Today I learned that the Western libraries don’t collect textbooks.

I’ve been looking at the reference section and thinking about what it’s for. I know that it’s not like reference is an LC class; the individual libraries and librarians make the decisions about what should be in reference and what doesn’t need to be there. It’s about what is useful for them, not necessarily a certain kind of book. Also, there is an emphasis on availability and access; one of the lines I’ve been hearing a lot is “if this were in the stacks, it would be gone.” Not stolen or anything, just always out. So putting something in the reference collection means that the librarians can access them to answer specific questions, and it ensures that students will have access to the source.

In my mind, textbooks are a reference source. This is probably because so much of my background is in history, but a textbook is normally where I start my searches. A good textbook that’s fairly recent has a series of useful parts; a table of contents divided in a useful way for the subject, short essays on all the elements of that topic, and a usually sizeable bibliography of further sources. A recent textbook will cover all the important works on that subject. I think just about every paper I’ve ever written has started in the bibliography of one particular textbook.

So the reference section as it is is an add-on to LCSH. It’s a small version of the library for quick use, it’s a summation of particular useful sources. So my first thought was, how useful would it be to have another section just for textbooks? Like, extrareference. A few ranges of just textbooks on all the LCSH areas. So you could sort of browse through for textbooks on particular areas, get more in-depth stuff, that sort of thing. Sort of a dumb idea, but my God I had no idea they didn’t even collect textbooks here.

And why not? Well, they should buy those, damn those undergrads.

So. Just to sum up. We will buy sources that someone might someday use, because we sure would want to fill that information need, but goddamn it if we know you’re going to need it, buy it yourself.

Do you sense a note of snobbery? First, that textbooks are purely adjunct to classrooms, not useful in and of themselves; that undergrads are just going to come in and photocopy the whole damn thing instead of supporting an academic publisher; that textbooks are not worthy sources. That everyone already has them. (Doesn’t everyone also have access to, for instance, the London Free Press, the Toronto Star, and, concievably, the New York Times?)

I’m not criticizing anyone here, by the way. No one working here made this decision. I just think it’s interesting. Clearly I’ve been spoiled by the last two schools I went to, both of whom collected pretty much everything. Finding textbooks in the stacks was just a given. But apparently other, smaller libraries don’t have these things (Western and Windsor, for instance.)

Interesting, that’s all. See, while a lot of indexes and so forth are promptly digitized, there’s no way they’re going to start digitizing textbooks. Those things are really useful. And they only get updated every five years or so, it’s not like they’re completely out of date immediately. It will tell you in a snapshot who the big writers in a field are, you can take that information and go search for articles they’ve written more recently. Chances are they’re stilll writing in the same general topic area.

This job is just epiphany after epiphany.

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