It’s all well and good to say that libraries should acquire books based on usefulness rather than focusing on quality. But in practice, there are several real problems with such an approach.
First of all, librarians are in a bad position to judge usefulness. A book may be useful to a patron for any number of reasons that can’t be anticipated by someone else, even if that someone else has a library degree. Any book could turn out to be useful, depending on the task at hand. The traditional library is made up almost entirely of predictions made by librarians; the books in the collection represent librarians’ collective attempts to guess what their patrons will need in the future. But since actual usefulness is completely unpredictable, we’ve been forced historically to treat quality as a proxy for usefulness. “We’ll buy this good book rather than that bad book,” we’ve implicitly said, “because a good book is going to serve our patrons’ needs better than a bad one”—this despite the obvious fact that a high-quality book on a topic irrelevant to the patron’s needs may well be of far less utility than a relevant and mediocre one, or even (as I argued in the first part of this piece) a very bad one that is bad in useful and instructive ways.
Second, although quality is a relatively stable property, usefulness is not. A very good biography of Theodore Roosevelt may be superseded by a later one, but it won’t become a worse book than it was just because the new one is better. The usefulness of a book, however, will not only vary greatly from user to user, but is also likely to vary over time for an individual user. A software manual, for example, will be very useful to some patrons and completely useless to others — and when a new version of the software is released, the old manual may become effectively useless to the ones for whom it was very useful before. Similarly, the Roosevelt biography may be an essential resource for a graduate student today, but become much less useful to her next year after her thesis is accepted. And if it’s superseded by a later biography, it will become less useful to some patrons than it was beforehand, despite its continued high quality.
Third is the problem of rationing access. Historically, research librarians have rationed access by deciding how much of what kind of material should be in the collection, and we discriminated according to reasonably consistent criteria: relevance to the curriculum, price, quality, etc. As a result, our libraries now boast excellent and well-crafted collections — large chunks of which are never used, partly because despite their quality as collections, they don’t contain the very specific materials particular students and researchers need in order to do their work. This is the inevitable result of trying to guess what other people will want. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that librarians actually were able to figure out a way to discriminate based on utility rather than quality. How then would we allocate our acquisition budgets? Do the needs of a junior faculty member take precedence over the needs of an undergraduate student? How about the needs of a tenured faculty member versus those of an untenured one? Or of a Nobel laureate as compared with those of a post-doc? Libraries have never provided everything that everyone needed—to do so would be impossible, even with a generous budget.
Possible solutions to the first two problems have begun emerging in recent years. First, given the impossibility of predicting the usefulness of particular books to library patrons, valuing usefulness over quality will tend to lead us to let patrons select the books we purchase rather than to continue selecting them on behalf of patrons. This obviously implies a program of patron-driven access. While I don’t advocate the wholesale abandonment of speculative and librarian-driven acquisition for all libraries, I do think that this reality—the impossibility of guessing what will and won’t be useful—suggests the importance for most research libraries of exploring patron-driven access models, and even doing so quite aggressively. Given the option of knowing for certain that a book will be used, why choose instead to buy one that runs a strong likelihood of not being used? Patron-driven models are enormously disruptive to the traditional library, of course. But as librarians, our responsibility is to serve our patrons well, not to preserve the structures in which we’ve become comfortable.
Second, as for the unevenness (across patrons) and instability (over time) of usefulness: the implications of this reality are fairly clear, but alarming. They suggest an argument against building permanent collections at all. If usefulness is of central importance, then permanence of access should take a back seat to fluidity—the point becomes not so much to build a defined and carefully-crafted collection as to create a space in which patrons can gain access to a much larger and more loosely-crafted “collection,” the contents of which might be to a great degree shifting and dynamic over time. Permanent access would be established (if at all) only for those materials that get used. Such an approach would mark another truly radical and fundamental change in the traditional understanding of what constitutes a research library; it would signal a shift from the model of the library as collection to one of the library as conduit—again, an extremely disruptive and even threatening structural shift for librarians.
Rationing presents perhaps the stickiest problem of the three. In the past, libraries rationed in a highly impersonal manner: we subscribed to Journal X but not Journal Y, and bought Monograph A but not Monograph B, and for the most part no one took such choices personally. Everyone (well, most everyone) understood that the library’s resources were limited and that hard choices had to be made for the good of the collection and its users. But switching the focus from quality to usefulness implies opening up many more options to patrons without any promise of new money. How can scarce resources be allocated rationally within such a structure? Will patrons themselves be evaluated and found more or less deserving of support depending on their status and the relevance of their work to institutional priorities? If not, then what will be the means of discrimination, given that discrimination remains essential wherever needs outstrip resources (which is to say everywhere)? A new system of resource rationing might be less disruptive to librarians, but much more disruptive to library patrons.
I confess that I have no real answer to that last question. For one thing, the complexity of a more rational allocation mechanism—one that accounts not only for the differing needs of different classes of user but also for the priorities of the institution served by the library — would be mind-boggling. For another, I can think of no strategic and need-based allocation mechanism that wouldn’t ignite a firestorm of controversy among library patrons, many of whom would be outraged at the apparent unfairness of an allocation structure that explicitly privileges some disciplines and some individuals over others. Such a structure would bring to the surface a reality that has always existed, but which we generally prefer not to discuss in the context of library service: the fact that in every institution of higher education, some disciplines matter more than others, and that different classes of student and employee can expect different levels of collections support. I honestly have no idea how to resolve this particular problem, and I solicit the wisdom of the commenting community.
To sum up: it’s human nature to emphasize the importance of what you can do well (such as judging quality) and minimize the importance of what you do poorly (judging usefulness). In the days when building speculative collections was the only way to meet patrons’ needs, librarians could get away with that approach better. As budgets tighten, prices rise, and information resources keep moving into a digital environment in which patron-driven access options naturally proliferate, it’s quickly becoming harder for research libraries to justify the speculative building of just-in-case collections. This, as much as anything else, is what I believe is currently driving libraries away from time-honored models of traditional librarianship, and the repercussions of that shift are going to be as strong as they are unpredictable.