Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Librarians vs. users

Libraries serve humanity. 
Michael Gorman and Walt Crawford's first law of librarianship, 
Future libraries: dreams madness, and realities, p. 8.

Libraries provide a service to users (1). That is their raison d’être and we should never forget it. But there are circumstances in which conflicts arise between the service as envisioned by the user and the service as envisioned by the librarian: between the users’ immediate desire and the librarians’ professional judgement. There is a difference between ‘being good at serving’ and ‘providing a good service’. 

Campaigners in Manchester recently won their campaign to stop the “destruction of hundreds of thousands of books at the UK’s largest municipal library”. Manchester Central Library is currently undergoing renovations and, as part of the process, discarding a lot of non-fiction books. In June, a group of authors and writers – led by Melvin Burgess and containing Carol Ann Duffy, Jeanette Winterson, Simon Armitage, Mike Garry, and others – called for a halt to this destruction. Manchester City Council has acquiesced and the books will be stored in a warehouse until a decision can be made. 

From Flickr user: d.billy.
As librarians know, weeding is a necessary part of librarianship and collections management. Old books must be discarded to make way for new books. The UK publishes 206000 new books per year: libraries buy these books, fill their shelves with stock, and weed the less-used books. Non-fiction reference books – dictionaries, encyclopaedias, computer books (2) – have a limited shelf life and at a point – the publication of a new edition, the obsolescence of the software – they must be considered to be of little to no historical value and discarded. Libraries are finite buildings that contain the infinity of the written word… which is very poetic and magical and all but there’s no such thing as magic, there’s no Santa Claus, and library management is a practical job. 

It’s no longer acceptable for institutions to have basements of unknown collections, often the legacy of indiscriminate and undocumented collecting in the past. So we need to take the initiative in working out what we have. This is something that Manchester Public Library have been doing during the current refurbishment: they’ve been assessing what was, and what should be, stored in their closed stacks, and working out how that can be used in the future.
Katie Birkwood, 

This is a clear-cut situation (3) in which the users’ immediate desire conflicts with the librarians’ professional analysis of the library management situation. The users want all books to be kept regardless of their utility in the collection; the librarians want to trim the collection down in order to conform to Ranagnathan’s Fourth Law – “Save the time of the reader” – and make the collection more usable. In a situation like this, how does the librarian best serve the user? By doing what the user wants? Or by doing what the librarian knows to be best for the user?

Insert your own example from your workplace here. Do you ban a book because a user is disgusted by it or keep it on the shelves because you know intellectual freedom to be more important? Do you catalogue every item of digital ephemera on a reading list given to you by the faculty or do you keep the catalogue smaller and more usable? Do you spoon-feed users or encourage them to develop their own research skills? Do you allow users to eat food in the library or ban it because you know it attracts vermin?

Librarians are beholden to our users. It is our users who pay for the building, the books, and our salaries. In Higher Education, there is some concern that higher tuition fees will lead to a corresponding rise in student expectations. In university libraries, the words ‘user focus’, ‘added value’, and ‘customer service excellence’ are being floated around and partly used to justify more acquiescence to users’ demands. We regularly rely on input from our users in areas like acquisitions because they know their specialist subject better than we do. If we deny users what they ask for – and pay for – on the grounds that ‘We know best’, we open ourselves to accusations of elitism (4). And occasionally we need users to correct us: whether right or wrong, Nicholson Baker's Double Fold provided an outside perspective on print disposal practices and opened a seam of professional discourse.

From Flickr user: Celeste.

On the other hand, librarians are professionally trained, we have a base of Professional Knowledge and Skills on which to draw, and we adhere to a Code of Professional Practice. We have been taught how to weed, how to catalogue, how to acquire books. Broadly speaking, we know what we’re doing and the users do not. In the case of Manchester Library, the implication on the part of the council is that they think that the users know better than the trained library staff. That the ability to write words in a poetic order and construct compelling narratives qualifies one to manage a major metropolitan library and that the informed opinions of the librarians can be disregarded. This kind of judgement questions librarians’ professional competence and arguably indicates changing social attitudes towards the status of library staff.

Libraries serve humanity. The definition of the word 'serve' makes this a more complicated statement than it first appears. When the users' desire does not align with the librarians' judgement, to whom do we listen? The answer is probably balance, a nuanced approach, exercising individual judgement, not making sweeping generalisations about every possible situation, etc etc. As ever, life turns out to be more complex than tidy little aphorisms would often suggest.

(1) Or patrons. Or customers. Or readers. Or visitors. Or members. Or etc.

(2) Even the most ardent book-lover could not but feel sheer staggering levels of indifference when holding a dusty, heavy copy of Microsoft Access 2001 for Dummies with a scratched accompanying CD-ROM.

(3) This is a lie. Nothing is ever clear-cut. This post isn’t about defending Manchester Libraries’ collections management policy since I know nothing about it. For all I know, they are indeed throwing away First Folios by the armload. However at the Rare Books and Special Collections Group Annual Conference 2012 a month ago, Neil MacInnes, head of Manchester Library, denied that the heritage collections were under any kind of threat.

(4) This is Devil’s advocacy. I agree with Bob Usherwood in this post that “At a time when we can see all around us the dangers of a celebrity and consumerist culture public librarians have a responsibility to provide and promote more worthwhile material. They should seek to influence rather than slavishly follow populist trends. This is not, as some critics maintain, an elitist position but one that will increase people’s enjoyment and open up new opportunities and experiences.”


andrewday82 said...

We seem to have made the same mistake of reading 'serving' our users as being submissive to them at my workplace. Being an academic library, the tuition fees paid by students is seen as giving them extra power as customers, even if means denying our own expertise to accommodate demands.

Being under threat of cuts and closure makes libraries more passive/submissive to user/stakeholder demands too, and that applies to both academic and public libraries.

It doesn't seem to be a given that libraries and librarians are a 'good thing' any more, at least in they eyes of those holding the purse strings, and some of the passivity/submissiveness on display from libraries stems from the insecurity about our role and importance that this breeds.

Katie Birkwood said...

Thanks for a really interesting post, Simon. It seems to have inspired me to write an almost post-length comment/reply/waffle.

I can understand why users and big-name authors are scared; there are sadly too many instances when libraries, or, far more often, the authorities controlling them, sell off or otherwise dispose of important material. In the last year alone Wigan, Ruskin College, the Law Society's Mendham Collection and Birmingham Medical Institute all spring to mind.

However, it's a clear logical fallacy to believe that because alienating some rare and/or old material from its library home means that removing any material from its library home is intrinsically wrong. Not every library can hold a copy of every book ever printed, and one of the reasons librarianship is a skilled profession is because deciding what things which an given library should and shouldn't keep takes understanding, patience, tact and, ultimately, a hard head.

We can't always get it right. One of the recurring themes of the recent Rare Books Group Conference was that we need to be thinking about how we preserve twentieth-century material, especially those items viewed as mass-market, popular or ephemeral at the time of production, for future study and use, and which institutions might be the best places in which to do this. But blanket approprobation of any library seen to be reviewing what it does and doesn't keep isn't the way to achieve this.

The review of holdings in Manchester has enabled the library to discover rare and old holdings that had not previously been properly documented. From what I've heard this means that they can now prioritise for the future preservation of the most important items and use them to tell the story of their city and library, rather than having these items languishing in the proverbial damp and dusty basement. This has clearly been a hard-sell, and it saddens me to think that this will be held up as another example of librarians not caring for the past.

Katie Flanagan said...

Interesting post! I both agree and disagree. As librarians, yes, we have the professional skills to make decisions about weeding our collections, and it's vital that we do, even when we face opposition from users who struggle to understand why we can't keep everything. But I've come across a few too many situations where even professionally qualified staff lack the expertise to recognise the value of older or rare or otherwise unique collections. It happens in related areas too - I heard an appeal on R4 this morning for the public to help fill in gaps in early BBC recordings as they haven't been kept by the BBC!