On January 5 we took our first steps in a long, dusty journey at the Yale Club Library.
There are lot of things to love about the Yale Club Library. One of them is the unusual, sometimes strange, and exciting assortment of books that has been assembled both by the varied collection development strategies of previous librarians and the shifting tastes of members who donated books over the last one hundred years.
Unfortunately, old buildings with lovely wooden shelves – in a space where people regularly used to smoke – are not the friendliest environments for books. Moreover, the period during which many of the books in our collection were produced (the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth century) saw the production of books with highly acidic and eventually brittle paper. Similarly, efforts to keep our library looking like the private club library that it is, rather than a more traditional lending library, means that most books were not reinforced with mylar covers or library binding to withstand the kind of beating that books from a circulating library regularly receive.
So, with time, lots of love, and a touch of benign neglect, much our collection has become quite worn and tattered – some books are held together only by the scotch tape that some well-meaning staff member once strapped across a broken spine. Sometimes, I pick up a book and it simply falls apart in my hands. Or, worse, a member checks out a book and finds she cannot hold it together to read it. RIP The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The nice part of having a collection like this is that we have a lot of little hidden treasures – unusual volumes that you won’t find on the stacks at most libraries. But, more pressingly, it means that many of our books are unsafe to circulate and, frankly, quite ugly to look at. Many books that I would like to have rebound are far too brittle to preserve in that way.
In response, my Committee Members, the Library Assistant, and I have started a three- year plan to revitalize our collection. I have worked with committee to update and revise our Collection Development policy, which is designed to maintain a traditional lending library with a “timely and timeless” collection.
We are starting by aggressively weeding books that are in poor condition – deciding whether we should rebuy, rebind, repair, or discard each volume whose condition is currently a hindrance to circulation. The next two stages will involve deaccessioning books with outdated content and filling in gaps in our holdings, but this first stage will be the one that most affects the feel of our collection. Having a collection that LOOKS like it can be used will be a vital component in increasing member use of the collection.
We started with our mystery/thriller/suspense section, which is significant for a library of our size. We have a collection of about 39,000 volumes; more than 3000 of them were classified as mysteries. Naïve newish librarian that I am – I have never participated in a collection evaluation of this type — I thought this section would be easy to begin with because so many of the books appeared to be in good condition and the section had been recently weeded. However, when we looked closely, we realized that nearly a third of the books had condition problems. And, as we began working on the project, I found I could spend far less time on it than I had anticipated (20% as opposed to 40% of my time). Instead of evaluating the books in the first 10 days of the month, as I had originally proposed, it took me the first 20 days to submit my recommendations to the committee.
So, in these first three weeks of a supposedly three-year plan, I realized that this first stage, the condition evaluation, is going to take twice as long as I had hoped. At the end of this step, however, we will know a lot more about our collection and the books will be much better suited to circulate safely. I suspect it will be worth the wait.