Monday, April 5, 2010

Marked for Deselection

Under the somewhat deceptive title of Collection Appraisal Project, the library at Victoria University proposed in 2004 to dispose of up to 130,000 titles - approximately one-fifth of its overall holdings - so that some of its space could be freed up for other functions than the storage and display of books. It was initially decided that the books that hadn't been taken out of the library for ten years or longer would be marked for inclusion on this list, and that it would be up to the academic staff and students to indicate whether any of them should be spared. Once this initial phase had been completed, some of the books would be relegated to the stacks and the balance would be de-selected, that is to say destroyed. Library staff proceeded therefore to apply red stickers onto the spines of these seldom-borrowed books, and informed us that in order to take them off the list we would have to mark the stickers with a black felt pen.

This didn't go down well, especially in the humanities. In an email circulated around the faculty under the subject line 'Barbarians at the gates', Professor Robert Easting lamented the time he had been forced to spend on his hands and knees hunting for red-stickered books. He pointed out that the already scarce holdings of the library could hardly afford to be reduced further; that the crude ten-years criterion was singularly ill-suited to establish relevance to humanists and social scientists. He described the practice of destroying books as 'barbaric'. Soon the polemic reached the newspapers and a nationally televised panel TV show, and some time later the plan was abandoned.

But the books themselves preserve its memory. To this day if you browse the library, especially on certain floors, you'll find more books with the red sticker than books without. The Italian section was hit especially hard. Whole shelves, whole centuries of our literature had been plastered with the stickers. I recall going through them at the time and marking them just as indiscriminately. Save one, save all. I don't care how long it has been since the complete works of Giovanni Boccaccio were checked out. We need them; they must be there, occupy that space, or we might as well not have an Italian department at all.

It had already been marked with a thick black forward-slash by the time I got there, but I recoiled especially at seeing Antonio Gramsci's Lettere dal carcere sporting a red sticker. The letters that Gramsci had penned as a political prisoner, under the constraints of censorship and the rationing of his writing privileges, and that together form an extraordinary prison memoir, yes, but also a chronicle of intellectual life during Fascism and the autobiography of one Europe's greatest political thinkers and philosophers of the last century - it seemed such an astonishing indignity for that particular book, such an offence to its history and ours, that it might even be suggested to remove it from view, let alone destroy it. It also underscored the poor intellectual effort that had gone into assessing the value of the library's collections, just when the times demanded our sharpest possible thinking on the subject of which print materials ought to be displayed, and how, and at what cost, and which titles would do better in a digital environment; how to balance the needs of current and future researchers with broader cultural considerations; how to understand the value of books as material objects, and the act of browsing them as a physical journey into a topic or the history of a country, within a set of spatial coordinates that don't always map well inside of a computer network.


Antonio Gramsci didn't die in prison, but only just. Mussolini had him arrested in 1926 along with others Parlamentarians of the opposition. At his trial, in 1928, public prosecutor Michele Isgrò famously spoke of the need to 'render that brain of his inoperative for at least twenty years'. And while his steadily deteriorating health bought him some respite from the harshest conditions of his imprisonment, and finally an early release in April of 1937, he had regained his freedom for less than a week when an aneurysm killed him. He was forty-six years old.

Far from rendering his brain inoperative, prison made a philosopher out of Gramsci. No longer able to carry out his active political duties as communist leader, he resolved from the outset to occupy as much time as he could with systematic studying and writing. Indeed in the very first letter following his arrest, addressed to the family whose apartment he was renting at the time, Gramsci asked if they could please send him some of his books and purchase for him a cheap copy of Dante's Divine Comedy. (He pointed out to them that these books would have to be stripped of their covers in order to pass inspection.) At his initial internment destination, on the island of Ustica, he started a school programme with Amedeo Bordiga and other political detainees. Later, in prison proper, he was involved in constant negotiations concerning which books he was allowed to receive and keep, how much stationery he was allowed to have, and how often he was allowed to write to his family and friends.

These constantly changing restrictions on his reading and writing are painstakingly documented in the letters, which are also a chronicle of how the Prison Notebooks came to be. Here too the posthumous title is descriptive not of a literary or philosophical subject, but of a concrete practice, of the circumstances in which the author was forced to operate: in prison, on a series of thirty-two notebooks that he had no meaningful hope of seeing published. Yet to these notebooks he entrusted his thoughts on hegemony, on the philosophy of Croce, on the role of public intellectuals, on Machiavelli, on literature. It was his intellectual legacy. Nearly three thousand pages, each paragraph seemingly composed inside his head and then written down - like the letters - already in final draft, not to waste precious paper or the time that he was allowed to spend on such activities. And once his ill health finally forced him to abandon the project, in 1935, so too from his correspondence disappeared the requests for books or periodicals, all signs of the febrile discipline that had given him a focus and a purpose for the best part of a decade and of the gestures that accompanied it. Gramsci's life was winding down, and what little energy he had left was spent writing to his family in Russia, to his two boys Delio and Giuliano, whom he had barely had time to see and who were now just old enough to be able to read his letters and respond.

Reading Gramsci's letters, more so than the Notebooks, I am reminded of Primo Levi and of his extraordinary compulsion to write while still a prisoner at Monowitz, knowing that if any of those scraps of hastily scribbled upon paper had been found on his person he would be put to death, and so they had to be immediately destroyed. Yet he wrote, as if the act alone could leave a material trace of his conscience, of his passage through that infernal machinery whose purpose it was to destroy him and every sign of his person. Gramsci too, albeit in a lesser hell, was almost physically consumed by the need to fight with the only weapon he had left the forces that wished to neutralize his intellect.

When a library wants to get rid of some of its books, it is sometimes referred to as a cull. Bear in mind that these are the same people who refer to the acquisition of digital information as ‘ingesting’. But culls need to occur, and it may not be as inapt a word as all that. In order to make room for new acquisitions a library simply has to either physically expand or withdraw some of its holdings. It happens all the time. Of course generally they don’t ask you about it. On your next visit you might simply find that a familiar book or series has disappeared. And since frequency of borrowing is in fact one of the indicators of the relative value of the titles in a collection, checking a favourite book out from time to time may just be a smart thing to do, if you really care about it.

What made the exercise at Victoria objectionable then wasn’t the decision to get rid of some books, or the involvement of staff and students in the selection, but the ulterior aim, which was an actual reduction of the overall holdings so that other functions - primarily IT - could be expanded. By rights this move ought to have followed a discussion on what it means to have more computers and fewer books; whether or not it broadens access to key knowledge and resources; whether it leads to better research rather than just faster research. But in the clumsy way they went about it, the library administrators also created an interesting case study, in that they made visible and in fact indelible the process that leads to the elimination of books from a collection. The red sticker on the letters of Gramsci, as well as the black mark on the sticker itself, are now part of the history of that book. They broaden its meaning and contribute to its interpretation, inviting further reflection on the material circumstances in which the letters were written, and the history of their publication and ongoing reception. And when the book is threatened to be displaced due the encroaching of a new technology, those signs also remind us that before the digital humanities there was this thing called the analogue humanities, and that the transition between the two is enormously sensitive and fraught.

Antonio Gramsci. Lettere dal carcere. Edited by Sergio Caprioglio and Elsa Fubini. Turin: Einaudi, 1965.

All the photographs were taken by me at the library in April of 2010.

Readers who have come here by way of Hacking the Academy might be interested in Carl Dyke's response to this post at Dead Voles, as well as in the comments below.


George said...

I remember that fight, and the effort that had to be made to mark books again. It was awful, and particularly symptomatic of the viewpoint of New Zealand universities, which see students and researchers primarily as sources of revenue and facilities as drains on their finances.

Other libraries I've used have not killed their books, journals, and other works, but merely exiled them. They can be reached by request, but the effect is dramatic, particularly on hurried undergraduates. At the Australian National University they went in order to make more room for couches, desks, and computer terminals.

Philip said...

A particularly irresponsible move in a country where it costs so much to import new copies, as well. I believe there was a time when digital technology was supposed to help make more room for other stuff - remember the paperless office? Did Primo Levi get a red sticker too?

Word Verification: palarr, drunken palaver.

Helen said...

They might as well have made a big bonfire in the quad. This pisses me off so much.

merc said...

Note to them...intuition is not a numbers game.

Edmund said...

God. I had no idea that's what the red sticker meant. (I only came to VUW in 2006, and thus missed the back-story.) One of the few strong points in VUW's humanities monograph collection is that it was reasonably strong in material published before about 1980. To think that we almost lost much of that material -- I'm thinking of especially of all the fantastic older edited collections the library holds (Horace Walpole's complete correspondence, the Johnsonian "Gleanings," the complete works of Boswell, the "Opera" of Erasmus), whose red stickers I now see in an entirely new light.

And the crowning irony is that, only 4 years later, thanks to the 2008/9 serials budget blowout, VUW pretty much lost its acquisitions budget for new books. Sigh. What is it with New Zealand's ongoing hatred of its book culture?

che tibby said...

VUW... another reason why I hated the place.

you'd think the sensible option would be *archiving* under-utilised books, not burning them.

but this is what happens whey you're governed by money people.

Giovanni said...

Other libraries I've used have not killed their books, journals, and other works, but merely exiled them. They can be reached by request, but the effect is dramatic, particularly on hurried undergraduates.

Walking down the only aisle of Italian books at Vic you can just see the devastating effect that removing all those books would have had. There would be very little at all left between Dante and World War II. And it may well be that most of those books haven't been opened in decades, but those few shelves are also a concrete map of our literature. They need to be there regardless of the 'density of usage' of individual titles.

Did Primo Levi get a red sticker too?

You know, I don't think so but I'm afraid to check now. His English editions are in the Holocaust memoirs section, and that's another place where I'd hate to see red stickers and proposed 'deselections'. I might just have to reassure myself that they left it alone next time I visit.

Fatal Paradox said...

We're going through a similar battle at Canterbury at the moment - the current vice chancellor regards the 9 floors of books in the university's Central Library as a waste of productive space and wants to 'free up' some of this capacity by switching to ebooks.

Fortunately though most titles in the 'older than 10 years' category that have so far been removed have gone to storage rather than been destroyed, but the barbarians are certainly not far from the city gates...

Giovanni said...

Yes, but that's my point - to relegate books in the stacks is almost as bad. If you tuck a book away in an electronic catalogue, it might as well be an e-book. Being able to browse a decent physical collection that is representative of a broad enough range of ideas and their history is important. And while we celebrate the new possibilities opened up by networked electronic resources and open access publications, we also need to fight to at least prevent traditional library spaces from shrinking further. They'll be very hard to claw back when they're gone.

merc said...

When they gone they gone, this is destruction by another name.

Anonymous said...

Giovanni, today I visited the stackroom of the library, level 0, where books with low loan frequency are held. What an eerie place: dark (light switches quite difficult to find), shelves that had to be separated by turning a lever ("una manovella"), because of the high density stordage, room to peruse only one row of shelves at a time.

I was afraid I'd find the corpse of a long-fogotten reader squashed between shelves.

The book I was looking for? An original 1964 edition of A Single Man by Chrsistopher Isherwood; could be a collectible item these days. I wonder how long it's been in the stackroom and if one of the reason it's not borrowed more often is precisely because it's there.


merc said...

This post touches on so many things, so if something is remaindered due to unpopularity, how can it ever be popular? And why is popular considered a good thing?
Tweaking with the paradox.

George said...

today I visited the stackroom of the library, level 0, where books with low loan frequency are held. What an eerie place: dark (light switches quite difficult to find), shelves that had to be separated by turning a lever ("una manovella"), because of the high density stordage, room to peruse only one row of shelves at a time.

I don't mind these, actually. Because of their weight they're relegated to ground floors and basements, but they keep physical items readily accessible without great cost in finances or space.

Anonymous said...

Just to add an Auckland response, if you've been to the Auckland Central City library (council operated) you can see the devastation caused by a cull. In an effort to create more floor space and room for computers the library has removed most of its books to the stacks downstairs. This leads to the inconvenience of waiting 10 minutes for your book to be retrieved, but for someone like me who selects (often) simply by browsing the aisles, my enjoyment of the library is decreased. Now I must know what I'm looking for in advance (which is not so difficult when researching, but problematic when reading for pleasure) - this leads to a totally different approach to selection for me. In the case of the university library, it's an example of the effect the corporatisation of the universities is having on research itself, leaving no room for serendipitous discovery. In the age of accountability the wanderer, the thinker, the dreamer who 'discovers' has become irrelevent. And if Auckland's libraries have been treated like this already, think what's going to happen under the Super City regime. Keep protecting the library Giovanni, you are Memory's Hero my friend. Emma Jean.

merc said...

Emma Jean wrote...serendipitous discovery...the wanderer, the thinker, the dreamer who 'discovers' has become irrelevant.

I love you Emma Jean :-)

Giovanni said...

I hope this is not going to sound too contradictory, but I love spending time in the stacks. Shades of Haňt'a, perhaps. It's also quite appropriate to my research topic to find interest in what is obsolete. But what Emma Jean says is the key I think - I wonder if serendipitous discovery is no longer the thing one expects of a library. It's what happens online. The connections that count are dictated by a chain of hyperlinks, not by proximity on a shelf.

merc said...

It is true as I have heard from Hell.
William Blake

George said...

It also needs to be said again that VUW's library was hardly well stocked in many areas before 2004, largely the result of over a decade of neoliberal-led systematic disinvestment in research in the humanities and social sciences, and disinterest in libraries themselves. This continued under Labour, with barely a pause.

This leads to the inconvenience of waiting 10 minutes for your book to be retrieved, but for someone like me who selects (often) simply by browsing the aisles, my enjoyment of the library is decreased. Now I must know what I'm looking for in advance (which is not so difficult when researching, but problematic when reading for pleasure) - this leads to a totally different approach to selection for me.

I think we're talking about two things here - stacks that are directly accessible, and those that are only accessible to those who work for the library. Those I can slide myself are exquisitely pleasurable.

Browsing is indeed very important, and I would argue that it is actually even more important in research than pleasure. If you already knew what you wanted, you would have a fair idea of its content. Access to unexpected information is where so much discovery comes from

Siobhan said...

You might be a little dismayed then to discover there was once an extensive foreign language collection at the National Library.

Digital technology only makes it easier to create more paper. I personally think the digital solution employed by libraries now is really dangerous. That is the purchase of access to online electronic databases. Companies like Springer, Proquest etc have libraries by the short and curlies, they can continue to hike costs at will and the libraries no longer have hard copy collections to fall back on. But everyone bought into it back when and so that's the way we do it now. And that's exactly why we get serials budget blow outs as Edmund mentioned, because we're not smart enough to hedge so when the currency goes against our favour we don't get pinged.

Before I get tempted to wax lyrical about Derrida, memory and the death drive and the innate need to destroy living in the gut of every librarian (as Nicholson Baker would have you believe) I'll point out this title:
"Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction" by Rebecca Knuth

Talks about destruction of libraries in violent times but well worth the read.

Siobhan said...

Browsing is indeed very important, and I would argue that it is actually even more important in research than pleasure. If you already knew what you wanted, you would have a fair idea of its content. Access to unexpected information is where so much discovery comes from.

Seredipity - the holy grail of arrangement and description/collocation/hyperlinking whatever you want to call it. Of all the search strategies it is the hardest to build into a system. No amount of analysis to maximise benefits for all users regardless of search strategy will help you make this happen. it's totally about happy accidents a large part of which is how your day is going and what you're thinking about or feeling right now. It's beautiful isn't it?

merc said...

Thank you Siobhan.

Giovanni said...

Yes, thank you Siobhan. The Knuth book looks really interesting, I read her earlier Libricide but had no idea she followed it up. I really need to start paying more attention to these things.

(I note also it's on 3-day loan at Vic. When that happens I always want to enroll in the relevant course.)

Samuel said...

For some I'm reminded here of an episode in one of Iain M Banks' Culture novels, where an invasion force conquers an alien capital, including its immense (and sacred) library.

Against the fears of the vanquished population, they promise not to actually destroy any component of the centuries of visual and electronic records in the library.

And technically they don't - they just disassemble and reorganise it all into one enormous sequence of graded coloured pixels, shading from one colour into another across the many floors of the library...

Local reaction was not positive.

Giovanni said...

Ohhh... me like. Which one of the Culture novels is that?

Samuel said...

Don't precisely recall. I'll try to find out (this is the problem with having a collection spread over a couple of different locations!).

Phil Steer said...

I read your post a while ago now, but it came back to me as I was looking through Franco Moretti's "Atlas of the European Novel". He talks a bit about C19 subscription libraries and the size of their collections:

"[A] small library doesn't choose fewer items from the entire morphological spectrum; rather, it reduces the very extent of the spectrum. Size affects formal variety--in the sense that it reduces variety.... [T]he number of forms is influenced, if not controlled, by the space of the library. Which is to say, by the space of the market.... A small library is the sign of a small market ... it discourages the more specialized forms (like Jacobin novels, or regional tales, or foreign imports) and selects by contrast the all-purpose, 'generalist' genre of the historical novel." (pp. 158-9)

For Moretti, this reduction in fictional variety reduces the possibilities for future aesthetic innovation, which he sees deriving from the appropriation of 'lesser' forms: "See what happens, when a library confines itself to the canon: by banishing bad literature, it denies its audience the raw material of literary evolution. It becomes scholastic, sterile; the more so, if it also excludes foreign novels." (p. 149)

Moretti's quantitative approach doesn't always convince me, but I think his comments here might apply to scholarship as well as literary production--a narrower collection must necessarily foreclose innovative work, especially (I think) by restricting our access to the past.

Giovanni said...

a narrower collection must necessarily foreclose innovative work, especially (I think) by restricting our access to the past.

The problem here I think is that we are being sold this reduction in print holdings by a corresponding increase in digital holdings (whether real or perceived). Suppose the near-entirety of Jacobin novels was digitised, and freely accessible via a row of terminals in the physical space that used to be occupied by a far smaller selection of print novels now relegated to the stacks or disposed of. Would that be an improvement? Would it constitute a greater, broader access to the past? In part, I suppose. But how do you explore and manipulate that virtual space? Is it possible to replicate there the chance for serendipitous encounters we've talked about here, the adjacency of titles, the sense of time unfolding? Google Books is making some attempts in that direction and offers some browsing options beside its usual search functions. Amazon - more usefully at this stage I think - uses purchasing patterns to establish thematic connections. It will be very interesting to see how this virtualisation will develop, and at which point it will make sense to say that the digital library has superseded the print library in terms of usefulness to an institution like the university, so much so that it will make sense for the likes of Victoria to divest themselves of the majority of physical holdings. I think we're nowhere near that.

harvestbird said...

We will die here,
or at least our labour will
or at least the printed pages'
simulacra of our thought.

Inside the emptied tower block
the new rewriting, ex cathedra,
invisibly reaches to occupy space
to harry or hurry the slow and the old.

Anonymous said...

Libraries and archives have always only been able to keep a fraction of a fraction of printed materials (and now digital materials as well). Deselection has always been part of the process. There is no way around it, but if people are unhappy about the books or amount of books that have been deselected you have to be more involved in working with your librarians and making sure your institution provides enough financial support for your library. Furthermore, the one thing that has hurt library collections more than anything is the ludicrous university/departmental publishing-tenure procedures that force libraries to spend massive amounts of money buying journals (that often publish the writing of their own faculty). If that structure were changed there would be a lot more money for keeping books around.

Maud said...

A long ago post, but today as I was reading it was running through my mind, brought to the surface by an essay by Dubravka Ugresic, called A Little Red Dot, also about library collections, this time those of the Slavic Department of a library, where the little red dot means you can't borrow that one book from the megre shlf lot available. This essay is from a very sad funny collection called Thank You For Not Reading, which touches on the position of the writer in the world of cultural production. I had never read her before, but will now be looking for more of her work.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you, I must too by the sound. She was a very vocal critic of Croatian nationalism as I recall, and I'm due to write about the destruction of the library in Sarajevo in the next year.