So here’s the situation.
A library I work at is in the middle of a much-needed weeding and reorganization project. We had thousands of books that hadn’t been checked out in five years or more, and the collection is very fragmented – many genres are pulled out, even when they only have one or two shelves worth of books. I think we can increase our circulation and make a more relevant, attractive collection with some reorganization.
So this post is a theoretical exercise, written especially for you, dear reader. I want your advice! I’m not in charge of the decision about how to reorganize this collection, but I’d like to make a good recommendation. So please read more about our library, its community, and the neighborhood. Then let me know what you would do. Be warned, I’m going to talk about race in this post. Race will be a factor in your decision. It is one of the reasons I need your help; one of the reasons why I find this decision especially difficult.
The neighborhood this branch serves is, historically and currently, predominantly African-American, although racial diversity is increasing. It is a neighborhood with a strong tradition of black activism. The neighborhood has an increasing number of young families, of all races, and including a significant minority where one or both parents are immigrants. There is also a significant minority of transient young people (18-25 or so), who squat in the neighborhood’s abandoned houses. They often have face tattoos, but that is neither here nor there. Finally, hipsters are creeping in. There is some gentrification occurring, but it is in very early stages. Right now I find the neighborhood very exciting. There are all kinds of people, from a great diversity of backgrounds and situations, with all kinds of abilities and interests. There is a strong feeling of community, and the people that use the library are grateful for its presence if not ardent supporters. Without a doubt, black people are the heart and core of our library’s user-base.
I should also mention that there are only two black library workers, neither of which is full-time. It’s a pretty small staff though, only two full time workers (both white), and then seven part time workers (not all white). I am white, and one of those seven part time workers.
The library has a large African-American collection, which includes sub-collections of reference, oversize, non-fiction, biography, fiction, sci-fi, western, mystery, and short stories (those collections are all mirrored in the organization of the rest of the library, although the organization of the rest of the library will certainly change during this project). In my mind, there are two significant purposes for having these separate African American collections. The first is practical: people who are interested in these books can find them all in one place. The second is more symbolic: It says that the library celebrates African-American-ness.
The second, symbolic purpose, is especially important right now. It says that even though you may only see white people behind the desk, the library has a strong focus on the African-American community. More importantly, it is a symbol that reinforces the importance of African American culture in the neighborhood, which is facing gentrification and more pertinently, whitening. The danger in the change that is coming is not just that the poorer residents will be driven out, but that black residents will be driven out. In fact, gentrification is probably the wrong term to use here. Gentrification and whitening are not the same thing; to say they are implies that black middle and upper classes don’t exist. What I’m specifically thinking about here is the trend in the Bay Area – out-migration, or black exodus, whatever you want to call it (For more about this, you could read about the decline of the black population in San Francisco here, here, and here).
So that is the context. Here is where the problem lies.
It is my observation from working at our single-point service desk (I do both reference and circulation duties) that the only part of the African American collection that circulates in any great number is the urban fiction, which is not a separate collection. Within African American fiction, Teri Woods is just down the shelf from Alice Walker. I worry that the people who come in to read Alice Walker can’t find her, and the people that come in for Teri Woods are missing the titles they could find serendipitously, if all the urban fiction was grouped together. Also, not all urban fiction is black fiction.
I am not sure that the rest of the collections, the African American Sci-Fi, the Afro-American non-fiction, etc., are being used enough to justify having them separated out. The first of our five laws of library science, written by S.R. Ranganathan in 1931, is “books are for use.” The fourth law is “Save the time of the reader.” Placing books where people can easily find and use them, is a very important part of collection management. As a former grocer, I know that where you place your product is a driver of sales. That’s why they put the candy bars up front and the milk in the back. That’s why in the summer you’ll find shortcake next to the strawberries and fresh mozzarella next to the tomatoes. If you want people to check out books, you have to put them where people will find them, even when they don’t already know they want to read them. Serendipity is a powerful force in a public library.
However, the symbolic purpose of our African-American collection is not to be dismissed.
Libraries serve communities, as much as they serve individuals. Our community is in a time of change. The library should support current residents (while keeping the future in mind).
So what would you do?
What aspects of circulation reports would you look at, in thinking about how you might reorganize your collections?
What percentage of use would justify having a genre pulled out?
Is the symbolic value of our African American collection important enough to override what the circulation reports might reveal?
Does the library have any business in trying to help preserve a community’s characteristics?
If you did decide to make changes, what changes would you make, and would you discuss them with patrons?
What have I not included, in my consideration and assessment of the situation?
Thanks in advance for your insight.