In Defence of Collection Management

//In Defence of Collection Management

In Defence of Collection Management

Last week’s Times Higher (8 February) carried an oddly nostalgic piece by Al Martinich and Tom Palaima on the value of physical books. Its not-so-hidden agenda was an attack on the library of their host institution, the University of Texas at Austin. But the authors claim that it is not nostalgia that drives the angst of their article but the fact that ‘books are endangered’ and they are at threat ‘most barbarously’ at large state universities.

The argument is that of an accountant. The undergraduate library at UT Austin once housed 157,000 books. Now after a refurbishment, 90,000 were moved elsewhere and computers and a café were added. That, Martinich and Palaima argue, is clearly a bad thing. This accountants’ argument – removing 90,000 from 157,000 leaves a smaller number and smaller numbers are bad – reminds me of slides I used to see in library talks 10 to 15 years ago. Any librarian would have as their second slide (after the title slide) the most striking picture of their library estate and a list of statistics: budget, number of volumes, kilometres of shelving, etc. More was good, bigger was best. There was not a hint about level of service, or how the library met the needs of readers. Just a boast about the amount of stuff they had.

Thankfully I see that boasting much less now. I know nothing of the details of what UT Austin has done, but it is not hard to think of legitimate reasons why any library might remove, or even dispose of, stock. If modern reading lists call for the 6th edition of a standard textbook is there any reason to keep multiple copies of the 4th edition? A historian of pedagogy might want to see how ideas changed, but she doesn’t need 30 copies. Curriculums change and library holdings change to reflect this. And perhaps the majority of undergraduates appreciate removing out-of-date, irrelevant print volumes in exchange for access to relevant, up-to-date information, computers, desks, power, and even cafes.

What about other types of books? Within a mile of where I sit in Bloomsbury there are at least seven world-class research libraries: The British Library, UCL, Wellcome Trust, SOAS, Senate House, LSE, King’s. There will be some titles that are held by two or more of those libraries. Some of those titles will be rarely, if ever, used. Would it really be an affront to scholarship if we were to keep one copy in central London and remove any others to “remote-storage” (and I retain Martinich and Palaima’s scare quotes) or even dispose of them? As long as we have good data on what copies are where and retrieval systems to ensure that we get back those copies we keep in a timely manner then it is hard to see how such activities are aiding the death of the book.

Martinich and Palaima make the point that print books are historical artefacts. This of course is true. But some are more valuable artefacts than others. Librarians are alive to the possibilities of interesting provenance for particular volumes or insightful annotations. These volumes are treasured. But again, it is hard to see the historic value of the 20th identical copy of an underused monograph.

No library can be completely universal and decisions need to be made about what to collect and where to store material. By looking at collections collectively we can better serve the needs of readers, ensuring that what we have is well looked after (and yes, sometimes that means in “remote-storage”). In the UK we are beginning to think about what a ‘national’ monograph collection might look like. We have been successful at removing unused print journals from libraries – while ensure that multiple copies remain for archival purposes. Can we do something similar for monographs in a way that makes the overall system better for researchers and students?

David Prosser
Executive Director, RLUK

2018-07-27T23:58:30+00:00February 15th, 2018|RLUK Blog|2 Comments


  1. Al Martinich February 27, 2018 at 2:02 am

    In his posting “In Defence of Collection Management,” David Prosser seems to think that Tom Palaima and I have some objection to collection management. We do not. Our objection is to the indiscriminate removal or destruction of books that continue to have value, but may appear to some not to have value now or in the future. Professors of history and of art history have told me that while looking for volumes in their libraries recently they discovered that they were gone. And a main part of our lament for the Undergraduate Library was its elimination, not what is called its “repurposing.”

    Prosser’s mistakes result from an association of ideas, his unpleasant memories of slide presentations by librarians of his acquaintance. Our idea is about the qualitative decline of library holdings.

    My intention is to explain four additional ways his criticisms are wide of the mark. First, if our argument was an accountant’s argument, it was not only that. It is absurd to mock the use of numbers when numbers are pertinent. The recent loss of 55,000 volumes and 20,000 issues of journals (none duplicates or out of date) from the Fine Arts Library constitutes a substantial part of qualitative decline in that library. Prosser says, ‘I know nothing of the details of what UT Austin has done’. His admitted ignorance of the facts undermines his confident assertions. The fact is that the administrators in charge of the deaccessioning wanted to free up space for ‘the Foundry’, a center that is intended to ‘explore the creative and profitable intersections between culture, technology and commerce, … [and] to embrace the emerging technologies that are radically transforming culture and commerce” in the words of Fine Arts Dean Doug Dempster. He wants graduates of the Fine Arts College to become “entrepreneurs.” (

    If five thousand or so books were appropriately ‘managed’ out of the library, then there would be no crisis and we would have written no article. We became aware of the problem from art historians and professors of music who are suffering from a significant loss of books used for teaching and research.

    Second, Prosser says that our ‘not-so-hidden agenda was an attack on the library of their host institution, the University of Texas at Austin’. Leaving aside the fact that ‘not so hidden agenda’ does no honest work in his sentence, we had no hidden agenda. We said explicitly that the issue was the irreparable harm being done to great libraries. The UT Austin libraries system was our example because we know the situation; but it is indicative of a general trend at many state universities in the United States. If citing one’s own institution were offensive, then Prosser’s description of his own libraries would be equally offensive. It was not. Rather, it was irrelevant.
    Managing the collections of ‘the British Library, UCL, Wellcome Trust, SOAS, Senate House, LSE, King’s’ all within one mile of Bloomsbury is quite different from managing the libraries of a great state university. The closest libraries comparable to those at UT Austin are at least 600 miles north. To the south, east and west, the closest are more than 1,000 miles away. Our main focus was libraries of major universities that have contributed to educating tens of millions of middle and lower class students in the US. Prosser gives no evidence of understanding the resources and mission of American state universities. I pass over his odd phrase, ‘oddly nostalgic’, odd in part because he does not explain what was odd about it.

    Third, some of Prosser’s examples are red herrings. His claim that a library does not need 30 copies of an outdated edition is nothing we disputed. I doubt that UT Austin libraries have thirty copies of one edition of anything. As for it being ‘hard to see the historic value of the 20th identical copy of an underused monograph’, who could object? I do not want to give a false impression about our high regard for the UT Austin Libraries. We think they are superb; and so far deaccessioning has not affected all disciplines. To choose two books at random, all seven editions of Fundamentals of Fluid Mechanics by Munson et aliis are available and almost all seven editions of Paul Samuelson’s Economics.

    Fourth, Prosser claims to have the good of undergraduates at heart when he says that most undergraduates would ‘appreciate removing out-of-date, irrelevant print volumes in exchange for access to relevant, up-to-date information, computers, desks, power, and even cafes’. Beside the fact, again, that we are not talking about out-of-date or irrelevant print volumes, most citizens of imperial Rome appreciated bread and circuses; but arguably, it was not good for them. Instead of patronizing undergraduates, professors should inform them about how knowledge and attitudes change; and ‘outdated’ books are good props for that lesson.

    Prosser asserts, ‘Librarians are alive to the possibilities of interesting provenance for particular volumes or insightful annotations.’ All librarians, about all volumes, all the time? Not the vice provost for libraries at UT Austin.
    Prosser’s article leaves me more skeptical than ever.

  2. Thomas Palaima February 25, 2018 at 8:30 am


    The main intellectual crime that Al Martinich and I were writing about is truly beyond both our accounting and our comprehending. And we did not make our point clear enough.

    We took on a big topic. We were not criticizing the necessary culling of library collections that all scholars accept and understand.

    Our precise language about the history of the now non-existent undergraduate library at UT Austin seems not to have made even the numbers clear. We wrote that the UT ugrad library founded in 1963 20 years later in 1983 had 157,000 books. No figures were available for 2005 when the library was put out of existence. But even at half the rate of acquisition in the next 20+ years, in 2005 145,000 books would have been’disappeared’. The 90,000 surviving books were dispersed, itself a problem for undergraduate students on our sprawling campus.

    The main catalyst for our article, which we should have emphasized better, was the removal of an entire floor of the Fine Arts Library (FAL). 55,000 books and 20,000 journals as well as musical scores and the like have been removed in toto, either de-accessioned or sent into remote storage at a facility (over 100 miles away) that has also taken legal possession of them. They are no longer available for students and professors to use daily and most are not available on-line.

    One professor reports requesting now by interlibrary loan that three numbers of a journal, once available in a complete run at his and his students’ fingertips, be made available to him. One took eight days to arrive, the other two eigteen days. And that was just phase one of the literal emptying out of floors of the FAL to create space for a computerized art design space. Phase two was underway when faculty, student, alumni, donor and public protest led to a pause.

    The removal of one whole floor of high-value materials from a magnificent specialized study center, as we wrote, was a step taken unilaterally by the dean of the college of fine arts Douglas Dempster and the vice provost for libraries Lorraine Haricombe without consulting the Faculty Council Libraries Committee or the Fine Arts faculty, who have now issued strong protests. Their motive, as we pointed out, was creating ‘space’ for a new design facility. It is considered the wave of the future. Books were viewed not as the humanistic equivalent of equipment in a scientific laboratory, but as out-of-date tools that simply transmit data to passive recipients. This is a clear case of quis custodes custodiet?

    Martin Carthy, the great British folk singer who inspired Bob Dylan in the early 60’s, in one of his simple and more recent traditional songs “John Parfit” about a Lord’s gamekeeper shooting a poacher “protecting life so it be killed / on a sporting day for fun,” sings as the gut-wrenching punch line, “Who’ll guard the guardians?”

    Who will guard us from the guardians? Indeed.

    When the chief custodian of books and the chief custodian of resources for the Fine Arts at a major and internationally renowned public research university destroy a a big part of a research library, perhaps it is best to resort to protest song.

    Modeled on the two concluding stanzas of “John Parfit”.

    The gamekeeper was told go free
    For it was said that there was no crime
    That a man was killed and stupidly
    Nobody seemed to mind

    The worlds a tattered and rusty place
    Drowning memories of countless men
    Guardians guard by earthly fence
    But who will guard the guardians?

    We now sing (poorly, but aptly):

    “The Lonesome Song of Doug and Lorraine”

    That a library of fine arts was ruined by
    Head librarian and dean of fine arts twain
    No debate, in willful ignorance,
    Puts to test if we’re all sane.

    The world of books a sacred place
    Storing thoughts of countless men
    and women, too, betrayed by two
    Whom they thought appointed guardians.

Comments are closed.