Librarians and Preservation

Recently I wrote an essay about the Baker-Cox debate.  This debate reached its height between 2001 and 2002, but the points discussed during this debate still have not been resolved.  Nicholson Baker, in his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, accused librarians of being careless in their stewardship over current and historical newspapers.  He hated that common practice in libraries was to take newspapers, microfilm them, then throw the paper away.  One of the reasons why libraries would throw the paper away would be because they would have cut the paper up into single sheets, making the scanning a lot easier.  Similar procedures are used for digitization. Baker saw this as irresponsible and that libraries should shift their focus toward preserving the original copies, and adopting microfilming practices that don’t damage the newspapers.  Baker was adamant that libraries ought to preserve every newspaper possible since microfilm is tedious to use, and that the newspapers themselves are important historical artifacts, in his opinion.

Richard J, Cox, an archivist, defended librarians in their current practices saying that librarians are not in the preservation business, they are in the information business, meaning that they are not guardians of paper information, but guide people to all information no matter the medium on which it is found, whether it be online, on a CD, or a stone tablet.  Public Librarians go beyond the responsibility of being information guides and carry out programs that help, for example, new immigrants to Canada learn English and help adapt to the culture of the country.  Librarians also put on a multitude of other programs such as resume workshops, clubs for youth (e.g. chess, video games etc.), test proctoring, and nutrition classes.  In essence, the library has evolved from being an information repository to an important community centre.  Some cities built new library buildings as the start of

Library of Birmingham

Library of Birmingham

downtown revitalization projects, like in Birmingham, UK.  Say what you want about the the post-modern architecture of this particular library, it is exciting that the city decided to build a new library as a means of cleaning up downtown.  Same goes with Vancouver Public Library in British Columbia whose library structure has become an iconic feature of Vancouver’s downtown landscape.

Baker’s opinions represent a fundamental misconception over what librarianship has become and what its purpose is.  To be fair, Baker isn’t the only person that’s fallen into this misunderstanding.  I’ll bet if we surveyed lots of people in the community, many would say that one of the librarian’s main purposes is preservation.  While preservation of information is important, it’s not the librarian’s job.  In terms of collecting, the librarian needs to stay on top of reading trends and purchase the books that will best meet his/her patrons’ needs.  If the librarian collected and never discarded or put materials in alternate formats, library buildings would need to be massive structures.

So whose responsibility is it to preserve the written word?  Well, it depends on the community, but generally it falls on to the shoulders of the archives–or, if your community is privileged enough to have one–a rare book library or special collection.  By the way, most public libraries do not have rare book collections.

So, should the librarian be in the business of both preservation and dissemination?  Possibly, but the problem is that their parent institutions are not willing to increase the library budget, increase staff, or give them a larger building in order to take on that role. When a librarians discard a book, or pulls it apart to digitize it, don’t worry, they haven’t devolved into Nazis or the Westboro Baptist Church, burning books they don’t like or agree with, they are simply doing their best to work within their budgets. Collection review is a challenging task (most of the time), and it’s difficult to be cold-hearted and take a book off the shelf and put it out of its misery, but that’s the way it is for now.

If you feel libraries should be in the business of preservation, contact your town councillor and make a fuss.  Politicians won’t change until their constituents tell them to (democracy!).  As it stands, most communities are not interested because the money  and support isn’t there.  To be honest, I believe most librarians would like to keep more books; I don’t know a librarian that hates their collection, but the powers that be have determined that it’s not financially viable to keep all of the books, so the librarians are forced to make do with what they have.

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