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 And perhaps the majority of undergraduates appreciate removing out-of-date, irrelevant print volumes in exchange for access to relevant, up-to-date information, computers, desks, power, and even cafes.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