I’ve been mulling over Steve’s latest post about some of the ways in which knowing the number of books in your library is either impossible or not very meaningful. And I imagine that for most of the parents on these college tours this number really isn’t very meaningful at all. For it to be meaningful you need to know how that number compares to other libraries, and what the collection’s strengths are. I freely admit that I really haven’t a clue how many “books” we have in our library. I think of it as a medium-sized college library. I know that we have one of the strongest collections of “big name” critical editions of renaissance scores in the state. I know we have almost nothing in our collection about topics that aren’t actively taught on campus.
“Number of volumes” is one of those standard measures that libraries use to describe themselves, and I started wondering what was useful and what wasn’t about that measure. Like Carol in Steve’s comments (and actually like Steve says in his last non-bulleted paragraph), I think that there’s more to having more books than simply having more books. It makes lots of kinds of things possible that simply aren’t possible with smaller collections.
On the other hand, when that’s the number that we give to people who are, in effect, asking “how good is your library,” I think we’re missing the boat. And when the parents of prospective students ask “how many books do you have” they are actually asking you “how good is your library.” It’s a classic compromised question (for those of you familiar with the reference interview). They’ve already decided on a specific measure that they hope will help them figure out the answer to the larger question, not realizing that there are probably better ways to get answers to their real question. And they’re asking for this measure because back in the day, back when information was hard to come by, having a lot of it in your library was a huge deal. Period. Now the library’s actual holdings are not only hard to count, but they’re really only a portion of the information that’s available to our communities. The free web is bursting at the seams with fantastic sources of all kinds, and I make it my business to help my students navigate those as well as what’s actually in my library.
And so now, no matter how useful knowing the number of volumes in my library may be in some circumstances, I think that the worth of the library is measured in the people who work here and the relationships we have with our campus community. I think that “we have 35 employees on a campus of under 2000 students,” “we conduct about 1200 individual appointments with students each year,” “we have the most popular computer lab on campus, this one printer does a quarter of all printing for the entire campus, and 10% of all students log into one of these 20 computers every day,” “we have 8 subject specialist librarians and one is assigned to each one of your classes,” all of these are more meaningful measures of the library’s value than a count of volumes. Now that getting your hands on information isn’t the driving problem, now that learning to filter and evaluate the information you find is the primary struggle, now it’s the people who work here that are the key, now it’s the ways in which those people can help you not only find but also evaluate information that seems to be the most relevant measure of worth.