From the Viewpoints column of the September 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Further Reflections on Saving Books

Gari-Ann Patzwald, September 2008

I am a librarian by profession, a historian by avocation, and an AHA member. I am semi-retired and now work part time in the library of Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, where my husband, William Kostlevy, teaches history. I understand James W. Cortada's concern about saving “the books” and appreciate the responses by Timothy Buchanan and Mary Elizabeth Brown that were published in the February issue of Perspectives on History.

There are two major issues that need to be addressed if libraries are to meet the needs of students, faculty, and researchers: 1) the changes in policy brought about by the move to administration of libraries by IT departments and IT professionals, and 2) the lack of a true national library in the United States.

IT professionals are invaluable to libraries. They have revolutionized library service and make such things as effective distance learning possible. However, many of them do not understand that not all materials that patrons want and need are available in electronic form, especially recent copyrighted materials and ephemera, and that as much as librarians have tried to promote electronic books, patrons prefer paper copies. This may change in the future with the advent of such devices as Amazon.com's Kindle, but there will remain problems such as the cost and staff time needed to migrate materials when formats change as they inevitably will. Furthermore, in the case of many electronic materials, libraries only purchase access and actually own nothing for the considerable, and always increasing, amounts of money they pay. Should the budget become tight, a library could be forced to lose access to a large body of materials simply through the cancellation of one online service. There is also the problem of users sharing passwords, thereby providing access to materials to a large number of users who have not contributed to the cost of acquisition of the materials. (This is of special concern to those of us who are authors of books for which we might receive royalties!) And, of course, electronic materials cannot be circulated through interlibrary loan.

The second problem relates in some ways to Mary Elizabeth Brown's suggestion that libraries cooperate by developing special collections in specific subject areas. This is now often done on an informal basis. (I am currently helping to reclassify the Tabor College Library collection moving from Dewey Decimal Classification to Library of Congress Classification, and while I am doing this I am arranging to share resources that are not used in our library with other libraries.) A major problem with cooperative acquisition and retention efforts is that the United States does not have a true national library to coordinate them. The Library of Congress is just what its name implies—the library of the Congress of the United States, and while it has performed many of the functions of a national library in the past, it has no mandate to do so and it does so only selectively. The creation of a true national library to coordinate the acquisition and retention of library materials by the library itself or through cooperating libraries would be a great step forward in attempting to guarantee that even the smallest pamphlet is not lost to time and neglect. Lobbying to create such an institution might be more practical than expecting each special interest organization to monitor the fate of materials in its field.

This brings to mind another problem: the cost of making materials available. Over the years the Tabor library, like many libraries large and small, added large numbers of donated books for the purpose of increasing the number of volumes in the collection. Many of these books circulate exclusively, or almost exclusively, to public libraries through interlibrary loan, and this is a major cost to the Tabor library. Consequently, we find it necessary to withdraw many of these items. This is one drawback to Ms. Brown's idea for sharing of specialized collections. Many libraries would only be able to service such collections by charging for the additional staff time and postage that they would require. Also, even some large libraries would not have facilities for the safe storage and management of noncirculating materials that would be likely to be in these specialized collections.

Until librarians and IT professionals manage to coordinate their efforts better or more professionals are qualified in both fields and until (if ever) the United States has a true national library, may I suggest that historians try to help save our books by thinking small—small college, that is.

Smaller colleges without the resources to support purchase of electronic materials depend more heavily on paper and welcome donations of quality books and journals. In 2006, the Tabor library received a large donation from an alumnus who is a retired college English professor. In 2007, the library received over one thousand items from longtime AHA member and retired history professor Brison D. Gooch, who felt that his personal library would probably be of more use to Tabor than it would be to Texas A&M University from which he had retired.

The books that Gooch donated allowed the library to replace worn copies of many classic works, add classics that the library did not have, strengthen our resources on 19th-century European history, and add some specialized items that will introduce our students to the types of materials they will use in graduate school. In terms of specialized collections, Gooch had excellent collections of books on the Crimean War and on the Benelux nations, and the library plans to add to those collections as finances allow.

Tabor College was so pleased with Gooch's donation that the library hosted a daylong celebration in recognition of his generosity. This included a tour of the library for Dr. Gooch and his wife, Freda, who is herself a local historian; a luncheon at which the history faculty, the college president, the academic dean, and some of our history majors got to meet Dr. Gooch and learn more about the history profession from an accomplished senior European historian; and a well-attended afternoon reception for the entire faculty and library staff.

If historians would think of small colleges when they consider downsizing their personal libraries or finding locations for special collections that they have developed while researching a particular topic, there are many institutions that would welcome donations and the opportunity to update and expand their collections or to house a special collection. Think of your undergraduate institution, or a small college that has sent your university outstanding students, or one that is located in your community. Contact the librarian and find out exactly what the library's needs are and how your donation would help to meet them, or, in the case of a special collection, if the library would be willing to accept the collection and service it.

I am not opposed to electronic resources. It is a great convenience to be able to access books, articles, and newspapers from home and they are an important means of keeping copies of materials that were printed on high acid paper. However, electronic resources should be viewed as complements and supplements that expand the resources of the library, not as replacements. I cannot imagine a time when books will not have a place in libraries, and eventually libraries may find that the electronic resources in which they put so much faith did not warrant it. Meanwhile, there are still places where books are valued and welcomed. You just may have to look outside your large university to find some of those places.

—Gari-Anne Patzwald works in the library of Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.