Circulation and Institutional History

I went to a wonderful panel recently at the New York Society Library.  Three scholars spoke about the research they were conducting using circulation records that have been made available through the Library’s exceptionally interesting City Readers Digital Historic Collection.  The collections allowed these scholars to consider, beyond mere speculation, how the New York Society Library’s collection had been used in the early part (1789-1792 and 1799-1805) of that institution’s 250 year history.  They asked questions about what was being read, who was reading it, who donated it to the library, and how patterns in individual and institutional reading habits shifted between 1789 and 1805, the years before and after the American and French Revolutions.

The event made me think, as I sometimes do, about our records at the Yale Club Library.  Or rather, the fact that we do not actually have such historical records.  When I told a donor that I had worked with in a previous job that I was applying to be the Librarian at the Yale Club, she was delighted.  Her uncle, she told me, had used the Yale Club Library almost as a second office throughout his career and then, after his retirement, his home-away-from home office.  I love hearing stories like that, and I wish I heard them more often – because we have no quantifiable way to know how the Club Library was used in the history of the Club.  The Yale Club Library shelves are literally loaded with history (mostly about World War II), but not our own.  The Club as a whole has better documentation – our Centennial Committee produced a handsome history just last year.  We know comparatively little about how the Library functioned in the time before our three previous librarians, and the tenures of our current committee members.

Our library, in this building at least, has 100 years of circulation history – and we have a record of only about 1% of it.  We no longer have hard copies of circulation records from the pre-digital age.  The circulation statistics from the libraries first online catalog, which was put into place at the start of this century, were lost when that vendor went out of business.  Our only extant circulation records date from mid-2014, when our new catalog when online.  And, given that our library functions on an honor system (which, as I’ve opined, is an imperfect but, to me, crucial part of our role as a Club library), we can probably quantify less than 1% of our circulation history.  Given that point – the history of honor circulation – it’s possible that such records were ever only haphazardly representative of what was actually being read by our Club members.

To be clear, I’m not talking about using records of WHO was reading WHAT since our 1897 founding.  Libraries and librarians have long been fiercely protective of individual users’ privacy, their rights to free and open access to information; the American Library Association is unequivocal in its stance.  Private Clubs also consider protecting our members’ privacy to be one of our most important duties – at the Yale Club, even taking photographs is still generally prohibited.

No – what I wish I could find, in a hidden corner somewhere, are circulation records of WHAT was being read WHEN – or at least an estimate.  How did the books people were reading affect the way our collection developed?  Would those records help us consider the changing interests of our members – or reflect changes in the demographics and dynamics of our membership?  How was our library being used – was it always a place for leisure reading, or did it have elements of a research library for early members?

Certainly, I can and do collect and report current circulation statistics. They are recorded in our Committee Meeting minutes. What other documentation of our library history do we have?  We have our card catalog, which can give us some sense of the books that were meant to be on the shelves before the conversion to an electronic catalog.  We have the books themselves – most are marked with acquisition dates, which can tell us, at least, whether books were acquired close to, or years after their publication dates.


Our old card catalog — with our electronic catalog search station visible in the background.


Beyond that information, all is speculation.  Does the fact that a book acquired in 1915 is still on the shelf mean it was unpopular – because it did not fall apart from use or because it did not go out on permanent loan? Are the books that are in poor condition so deteriorated because they were used so often, or because the temperature control in the library has always been designed for the comfort of the members and not for encouraging longevity for its print collection? Did books that were identified as “lock up” books circulate more or less than their open stack counterparts?

Would answers to these questions change anything about the way we do our work in the library now?  Perhaps not.  It might affect my decisions whether to retain or discard certain books, but it would not change my everyday interactions with our patrons and the collection. In the absence of a quantifiable history, we will need to rely on hearsay (like my friend’s story about her uncle) and circumstantial evidence to think about how our collection was used in the earliest days of the Club.

But, moving forward, we will strive to keep records in formats that will be accessible well into the future, long after our current staff and Library Staff and committee has moved on, so that the Yale Club Library can serve its members as effectively as their tastes, interests and makeup grows and changes.


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One Response to Circulation and Institutional History

  1. Pingback: The History of the Yale Club Library | A View from the Fourth Floor

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