Legacy Systems

A few days ago I published a blog post about faculty reactions to some of the decisions that library workers are making. You don’t necessarily have to read that to understand this, but it might give some more context.

The library at my previous institution was built in the late 1960s, during a higher education construction bonanza that aligned with the baby boomers going to college. As was the case with many academic libraries, there was funding for the initial construction, as well as a generous budget to buy books and build the collections inside. After a few years that money had all been spent, and by the mid-1970s the library’s acquisitions budget was greatly reduced, designed to (hopefully) maintain a collection, rather than build a new one from scratch.

When I arrived at that library in 2011, the building had just been remodeled (I remember the smell of paint during my on-campus interview). And while the facilities were new and wonderful, the print collection wasn’t in great shape. The arrangement of items was good–no crowding, plenty of room for growth, everything appeared to be in call number order–but the books themselves were getting worn out after several decades of use. To walk through the collection, you would often think “these books are old.”

In some cases the age didn’t matter. I usually browsed in history or literature, and it wasn’t a big deal if our copy of Slaughterhouse Five had seen its fair share of action. But when you got to the social sciences, it was a different story. Staring at a shelf of books about addiction treatment that were written primarily in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s didn’t fill me with confidence, and that sentiment was shared by the faculty. We knew we needed to do something.

Because that library was well managed, the strategic plan that was created to coincide with the renovation included a benchmark to move the median date of publication of items in the collection up from (I think?) the late 1970s to the late 1980s. In other words, we wanted our books to be around ten years newer than what was currently on the shelf. To that end, over the next few years those of use who were selecting books did our best to acquire the newest editions of anything we thought the campus could use, as well as discarded some of those items whose age made them problematic. All pretty standard collection development work for an academic library, honestly.

After a few years we ran a report using the dates of publication that are included in the metadata of anything that’s been properly cataloged, and found that while we had made some progress, the collection was still older than we wanted it to be. As the librarians sat around a conference table, I remember us acknowledging very frankly that we just didn’t have the money to buy enough new books to meet the benchmark, nor could we discard enough of our legacy collection and still function as a library. In other words, we had to have something on the shelf if we were to fulfill our mission.

So we didn’t meet our goal. We kept a lot of older books and life went on.

I wanted to mention this story because it demonstrates a few things that I alluded to in my last post, as well as connects it with some of the comments and criticisms I’ve received in the last few days.

I think the glaring thing here is the neoliberal context in which that library, and many, many other libraries, are operating. We’re short on space, short on money, and still expected to do the same work, if not more. And this kind of austerity is felt throughout the academy, which sparks false divisions and infighting, to which I contributed with my last post. (Many thanks to Ian Beilin, Rachel Fleming, and Sam Popowich for reading and responding to what I wrote.) As a faculty member and a humanist myself I should have known better, and I have heard what people are saying.

There is another aspect to this situation I want to address though, and it’s something I only alluded to in my earlier post when I wrote:

“It’s not lost on me that most of their arguments center on nostalgizing a method of information seeking that has systematically excluded more people than it included.”

I didn’t expand on that point in the initial post because I was already refuting a lot of other arguments, and I didn’t want to dilute this one. I also knew I was writing that with a healthy dose of snark and making sweeping generalizations, and this next point requires a lot more nuance. So here goes…

Legacy print collections in academic libraries are problematic in that they do not reflect the people who rely on them. Instead, they represent racist and patriarchal systems that have dominated the U.S., including its higher education system, for way too long. To browse the stacks of an academic library is to look at books that are overwhelmingly–overwhelmingly–written by white men, about white men, for white men. Maybe approaching any old shelf in a library and finding something that’s interesting and relevant to you really is serendipitous, but it’s serendipity operating within a closed system that was informed by privileged structures that kept a lot of books out of our collections, and a lot of views out of our academies. That same level of serendipity is not experienced by those researchers who are investigating the countless communities whose stories have been erased, as their books were never on the shelf in the first place.

To be clear right now, I’m not saying folks arguing in favor of serendipitous discovery are racists. What I am saying is that print library collections, like most of American society, reflect racist legacies, and I want us to do something about it.

For starters, we need to own that lots of us share the blame in this. Librarianship, like most of higher education, is overwhelmingly white, as are the publishers that provide us with our books, as are the authors who write them, as am I. This is a component of scholarly communication that we’re going to be grappling with for a really, really long time, and putting it out in the open is a pitifully small step on a very long and important path.

If you, like me, think this is a problem we need to address, great. If you reject my premise that a print collection can reflect societal injustice, I would encourage you to consider that the Library of Congress Classification System assigns three subclasses–DE, DF, and DG–to cover the history of Greece and Rome. Meanwhile, LC uses two subclasses–DS and DT–to cover the history of Asia and Africa. As in the entire continents. Greece and Rome come in at around 70 million people but have more prominence in LC that roughly three-fourths of the planet’s entire population.

In other words, there are some bogus views baked into our classification schemas, and our classification schemas often inform what our libraries acquire. (Thinking specially about LCSH-based approval plans, but I know there are other examples.)

So what comes next? If we can accept that some bad stuff went down in the past, how can we correct it moving forward? For that I’ll return to the example I started with. In that case we had a legacy collection that we wanted to update, and we had reliable metadata (the date of publication) attached to each record, allowing for us to figure out where we were and where we wanted to go.

But for a lot of reasons I hope I don’t need to explain, library workers resist assigning author identities as metadata. I remember talking with colleagues at the #critlib meeting in Baltimore last year about the Citation Practices Challenge, and the possibility of somehow making books written by people of color more findable. We chatted about assigning race and ethnicity to each item in our collections, then immediately realized how quickly that could be turned against us. (This is a prime example of Nice White People needing to consider contexts beyond our own, by the way.)

So how can we reach our goal of making our collections better reflect our users? Not to be reductive, but my perspective is that we’ve got two options: Bring in more new stuff and get rid of some of the old stuff.

First, the new stuff. There are initiatives like We Need Diverse Books that seek to highlight authors from marginalized communities, get them published, and get their books into the hands of library users. It’s a great initiative, but it’s only the beginning. We’re going to need a lot of subject expertise and collaboration with faculty throughout our institutions, as well as people who have been kept out, to identify the lacunae in our collections and correct historical oversights. Libraries are also going to need a lot of resources to acquire, catalog, shelf, and house those materials. Some of this work is underway, but we’ve got miles to go.

But we can’t kid ourselves. Even with an unlimited acquisitions and staffing budget, we can’t undo centuries of erasure. We can’t put books on the shelves if they never got published. These stories were told, but they weren’t always preserved, and we’re worse off for having lost them. (Shoutout to the preservationists in the room who are trying to remedy these issues going forward.) With that in mind, how can we get closer to a semblance of equity in our collections, and shed these legacy systems? I think the answer to that has to involve the second option, which is getting rid of some of the old stuff. And as I’ve learned over the years, and was reminded this week, this is where it gets rough…

Look, I love print books. I love browsing. I mentioned Reader’s Guide and microfilm in the last post because I still use those things. I am one of the faculty members I was describing who is largely set in their old ways. But I’ve also come to terms with the fact that I have benefited from legacy systems that made sure white men like me had a good time at the library. Again, I am not calling anyone anything, but I am saying that the collections I grew up using have some serious issues, and some of these items need to be discarded.

Some of these decisions will be easy, but most won’t. Institutionally we’re going to have to really dig in and discuss what views we want our shelves to present, and that’s going to cause a lot of people to feel attacked (which I’m fairly certain happened with my earlier post), and I’m hoping to help organize our efforts in a way to reduce that sentiment. But I’m also not comfortable working in a library that has 20,000 items related to Shakespeare and fewer than 500 dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance, for instance. We’re likely never going to find enough new books in print to offset these disparities, so some things, frankly, will have to go away if we want the composition of our collections to represent our users.

Until now academic librarians and higher education folks have talked about discarding books primarily as a means of making space for something else–new books, a cafe, whatever. I’m not sure that I’ve read or heard anything about an academic library deselecting print volumes in the name of creating a more equitable collection, but I think that has to be where we go next. To clarify, it is imperative to support authors and publishers from marginalized communities as well. We have to acquire more materials from these communities and honor the experiences we’ve been ignoring. But that’s only half of it, and relocating and/or discarding print has to be on the table.

And I lied, there’s a third part of this. We need to realize that more people have more access to the means necessary to create and disseminate information than ever before. At the same time, higher education has been slow to keep up, and continues to value the same formats that have been in play for a couple of centuries. This holdover impairs our ability to move beyond these legacies, insomuch as I don’t think that academic monographic publishing is in a position to suddenly bounce back and start publishing hundreds of thousands of books addressing marginalized communities. No, we need to revisit our collection development policies and our assignments’ source requirements to figure out how to get more perspectives included.

Which is why, for better or for worse, I think our future is online. I’m willing to bet print will stick around, and goodness willing won’t be quite so white on the shelf, but we need to think about the next steps. I’m not a technological solutionist, and I don’t think the internet is equitable by design (if you do, please allow Safiya Noble to change your mind), but I’ve studied information systems enough to know which way the wind’s blowing.

Moving forward, it’s going to be incumbent upon lots of us–librarians, faculty, researchers–to cooperate and discuss what comes next. It’ll involve lots of tough conversations and decisions, but I also want us to be guided by what will do right by the students who rely on our instruction and collections, not by vague notions of what we thought a library was supposed to be. If we’re really going to fulfill our mission, we need to let some legacy systems go.