Reveries of libraries, the seventh : PURPOSE BUILT by Philip HarveyIt would be good to have a library where every book was read, even once. The utilitarian ideal of things being made for a purpose stays true inside libraries, where it is expected the accessions will be used. In fact, used without exception. It is meant to be. Books and journals and downloads are there for the purpose of being read. For any one of these items not to be read may, on the face of it, seem a small waste of the librarian’s precious time. Everything purchased is purchased to be read. Books are added for a future reader.
Let me put it another way. It would be good to have a library where the actual reading needs of every user were met, in every particular. If the librarian could read the minds of all borrowers, and in advance of their own needs, then the library would be stocked with exactly what each borrower wants at the time they use the library. Every need will be met, to the letter, even those surprise needs that were a secret to the borrower until they first saw the book in front of them.
It would be good to have a library where no book was added that wasn’t actually opened. That is the best way of saying it. Our libraries, and standing collections in particular, seem inevitably to hold items whose pages will never see the light of day. They are ordered for every good reason. They fit the development policies of the library. They should, by right and logic, be irresistible reading for the patrons. They come from the best publishing houses and garner favourable, if not ecstatic, reviews. They may even be recommended by tutors or raved about by colleagues. Yet they stay unopened. Reasons may include being hidden on a shelf with all the others, or worse, misshelved permanently, but whatever, they are overlooked. The librarian knows that such books exist in a collection and that another could have been ordered with the same money, a book that had stupendous loan records. Ordering is like that. A one hundred percent success rate is not a promise.
This is not the reverie of a borrower, for whom such realities do not enter consciousness. Innocently they enter the library, there to find the very thing they were after in their edenic state.
It is the reverie of a librarian, any amount of whose working life is spent judging, when not guessing, which titles will be read and therefore must be ordered, and which will not. In the public library system there are checks and balances. If a title has not been read after twelve months, i.e. no proof of being borrowed, it is removed from the collection, even if it may have been consulted many times inside the library itself. Permanent collections have a different purpose. Books must not be deaccessioned as they may be the only available copy anywhere, they are there for that destined reader, someone who may only walk into the library years after the book first arrived in the collection. Even its bibliographic record on the online catalogue is useful for researchers, for the information, but also to know it is there.
Meanwhile, the librarian indulges in momentary reverie, over a cup of tea and butternut biscuit, on how the purpose of the librarian could most ideally meet the purpose of the borrower, in a world where nothing is wasted and all desires are met. At the back of their minds, this is an expectation librarians know about each time they return to work.