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November 17, 2003

As you know, anything can be done well. Things not done well vary in their consequences, none of which are generally good.

Surgery not done well can have immediate consequences. Same for driving — motor vehicles or golf balls. The latter is less dire, of course, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from watching golfers.

The result of poor cleaning is generally a slow accumulation of disagreeable consequences. The same for librarianship.

Poor librarianship permits hidden defects to accumulate in a library, but there are few absolutes. We have a surfeit of standards, but in the end, the judgment of a library is made in comparison … either to what was, what could have been, or what could be.
Good librarianship accumulates … perfections? What is an antonym for “defect?” Let’s imagine the accumulation of gems.

The author Nicholson Baker made a hobby during the past decade of taking libraries to task for some choices made in the electronic age. One choice was giving up the card catalog.

The adoption of computer catalogs did not bother him so much as the destruction of famously large and old card catalogs that had been done well. He argued that they should have been saved as important documents themselves.

You might imagine Harvard’s card catalog, for example. It was full of annotations made by scholars and librarians over the course of many generations.

Such annotation is easy with computer catalogs, but during the initial conversion from cards to computer, the annotations accumulated by scholars and librarians were usually not transcribed.

I was thinking about this problem while weeding books in our small history section. Many of the books I removed from the main shelves were not officially “weeded,” as in “withdrawn.”
Upon review, I chose to put most into our annex in the basement. Although this is a kind of Purgatory, out of sight and not browsable, the books can still be found.
While marking the books and their catalog records as requiring “staff retrieval,” I considered what annotations I might make about the books. There is a “notes” field available for each record.

Specifically, something about each book made me choose to keep it, despite age, low usage, or even poor condition. Should I make mention of this judgment?.

Sheila Burnford is famous for her book “The incredible journey.” We also have “Without reserve,” which is not particularly well-read or considered noteworthy. But we’ll keep it in the annex simply because of her fame. Down the line, it will probably make way for another book.

When considering a book, I tried to find discussion of the book, other works by the same author and how important they remain, and whether or not the book remained in print or had been reprinted.

Several of these history books, to my surprise and satisfaction (we don’t like removing books), had been reissued recently by university presses. This fact stands as a powerful judgment itself.

For example, “Climax at Buena Vista: the decisive battle of the Mexican-American War” was just reprinted by the University of Pennsylvania Press. I’d already saved it, though, after noting that it was written by David Lavender.

One place notations will be especially valuable is in the local history collection. Caring for local history is one way that a small library can make a unique, value-added contribution to our culture’s store of knowledge.
We’ve made a nice start … if you can, visit and take a look.


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