Wednesday, November 21, 2018

As Books are Culled, the Library Deletes the Reference Desk Also

On a visit this past week to the Library, it was a shock to see a faded carpet ring where the Reference Desk used to be.

The "on duty" Reference Librarian turned out to be at the check-out desk, mainly handling that part of the business. They maintained a neutral perspective and affect when asked about the change, and it was not possible to get meaningful information. It seemed likely there was a staffing change involved, either less staff time for Reference activities or a downskilling of Reference positions to be more clerical and therefore less expensive.

The shelves also seemed barer.

Last month an entire run of a periodical I had consulted at the Library before had disappeared, and the Librarians could not find a record of it. They thought I was mistaken to ask for it. This was very strange and unsettling.

So it was very interesting to read the post over at Hinessight, "Salem Public Library removing 30% of print book collection. Resistance is mounting."

Asking the Library mainly for business-style efficiency will lead us to harm our cultural knowledge. From the new head Librarian's response to questions about the book cull:
We also use a product called CollectionHQ, which gives us use metrics, turnover rates, and identifies under- and over-stocked subject areas. With these outlined methods and derived data, we can identify items that no longer circulate, items in poor condition, and outdated information in areas of rapid change such as medicine. We also look for superseded editions, excess copies of previous bestsellers, and worn copies that need to be mended or replaced.
This is an application of Big Data and Taylorism that could easily get out of hand.

It is frequently the items that no longer circulate that are the most interesting and important! History is inefficient!

If you want to know about historical attitudes towards something, you need old books and old things. Even if the information in them has been superseded, the cultural practices that at one time embraced or created that information are often important to know about. It is an overconfident and Whiggish sense of Progress that leads us to discount those old things. If there is one lesson in our current "Know Nothing" politics, it should be to question overconfidence in Progress and the "arc of history," and to see wandering and even "retrograde" motion as common. Presentism is a scourge. Very often the old is new again.
An article from 1998 on cataloguing
Library collection management is not a topic we have followed at all here obviously, but it probably echoes more than a little the mid-90s debates over card catalogues. And earlier debates over microfilming and newspapers.

Nicholson Baker has been a leading voice for preservation of card catalogues and newspapers, and Susan Orleans just published a book about libraries and loss. This is a perennial topic, sadly.

So this is something to watch. Maybe it will turn out to be benign, but considering that a former State Librarian has serious concerns, and thinks things have gone beyond ordinary collection weeding, where there's smoke, there is likely fire!


Anonymous said...

Changes at SPL are happening at lightening speed and without staff input. Staff had 2 weeks notice that the reference desk was being taken away. Circulation staff are now encouraged to "work out of class"...i.e. perform work outside of their pay grade. The Union was not allowed to attend the meeting when management announced this change to staff. (Staff reported that a union rep planned to attend, but was denied admittance) Also, there will no longer be a printed newsletter/calendar of events available for you to pick up as you check out of the library. If you want to know what's happening at the library you will have to look on the web page. If you don't have internet access at home...too bad.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Let's face it, the SPL is dumbing down. As a result, Salem citizens will be dumbed down too. The move it to a popularity contest. Is this an effort to seem relevant in a digital age? If it is, it is sad. When they cull older reference books, we lose our historical perspective, lose depth of knowledge and get swept up in current issues without having the benefit of knowing what preceded it.

Sad to see this happen.

Also the Library is dropping some of their public outreach. They stopped printing a newsletter where you could learn about activities. I noticed more child centered activities which is good, but this might also include a reduction in adult programs like writing classes.

When I was on the Salem-Keizer School District Budget Committee someone got the idea of cutting professional staff and materials. At the same time a budget shortfall hit. Pretty soon the shelves became bare and the librarians were deduced by almost a quarter.

I joined efforts with the remaining staff to create a support group called Better Libraries for Salem-Keizer Schools (BLISS). We were able to educate the School Board and Administration about the value of the libraries and professional staff. Over the next few years we were able to restore the funding for replacement books. And we managed to stop the staffing cuts.

Sadly, after 25 years of success, the group ended because most of the older librarians retired and the new librarians had less understanding of the past. Within 2 years of ending BLISS virtually all professional librarians were let go. The School libraries are not much more than a place to check out books.

And the quality of books in the library has faded. It took 10 years to recover the number of books that had been culled.

My fear is that this is the future of Salem Public Library. Professional librarians do a lot more than just check out books and put returned books on the shelves.

Salem is facing a $6 million shortfall in its General Fund either this or next year. It costs about $23 per book according to professional librarians. If they cull 30,000 books and materials, that is almost $700,000 loss. It is very unlikely we will get the money needed to replace those books.

I hope that people speak up and get the policy reviewed before we lose more!

Anonymous said...

Here's some on the Reference Desk from Library Advisory Board minutes.

"We are moving to a more collaborative service model and working to give our excellent service wherever the user is located in the library. The start of this project is the combination of the Ask Here and the Check Out service points. No longer will people wait in line at one desk only to find out they have to walk ten feet over and wait in line at a slightly different desk. This should add capacity for staff in addition to making our customer service model more user-friendly for the patrons on the 2nd floor. This change is the start of implementing collaborative services across the Main Library. It’s already in full effect at West Salem Branch Library, which only has one service point for all customer service needs."