Many people assume that public libraries keep all of their books, and when not being borrowed, they sit on the shelf or are kept in storage somewhere. However this is a myth. In reality public libraries have very limited space and books don’t often remain in any one spot for very long at all. It is a dynamic process of purchasing, processing, sorting, shifting, distributing, displaying, shelving, re-shelving, retrieving, loaning, issuing, returning, re-shelving, repairing, evaluating, sorting, boxing, and at the end of its use – selling in a book sale or sent on to some other need. There is often not a mysterious “stack” of old books preserved for prosperity, unless the library is the National or State Library.
Public libraries attempt to manage this dynamic process with a Collection Management Plan that addresses the demographic of their users to try to predict demand. This plan offers guidelines to manage donations, weeding, purchasing, and when used in conjunction with a clever Marketing Plan, should maximise the collections full extent.
Often people generously offer their pre-loved books thinking the public library will cherish them as much as they have, whilst in reality they are often boxes of dog-eared, smoke-saturated, food-stained paperbacks that only add workload and obstacles to an already jam-packed library work space and work load. The local public library does not have the capacity to “grow” to this extent. There are exceptions of course, and sometimes the books donated are real treasures.
Direct request from customers for popular books and other resources proves to be a useful way to grow the collection while responding to local demand. But it can’t be the only driver because often there are fantastic things that exist that people aren’t aware of, or know that they want – yet. This is where the librarians craft comes into play and they can shape the collection with their expertise, worldly knowledge and creativity.
The Long Tail is a concept coined by Chris Anderson in 2005 and when applied to the library collection is easy to understand. If a library were to buy copies of the latest popular release in quantities to supply the demand and responded each time to every best seller, the shelves would soon be lined with multiple copies of last year’s bestsellers and little else, and look like a short stumpy tail. It would be like a drinks refrigerator filled with one brand of beer, or just beer. Which might be fine for beer drinkers, but not so for those who prefer champagne or tea or green smoothies. The Long Tail theory shows that by offering an array of many different titles on a diversity of subjects that often the quirky niche subjects get a space on the shelf that will be justified when it is inevitably matched with the diverse and quirky interest of a customer. And to paraphrase Tim Flannery, “The continued existence of the species depends on diversity.” When you apply this to humans then our existence depends on a diversity of attitudes, interests and knowledge that can only be gained by offering a wide range of topics for investigation. A browse along the shelves of the non-fiction section will show books about beekeeping, how to work a room, bushcraft, Hagar, heavy metal music, the cats pyjamas, work abroad, survival, ideas, Shakespeare (of course), Henry Lawson, travel, art, architecture, computer help, languages, pregnancy, health issues, etc, etc.
The serendipity of browsing library shelves is a well-known and enjoyable pastime and many have commented on this human behaviour. Bryan Loar of Brave New World says that by using the online catalogue and reserving items ahead of time then “self-directed discovery has been lost”. Professor Todd P. Olson of Berkeley in California values the experience of browsing the library’s shelves so much that he has launched a fundraising campaign towards the “continuation of library collections to ensure that the joy of discovery will continue for generations into the future”. Steve Penn talks about how “you walk around the shelves and suddenly find something that you weren’t looking for but seems just right for you.” Maria Popova of Brain Pickings worries “that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.” And I could go on…
So eBooks and other electronic resources seem to offer a solution to the problem of relieving limited physical spaces in libraries, but restrict the valuable and enjoyable experience of browsing for the serendipitous find. Again I try to imagine the library space where much is only available as an electronic file or online. An electronic collection can grow beyond imagination, storing and preserving every book forever! Of course the preservation of electronic files is another complex issue altogether. But as Seth Godin tells us “Librarians who are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.”
Well Seth Godin doesn’t have to convince me that libraries are not just warehouses for books, but if our buildings are not growing with new physical materials, and our collections are “hidden” in the “connected” cyber-world, then who and what is in the building? And how can the average Joe Blow discover, develop and grow with that serendipitous ah-ha moment of stumbling across that book that will change his life? I think it was Og Mandino who told the story about how he was destitute, homeless and was on his way to buy a gun to kill himself when he stumbled into a public library and this “saved” him and turned his life around. That weird unkempt, smelly, apparently homeless person who visits your public library every day might just stumble across his/her saving grace.
In the past I have thought that perhaps the library could display images or video on large screens of these hidden resources. Libraries do this now and have been for some time. And although it might create visual interest, it is just another screen in a world where screens proliferate. And the images would be limited and could not portray the full extent of the collection. And these have tended to be rather static displays even with the inclusion of video segments. Library catalogues could be (and perhaps are being) developed whereby the screen is used to display current catalogue items in a way that is more dynamic and interactive, uses multi-media, and has the ability to display at random or by selection, when not in use by a customer. Perhaps the items displayed could be recommendations that respond to the person who passes by based on their past loans. I am sure the current technologies in Library Management Systems and RFID could already do this, however then we get into the murky waters of intrusion and privacy.