Venn Librarian

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Curation mandate

Posted by lpearle on 12 February 2013

The other day I was reading Where the Light Falls and this quote caught my eye:

Take my advice, Miss Palmer, and prune regularly.  Everything not indispensable is noxious, says Carolus. Applies to art as well as to life.

One could also add “and libraries” couldn’t one?

Joyce Valenza very kindly quoted from my last curation post in her recent Educon presentation (slides here), and she’s got great points to make about digital curation.  But what about curating physical objects, be they DVDs or books or technologies or even magazines?  Recently I was asked the question “why do we need school librarians?” and part of my response was all about curation.

Scholars are collectors: they see a book, might be tangential to their major topic of interest or dead on point, and they have to have it.  Just in case.  Miriam Burnstein’s This Week’s Acquisitions post highlights this quite nicely. Some schools have the same philosophy, and still tout their large collection size.  The question is: is it necessary? does it really help students find the information they need?  Librarians, with their knowledge of the curriculum not just for a class but both inside each department and across the departments, are ideally able to help curate the collection to reflect the best possible collection of resources for the school at that time.

Example? When I started at Hackley, we had books on the shelves that dated to the 1920s (not just copyright, purchased!).  Ordinarily I’d say “trash ’em” but there was a project that started the 11th grade history class based on the Treaty of Versailles.  These books provided primary sources for this project, an invaluable resource for students.  There was reluctance to use them, because there was no index (shock! horror! they had to actually read the book to find the information) but also an acceptance that these were really helpful books.  Once the project ended, however, the books became less useful; thanks to Google’s scanning program, they’re now available online and don’t have to be put on a reserve cart.  One of the librarians I worked with was always reluctant to weed because there might – at some point – be a need for the book.

Sorry, but that’s not an acceptable answer any longer.  “Just in case” leads to many, many dusty books that clog shelves, obscuring the really valuable stuff that is needed now.  Think of when you’re go into a bookstore looking for a book on some topic, without a specific title or author in mind.  There’s no curation there, it’s a collection – an organized collection, but a collection just the same.  How do you know which book is the best? You flip through the offerings, evaluating the sentences and coverage, the layout, etc.. and then you choose something and hope that it’s the perfect book.  In a library with a curated collection, you know that someone has deliberately chosen selected resources that will give you the best information on the topic possible.

Which do you want your students to have access to?

Over the years, my thoughts on weeding/deaccessioning/curating have changed.  If a non-fiction book hasn’t circulated (and this includes In Library Uses – and if you’re not tracking those, start now because it’s an invaluable tool!) in 5-7 years, and it’s not a “classic” (eg, Darwin’s Origins of the Species or Campbell’s The Power of Myth) start looking for an update and ask the department if it’s really needed on your shelves.  Some departments want those books for their departmental library and that’s ok: let them have it.  Better them using it “if needed” than you keeping it when it’s not helping anyone.  Fiction? I’m giving it 3-5 years and then it can get sold or handed over to classroom libraries/favored readers.  That may give business managers fits, but in the 21st century we need to curate, not collect, in school libraries.


3 Responses to “Curation mandate”

  1. Alice said

    One of my favorite Library School professors gave us the “dust density” rule for weeding: If the thumbprint you left on the top of the book *last year* is still visible, it’s time to weed the book.

  2. […] Joyce Valenza very kindly quoted from my last curation post in her recent Educon presentation (slides here), and she's got great points to make about digital curation. But what about curating physical objects, be they DVDs or …  […]

  3. […] Very difficult topic in schools and school libraries…prune, weed, curate.  […]

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