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Oh, snap

An academic library question. A retired professor has passed to us the contents of his bookshelves, and I have been given the task of making the first pass through a portion of them to determine which we want to add to our collection. It’s a pleasant task—the stuff I am going through is mostly playscripts and books about drama, which is why I was given it—and I have learned a lot about our collection from the searches for duplicates. The books we are being given are quite old, being books from, oh, the late forties through the seventies, mostly, with perhaps ten percent being from earlier or later. My discovery, and I am not at all surprised about this, is that we have lots and lots and lots of books about the drama that nobody has checked out for ten years or more. Lots. That’s disappointing, in its way. It’s hard not to gauge the value of the books by their frequency of use.

Of course, infrequent use has kept many of the books in excellent condition. If I find a book in the gift that we have already have a copy of, and that copy hasn’t gone out in ten years, I can be reasonably sure that it is in good enough condition that we don’t need to replace it with the one from the donation. Sure enough that it isn’t worth the time to track down each such book and examine it, unless (as rarely happens) the copy I am considering is in very good condition indeed. Most of them, though, if we have an identical copy, and it hasn’t gone out for a while, or has gone out once or even twice in the last ten years, I can put it out of consideration. Free books aren’t free, alas. Every book added to the collection costs something: this much for the time spent cataloguing, this much for the time spent shelving, this much for the time spent rearranging the shelves to allow for the new books. Space is finite, too, of course, and in addition to the potential for running out of space entirely, there’s the problem of making it more difficult to find the needles that people want in the haystacks of material on our shelves and in our catalogue. A library collection is, ideally, a collection rather than a hoard. My instincts are rather toward book hoarding than collecting, which makes it emotionally difficult for me to consign so many dozens of perfectly good books to the sale table of history. I know it’s right, but it ain’t easy.

We’re leading up to my question, now, I promise.

In the collection, then, there are the books we have identical copies of, which we (usually) don’t need. The books we don’t have at all, of course, which require a proper decision based on the contents. Then there are the books we have, but in some other version—the paperback, the hardback, the earlier edition, the later edition. The reprint with a new introduction. That sort of thing. More complicated, but it generally breaks down into (a) it’s different enough to be treated like a different book, or (2) it’s not.

And now we’re at my question: let’s say there’s a book in this donation—hypothetical case, it’s a book on Elizabethan Drama. It’s a second edition, published in 1970. The first edition, from, oh, 1961, is in the collection, and it hasn’t gone out in ten years. Looking at the second edition, it’s revised and expanded and has a new introductory essay. What should I do with it?

The quickest thing, of course, is to say we don’t need it. If the first edition didn’t get any dates, the forty-year-old revisions aren’t going to make it pop. It’s gone.

The next quickest thing would be to toss the second edition, and also pull the first edition and deaccession that one. Because it’s not getting used. Although of course that’s a terribly haphazard way of weeding a collection, which properly speaking should be gone through in its entirety, rather than just yanking the odd weed, but there it is.

The not-very-quickest would be to pull and de-accession the first edition and then catalogue and shelve the second edition. After all, it’s possible that the revisions are really good. And if we’re going to have one, we should have the more recent one, right?

The not-quick-at-all-est thing is to do some research, find out if there is a later edition, find out if there are recent citations, do the whole librarian thing.

Is it worth putting that much time into books like that? Because every half-hour put in to researching one book is a half-hour not put in to researching some other book. The point of having me (a library clerk, rather than a librarian) go through all these books first is to minimize the librarian’s time spent doing that research on the collection—or, looking at it a better way, to use the librarians’ limited time doing that research on the books that most reward it. Then the librarians will look at the ones I set aside for them and have to decide which of those they should spend significant time on. I’m going through 500 books; if I can make a confident recommendation on 400 of them, I’ll be doing quite well. They will, I think, be doing well if they can devote twenty hours of work to making decisions about those hundred remaining books over the next couple of weeks. That means that most of them will have to be snap decisions, based on instinct.

But the real snap decision, it seems to me, is whether to make a snap decision or put some time in to do the research. We want the best possible collection, which means doing the research—but we want the best possible collection actually available, which means not leaving dozens of books waiting for somebody to have some time to do research.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Well, if it's actually a book on Elizabethan drama, you can send a quick actual note with the title and author (or other titles and authors) to a scholar in the field if you happen to know an actual one--such a scholar might actually be a point of reference on books on modern drama as well: that expertise sometimes but doesn't always overlap.

Having said that about the particular hypothetical case, I would say that, in general, a scholarly book that has received a second edition ten years after the first edition was an exceptionally noteworthy book at some point. In weeding, if there are two scholarly books next to one another on a subject, and one needs to go and you know nothing about them except that one has a second edition and the other doesn't, lean to keeping the one that was reissued. It is unlikely, however, that having one edition rather than the other is all that important. Differences between editions in works of this kind are seldom major: if the book really needed changes, it probably wouldn't be getting a second edition. If you are a BIG research library, you want both editions. If you are anybody else, they are probably functionally interchangeable. If it doesn't add too much extra work to keep the later edition, though, you're probably slightly better off with that one.

That's how it looks to me from within the field of literary scholarship, anyway. In other fields things are probably different. In philosophy, for example, it might be IMPORTANT to have the second edition.


When I was in grad school many years ago, the books that were on professors' office shelves were rarely checked out from the library because we'd just borrow them from the profs. So I'd lean against option 2.


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