Librarian's Lobby
November 2002

by Daniel D. Stuhlman

Too Many Books?

At a recent meeting of the Judaica Library Network of Metropolitan Chicago the topic of conversation before the main presentation centered on what to do with books that the library neither needs nor wants. One of the missions of a library is to get the right books into the hands of your readers. Libraries obtain by purchase and gifts. Sometimes the gifts are valuable and sometimes the gifts present disposal problems. Libraries also have to remove books that are no longer relevant to the collection and current users.

All libraries have space problems. Even if the library is new and the shelves are half empty, librarians have space considerations. Buildings cost major dollars. A synagogue, school and public library removes books from the collections to make room for new books. This presents interesting problems in the process of deciding what to remove. Removing an old edition in favor of a new edition of a book is done unless the old edition has valuable information not contained in the newer edition. Removing books that are no longer read or used requires the knowledge of a trained professional. A library can not make a policy to remove books that have not been checked out in X years. Sometimes the books are important to own even if no one has read them in 5, 10 or even 25 years.

Gifts are a mixed blessing. At the meeting we discussed the problems of gifts. First accepting a gift may have strings or requirements that the library can not meet. Libraries decline gifts when the conditions are unacceptable. For example when the cost to acquire the books is too great or the books do not fit the scope of the collection. I find it curious when a family gives the books of a deceased family member instead of keeping the books in the family. I heard a story of a professor's wife, who after the professor died, didn't know what to do with the huge number books in his collection. This collection was a serious collection that contained many editions of classical Jewish works (Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud), secularism, Jewish philosophy, textual interpretation, and religious thought. The professor, Dr. Marvin Fox, was born in Chicago and a University of Chicago Ph. D. and a rabbi. The collection is now in the University of Chicago Library. While the collection was valuable, the library had to spend the resources to process the collection and decide which items to keep. They finally assimilated about 80% of the collection of about 5,500 items into the collection. Part of the collection formed the basis for a Judaica reference section, a section they never had. Very few libraries can afford to assimilate such a large collection.

Book plates acknowledging the source of the gift is a common way for libraries to "thank" the donors. Often the donor or family is involved with the design of the book plate. The book plates memorialize or honor the donor and add value to the collections. Since many libraries normally put bookplates in all books, this does not add to the cost of processing the books. Sometimes memorial plaques are placed on shelves or library walls.

Another source of books is closed libraries. When Niles East High School closed, Lincolnwood Public Library bought most of the books. LPL then had an instant collection. Recently two synagogues Ezra Habonim and Ner Tamid merged. Ner Tamid had a library; Ezra Habonim had a large collection of books. The boxes of books were moved to Ner Tamid's library. The librarian didn't even want to look over the collection because she assumed the books are all duplicates. I looked over some of the books. I found some interesting books that I took home. The librarian was happy that I was taking the books and giving them more space. The value of these books is interesting. For the library the books were a liability, i.e. it was costing them. One book I took cost more than $100 when new. I turned one library's liability into my treasure.

Book lovers, such as myself, hate to see books discarded. Even if we don't want the book for ourselves, we want the books to go to a good home. Many libraries sell books that they do not need. The books sold are those removed from the collection and gifts that they did not accept for the collection. This sale is labor intensive. Used books do not command a high price. Books that cost $50 or $75 new may sell for $1 or $2. Paperbacks may go for $.50. Very rarely can the costs be recovered. Sometimes it more cost effective to give away the books, than to sell them. Libraries have experimented with selling books over the internet, but except for some extremely valuable books this is not cost effective. Some books may never sell and forcing disposal in a dumpster. (As an aside, my collection of Harvard Classics was retrieved from a discard pile a few minutes before the trash collectors would have carted it away. I have frequently referred to these volumes.) Some libraries are so pressed for space that they have a policy of discarding one book for everyone they buy. This is good news for people who only want the latest and greatest, but bad news for someone looking for old books and other publications.

Sometimes a reader needs a book that is no longer in print. A book may be well used and need replacement, but the publisher no longer has stock. Then is it time to go to the used book market. In the out-of-print market a book may cost more than the original cover price. Even at this high cost the buyer will often feel they are getting something valuable. One librarian at the meeting told us a book that one teacher loved to use in her classes. The library copy wore out. The librarian found the book from a dealer who charged $20 for the book. This is on top of staff time searching for the dealer. A few weeks later the librarian found the book at a library discard sale for $1.00. She bought the second copy, too. Books with author autographs, first editions of later famous authors, and books of special influence command prices far beyond the original purchase price.

Research collections seek to collect comprehensively. They want to keep materials even when they are not the latest and greatest. One mission is to collect, preserve and provide access to materials from the past and present. For example the library may collect Talmud imprints. The importance is the place of publication and providence. The actual Talmud text is secondary because it is the same as any Talmud we have today. For Tanachim (Bibles in Hebrew) the situation is different. The nikud(vocalization) is not exactly the same in every edition. Having early imprints for study is important. I studied Tanach texts and found differences that would change the way we would translate the words or sentences. Libraries use old books and books from special collections for exhibits that show off the treasures of the library and to teach the public about the past.

The librarians' meeting came to no conclusions as to the disposition of books. As librarians we all want readers to have the books they need and want books to have good homes. The struggle is all part of our journey.

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit the web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at:
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 ©2002 Last revised December 1, 2002