search interface which also collects as much data about me as possible.  Online recipes are very popular, but cookbooks continue to sell –glossy, illustrated, and less bare-bones than the old Joy of Cooking, but equally useful in a working environment (the kitchen) where spattering grease or batter, or vapors, may interfere with a screen, even an iPad.

The place of "literary reading" (fiction and nonfiction) seems less assured in the e-book format.  To be sure, e-book readers are wonderful for readers with vision problems –one can expand Kindle's text easily.  Traveling or commuting readers also appreciate the compact features.  But the marketplace difficulties mentioned in the previous posting (so far the point has been to sell the reading device, not the text), and infelicities of interfaces, and the sheer price of the reading devices, has limited the market. 

A bound volume is still easier to put down quickly, pick up quickly (no restart time), thumb through, annotate, sneak to the end, compare passages, turn the page corner down, and all the habits good and bad of inveterate print readers and books.  The working bookshelf in a living-space, home environment is still a desirable status symbol –complementing the wide screen TV and the stylish MP3 player of your choice.

When all is said and done, more serious "literary reading" (cultural production) is still deeply associated with the values, strengths, and cachet of the book as a cultural object.  The iPad could change some of this dynamic, and its multi-media abilities could prove critical in the lucrative textbook market.  Human behavior changes slowly, despite its technological environment.  Fountain pens continue to be sold, but they connote a value different from their worth a century ago.  The book as cultural object will continue in fond regard for some time yet –how long, who knows?  TV was supposed to be the death-knell of film and radio –the short-run effects of technology are usually overblown and the long-term effects usually under-estimated. 

Plus ça change, plus c'est la
même chose

–Gavin Ferriby