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Notes on Columbia's Book History Colloquium

Yesterday, I attended Columbia University’s Book History Colloquium, which is sponsored by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where Andrew Stauffer, associate professor of English at the University of Virginia, spoke about “Traces in the Stacks: 19th-Century Book Use and the Future of Library Collections.” Observing the trend in academic and research libraries towards moving tangible collections offsite, and sometimes de-accessioning them, in favor of digital versions, Stauffer is concerned about the implications for scholarship.

Stauffer offered a richly illustrated tour of selected books found in the open stacks at libraries such as those at Columbia and Virginia, mostly focusing on 19th Century English-language literature. He showed example after example where correspondents wrote inscriptions, notes, doodles, and even extended correspondence to one another, on the pages of books. These books were held in family collections for decades and later incorporated into library collections during the expansion of collections in the mid-20th Century. The copies with this unique marginalia are distinctive and, even though the books themselves were mass produced and are held in general collections, many individual copies are not interchangeable with others.

Today, there is interest across many academic libraries in limiting the growth, or even reducing the size, of tangible print collections. While many libraries have acted on journals back files, government documents, and other serials, there is widespread interest in reconsidering monograph collections. For example, this spring, OCLC, CIC, and OSU hosted a symposium focused on opportunities to rethink the ways that print book collections are managed, shared, and preserved, especially in the wake of large-scale digitization. In his remarks, Stauffer made special reference to Constance Malpas’s paper on Cloud-sourcing Research Collections.

Stauffer expressed concern that in managing down book collections, libraries will reduce what he evocatively terms the “bibliodiversity” of our library collections. In particular, he is concerned about the loss of “the greatest extant archive of the history of reading” –readers’ markings. In response, he has been leading projects at a number of universities to review various library holdings to identify readers’ markings and to begin estimating how widespread they are. At this point, he estimates that 5-10% of 19th Century English-language literature books have markings that are valuable enough to be considered for long-term retention, and he is beginning to think about how best to target works at greatest risk.

I continue to share the conviction that a format transition for books will look rather different than the one we undertookfor scholarly journals. Stauffer’s work is providing additional evidence to help academic libraries find the right balance in revamping their management of collections without sacrificing those items that will be valued for scholarship.

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