Concerns and questions …

October 12, 2011:  Thanks to Phyllis Rose, Professor of English Emerita, for allowing us to post this exchange via the project email: weeding@wesleyan.edu:

Phyllis Rose (PR): Hello and good luck with your project, which seems as necessary as it is complex and delicate. I see that works of fiction are not in Round 1 of your weeding, but I wonder if you could tell me what the criteria for elimination will be? The task seems obviously different from the task of weeding non-fiction, and I am wondering how you will proceed.

Pat Tully (PT): Thank you for your interest in the project!  Yes, we’re anticipating that the factors we use to review the fiction lists will be quite different than those we use for non-fiction.  We’ll use the same criteria to create the initial lists of weeding candidates.  But in reviewing fiction we will be looking at maintaining complete sets of works by major authors, working closely with faculty to determine just who those authors are.  In fiction we have several copies and/or editions of the works of many authors, some of which might be weeded while retaining at least one copy of their complete works.

The review is interesting–I’m doing the initial review of the American history list now and I’ve developed a list of specific factors to consider in determining which weeding candidates to retain. These include books containing primary sources such as letters and diaries, local Connecticut publications commemorating community anniversaries and events, and publications with a Wesleyan connection.   I suspect that the list in each subject area will need to be looked at a little differently.

(PR):  As there is so little consensus these days on who “major authors” are, I would advise you to cast your net for reviewers as widely as possible — not just current faculty, but retired faculty; not just current students, but alumni. I think the public posting of lists of books being considered for weeding is a wonderful practice. I would merely encourage you to make it as public as possible. Even the widest of nets may not be wide enough. if your reviewers span only two generations, you could be getting the taste and values of one generation of teachers ratified by their students, when taste and values may just be on the verge of change. Trollope has become the gold standard of enduring literary value recently, but when I was in college he was regarded as somewhat trashy for a Victorian novelist. Literary reputations take a long time to play out. Shakespeare himself took over a century to become sacrosanct. Between contemporary popularity and canonization, a long time may go by, and that may be exactly the period of five to fifteen to even fifty years in which no one checks out the work of that author.

I would also say that I have some reservations about aiming primarily to retain complete sets of writers, major or minor. I’m sure you realize that for literary scholarship variant editions can be important, especially if there are actual textual variations between the editions but even if succeeding editions are just accompanied by different introductory essays. Even the fact that one novel is reprinted more than its fellows could be important for literary study. It’s one thing to see the complete works of Walter Scott on the shelf, for example, and another to see the repeated reprintings of Rob Roy. How the same literary work is regarded at different times is something a student should be able to investigate at a university library which they might not be able to at, say, a large urban library. In that context one edition of each book might be enough.

(PT): I think the idea of asking retired faculty to review the lists is a great one and I’ll ask our technology person if she can make this happen.  And I completely take your point about authors’ literary reputations waxing and waning–I love Melville, and I know he was largely ignored until the 20th century.

We’d like the review and commenting on the weeding lists to be driven by faculty, since they and their students are the primary users of the circulating collections.  But I think we could have a great discussion of authors in a more public forum, perhaps using the blog or some other means to get wide participation in a discussion.  Let me talk to our librarian selectors for fiction.  If they are on board, we can start the discussion even as we’re evaluating the Round 1 lists. The discussion would inform the librarians’ review of the fiction lists and help determine what volumes to retain.

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October 12, 2011: Wesleyan student and interlibrary loan worker Jessica Jordan, had this suggestion:

Jessica Jordan (JJ):   [I’ve heard] it was yet undecided as to what was going to happen to the discarded books, and that many of them would probably be thrown away.   As a tremendous lover of books, this seems a real shame to me. I know there are lots of students who stay here over the summer, so I was thinking you might want to consider at the end of each week putting the discarded books in the lobby and announcing that they were free for the taking. By the next week, when you had more books to put out, you could get rid of the previous week’s books. It’s not a perfect solution, but perhaps it will keep from so many of them having to be thrown away. You could advertise around campus–I’ll bet lots of students and professors would be interested.

Pat Tully (PT): We’re going to be doing the project in three phases, so we’ll pull the first lot of books this winter, then another in the summer, and then a third in the spring of 2013.  The Friends of the Wesleyan Library have an annual book sale in the fall (the next one is this Saturday, October 15), and during the project we’ll probably have a book sale in the spring as well as the fall.  Books that are in really bad shape will be recycled, but we’ll only recycle other books if they can’t be donated and they do not sell in the book sale.

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October 5, 2011: Barry Chernoff, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, recently expressed his concerns about the weeding project.  Thanks to Barry for allowing me to post them! Here are his concerns and my response:

1. Barry Chernoff (BC): The proposed mechanism for discovering which books should be de-accessioned is usually based upon the frequency of how many times the books have been signed out.  This underestimates the vast majority of books that are used within the library and are not checked out.  Many times I use a book at one of the tables or carrels and place the book on the cart for re-shelving.  Just because I do not charge out the work does not mean that I have not used the materials in the book for my teaching or research and have not cited the un-checked-out works in my publications.

Pat Tully (PT): You are right that one of the criteria we are using is the number of times the book has checked out over the past 15 years.  All the books on the weeding candidate lists have been checked out no more than once in that time.  Unfortunately we have not captured in-house use or browses for the titles, and you’re right that books in some areas are not checked out but heavily browsed. The librarians who are doing the initial review of the lists are keeping that in mind and removing from weeding consideration those books that they suspect are used in-house.  In a few weeks (we’ll announce when) faculty will be able to review the lists and indicate which books should be retained.

2. (BC): I find a significant number of relevant works by browsing the areas in the vicinity of the book(s) that I am searching for.  This is an important aspect of my library work – I always allow time for browsing.

(PT): Not at all; we hear this all the time from both faculty and students.  In fact we encourage students to look at the books shelved around the book that they’ve identified, because often those books prove very valuable for their assignments.  Of course, because our collections are smaller than those of Yale, Harvard, Princeton or other R1 institutions, we do not have all or most books on any subject.  To that extent browsing in our stacks is somewhat limited.  But you are right that this weeding project will reduce the number of browse-able books.

3. (BC): Having been a curator at major museums, I also view the library as a collection.  Collections increase in value based upon their holdings in number and in completeness.  Weeding books, discontinuing journals lessen the value of the Wesleyan collection.

(PT): The circulating collections in the library are not entirely comparable to a museum collection.  The items in a museum collection are unique or rare, and the loss of any item in the collection does indeed reduce its value and the completeness of its focus.  The library has collections of this kind, most notably in Special Collections & Archives and in the World Music Archives.  We will not be weeding these collections.

But the purpose of the library’s circulating collections is to support the work of Wesleyan students and faculty. Because Wesleyan’s curricular and research interests change over time, the collections’ foci changes as well, growing in some areas and shrinking in others.  And this makes sense for a working collection, for although some books in our circulating collections are of timeless utility, others are of current interest but are less useful over time.  If needed, these books can be obtained through CTW or interlibrary loan.  We’ve checked that the books on the lists are not rare– there are at least 30 other copies of each book held by libraries in the United States.

4. (BC): Why is the Wesleyan Library being treated differently from other academic units?  When a department or collection of departments become too congested to function adequately (e.g., through increased faculty hires, etc.) we modify the existing facilities or construct new facilities to solve problems.  Yes, I realize that this is often a longer term solution but we don’t “weed- out” professors, coaches or administrators.  The library is central to the core mission of Wesleyan, it should be treated as such.

(PT): I completely agree that the library provides essential, core support for the academic enterprise (and thank you for saying so!).  We are absolutely committed to this mission.  But with the conversion of many library materials from print to electronic format, how we fulfill that mission is changing.  With journals the conversion is much farther along, and we can confidently rely on electronic access to many journal articles that are as useful and more accessible than the print versions. Books are far behind journal articles in the conversion from print to electronic format, and a variety of technical and copyright issues need to be resolved before books in electronic form are as useful as print books.  But these issues will be resolved in the next decade or so, and as they are we will provide access to more and more books in electronic form.

Once the conversion takes place–which will take many years–the space in the library that are now devoted to stacks can be converted to a variety of study spaces for individuals and groups, with appropriate furnishings and technology to do assignments and research.  At that point we probably won’t need a bigger building, just different spaces within the building we have.

5. (BC): There is a rumor that the necessity for weeding the collection is because there are plans to move the art library and collections into Olin.  This is not a reason for reducing the value of the Olin Collection and reducing our ability to do effective scholarship.

(PT): There is talk to moving the Art Library into Olin after the weeding project is done.  The Art Library has been full for 20 years and art books annually transferred to Olin; currently half the art books are in Olin and half are in Art.  Reuniting the collection would help students and faculty to efficiently do their work.  I can’t speak to the plans for the Squash Courts.  But I believe that the weeding project we’re planning will not reduce the value of Olin’s collections or the ability of students and faculty to do effective scholarship.

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