Thursday, January 04, 2007

Library Purging

Like many regional comprehensive schools, NorthWoods University did a fair bit of expanding and building in the 1960s and 1970s. Our library dates from that era of expansion, so things have gotten tight. For one thing, academics and others keep publishing more and more all the time, so there are more and more books to be bought and stored. We've also gotten into some new and different technologies. Remember card catalogs? No more! Now we have computers! Computers are GREAT, no doubt, but they take up space. Our library dedicates increasing amounts of space to computer classrooms, computer labs, and study rooms with computer capability. That's all good.

Except that means we have to take space that was originally planned for books and journals and do something else with them. Journals, thankfully, we can usually access through the computers. That's good because our library can no longer afford to get most journals in print. (We pay for them through database subscription services, as do most universities.)

That leaves books. The library is trying to make room by getting rid of books. I'm disheartened somewhat by that fact, but mostly because I love books. Right now, the library is purging the PRs. In the Library of Congress Catalog System (scroll down in here to see the history), PR is British literature. PS is American literature. I spend most of my working life in PR, with forays into HQ (family, marriage, women), DA (history of Great Britain), and Z (Bibliography).

No librarian likes purging books; it's a fact that librarians like books, love books. So it's not that they're gleefully ripping books off the shelves and throwing them into an incinerator. The librarian in charge of the project has set up some rules or algorhythms. To be included on the purge list, basically--and to the best of my weak memory--a book:

1) hasn't been borrowed from the collection in ten years
2) hasn't been taken off the shelve more than twice in ten years
3) isn't on some list of books that are considered vital by academic librarians

Having selected out books based on that rubric, the librarian in charge invites people who might be interested in the issue to come look at the books (or a list) and to select out books we wish to retain.

So today I went to do my part in that sad task. There are many shelves of books that have been selected out, though a small number compared to the shelves of books on even one floor of the library. So I started through.

Most of the books were written in the 60s and 70s, so probably represent purchases made during the growth of NWU. Most are works of criticism by critics whose names I don't recognize.
But, even though I don't recognize the names, I recognize the labor that went into each of these books. Each one represents hours of careful reading and notetaking, putting together arguments, considering problems. If I'd looked at the acknowledgements sections, I bet I'd see a lot of wives thanked for typing endless manuscripts. Given the obsession with English departments for monographs, I'm guessing many of those books represented tenure books.

It's humbling to see that works that took so much effort are relatively unused. But of course, I haven't used them, either. The fact is, we don't much tend to read scholarship in my field from the 60s. We know so much more historically and approach textual questions so differently. (And yet, the bibliographic work of people like Hinman, Chambers, Bentley, these I still rely on. And Pollard and Redgrave, Wing? We all rely on them!)

I saved out Greenblatt's first book, because I think we'll find ourselves looking back on his work to learn about our own historical approaches. And I saved out TS Eliot's writing on Renaissance poetry, because I think there's no way to understand "The Wasteland" or many of Eliot's other poems without having a sense of his work with early modern literature.

There were some primary texts, too. (Roughly, primary texts are the literature we read as literature; secondary texts are generally criticism we read to learn about literature. But we also read criticism by people like Eliot as primary texts. It's a useful categorization, but it doesn't really work well at the boundaries.) I saved out Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One in one of those blue University of Nebraska editions. When I was in grad school, I searched up and down for those blue editions in used book stores, also for the silver Restoration series. Whoever came up with the idea to put out so many plays in those editions: thank you! I imagine during the 60s and 70s, when they were coming out, a lot of courses could be taught that couldn't easily be taught earlier.

I saved out facsimile copies of Hero and Leander and Titus Andronicus, and suggested that they be sent to the special collections area so that students who are learning about older texts have more to look at, even if only in facsimile. (And thanked the Flying Spaghetti Monster once again for EEBO!)

I saved out a collection of The Spectator and George Eliot's letters. I couldn't bear them going away, even though I don't teach that period.

I wondered, seeing the sorts of primary texts being purged, if there was a time here when those texts were actually regularly taught in English department classes. I've taught a few non-Shakespeare plays, a Marlowe seminar, and such, but not much by Dekker or Chapman. Or were they purchased in hopes that faculty and students would find and read them for further research or pleasure?

I'm totally in favor of teaching a much broader canon than was taught in the 60s and 70s, but teaching in my period is probably more limited for us than for whoever taught Shakespeare and early modern lit 40 years ago. There are probably relatively fewer of us teaching early modern lit than then, also. But in exchange, we've got great classes taught in all sorts of literatures by wonderful faculty folks. Still, there's loss in some ways.

And so I've purged. And you know, it wasn't nearly as ire-provoking as I'd expected. Most of the books can go. I felt a pang of memory when I saw Roche's Kindly Flame, one of the first books I came across when I took my very first Spenser class and was trying to do a paper on (yes, duh) Book III of The Faerie Queene. But I didn't feel the need to save it out. (Sorry, Professor Roche!) I don't see myself teaching The Faerie Queene in a big way, nor my other early modernist colleagues, though dang, it's an astoundingly good poem (and yes, you should think of the etymology of astounding as you read that, because SPENSER!).

That was pretty much the key for me: am I going to use this or want students to use it? And mostly, no, even if I teach The Faerie Queene, I don't want my students depending on Roche's work in their papers.

Still, here at home tonight, I'm looking fondly at the anthology of poetry I'll be teaching from this semester, appreciating its many pages, nice quality soft-covering, and the uncountable hours of work that went into writing and editing. More on appreciating books as objects soon!


  1. Sic transit gloria mundi.

    Not that that helps.

    Do you know what is going to happen, physically, with these books? I hope they're at least recycled...yesterday I saw in a shop some blank books that made very creative use of old unwanted hardcover books -- covers were used to be covers for the blank books, and sometimes a few interesting pages from the old book were sprinkled through the blank pages. Somehow that made the necessary discarding of old books a little less painful to think about!

  2. It must be hard to do this and to know that you're the one to choose what stays and what goes; on the other hand, since you have EEBO (we don't), the choices may be a little easier.