I’m going to suggest something that may seem kind of crazy on its face: that research libraries need to worry less about the objective quality of the books they acquire, and instead focus on another property, at once more concrete and more elusive: utility. The obvious and reasonable retort to such a suggestion would be “How useful can a low-quality book be?” Read on.
Let’s start by considering two books, both of which, one could reasonably argue, are objectively bad, though each in a different way. One is a book of popular punditry, the other a scholarly monograph.
The first is “Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right,” by political commentator Ann Coulter. This book asserts that liberals “have been wrong about everything in the last century” and that conservatives “are the most tolerant (and long-suffering) people in the world.” According to Coulter, every — that’s every — “pernicious idea to come down the pike is instantly embraced by liberals.” On the other hand, all — that’s all — new ideas that have emerged in the last 20 years have “bubbled up from the right wing.” (Thank you, right wing, for the iPod, the tablet computer, and the open access movement.) Coulter also informs us that liberals, by definition, regard ethical principle as “nothing; winning is everything.” Her book teems with these kinds of breathtaking howlers, along with breezy factual misstatements, moral analogies that can charitably be characterized as bizarre, and gratuitous personal attacks on individuals with whose politics she disagrees. Even those who share her political views have pointed out the fundamental flaws in this book. One does not have to disagree with her politics to find “Slander” bad by any number of objective standards.
The second example is “Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture,” by Michael Bellesiles. This book presents an argument as to the nature and extent of gun ownership in 17th– and 18th-century America. Bellesiles’ thesis is that a broad gun culture did not develop in the United States until after the Civil War; before then, gun ownership was relatively rare. The book was received warmly, particularly by advocates for stricter gun control, and Bellesiles was awarded the Bancroft Prize in 2001. However, significant elements of his research fell apart under critical examination. Nor were the book’s problems simply a matter of poorly formulated arguments or irresponsibly selective data: some of the documents Bellesiles cited did not exist, he misquoted critical documents that did exist, and his math was in several important instances inexcusably wrong. In the wake of these revelations the prize was revoked, Bellesiles was formally investigated by Emory University, where he was a full professor (he resigned), and he was called a “fraud,” “a liar,” and “a disgrace” by prominent reviewers who had previously championed his work.
So here’s the question:
Should a research library acquire these books?
And in the case of the Bellesiles book, having acquired it before its dishonesty was uncovered, should a research library keep it or withdraw it?
The answer is going to depend on what one believes is the fundamental purpose of a research library. If the library’s fundamental purpose is to offer its users a well-crafted repository of the world’s best thinking and research on topics of interest to its users, then you could make a very strong case that neither of these books should be included. Ann Coulter’s book, though it may offer some accurate critiques and maybe even a perceptive insight or two, is so padded with know-nothing bloviation and irresponsible name-calling that it completely undermines its own authority as a citable source. Bellesiles’ book also probably contains some good and useful information; unfortunately, there’s so much deliberate fabrication and misrepresentation in the book that it can’t be trusted as an independent source either. If the library exists to give people access to high-quality documents, then neither of these books belongs in a library.
However, I’m here to argue that it’s not the purpose of a library to give people access to high-quality documents, but rather that the purpose of the library is to give people access to useful documents — or, more to the point, to connect its users with the documents they need in order to do their work. And there is all kinds of very good work that can be supported by “Slander” and “Arming America,” as well as by other equally terrible books and articles that are bad for a whole variety of reasons. “Slander” may be a really lousy source of information about the moral and intellectual standing of the American left, but it’s an excellent example of a particular type of political discourse that has emerged in the late 20th and early 21st century. The roots of this discourse can be traced very far back in our nation’s history (and before), and there is a fascinating thread that can be traced from, for example, colonial American broadsides and cartoons up through the nativist movements of the 19th century, the early radio demagoguery of the 20th century, and the print and radio fulminations of figures like Coulter, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh today. I don’t see how a library could support research into modern political discourse without offering patrons access to books like “Slander.”
Similarly, “Arming America” is a terrible source for accurate information about gun ownership in early America. But it seems to me that it’s an indispensable resource for a researcher seeking to understand the rhetoric of gun control in the America of the 20th century. Terrible as it is, it’s a book that had a huge impact and significantly affected the conversation about gun ownership in this country, and to understand what has happened with that conversation in the years since, one would need access to that book (among many others, of course). “Arming America” is also potentially useful as a cautionary example for undergraduate journalism and history students: I can imagine a professor profitably assigning students to examine the arguments made in the book, chase down some of the mis-cited sources, and explain what they find. How did this author twist and misrepresent his findings? How would you have characterized the sources if you were writing this book? What are your legitimate options when faced with sources that directly contradict your thesis or your assumptions?
In other words, “Slander” and “Arming America” are not useful despite their badness; they’re useful precisely because of their badness, because their badness is of a particularly instructive type. None of this is to say that quality doesn’t matter or that it’s irrelevant to researchers — it’s to say that quality is only one of many factors that can make a book useful to people doing scholarly work, and that other factors may well outweigh it.
This, of course, begs a serious question: If you accept my position on the potential usefulness of bad books, what does that imply for the role of librarians? That will be the subject of my next post.