Turn-the-the-Century Fiction Titles!


What to do with over 10,000 Fiction titles?!

After the 2004 Redwood renovation, the library lost valuable linear feet of shelving, forcing tens-of-thousands of titles to be stored off-site, costing close to $20,000 a year. Over the last five to eight years, the team of Redwood librarians have sorted, examined, and either de-accessioned or re-housed all these titles. We began the process with non-fiction and reference titles as these tended to be “lower-hanging fruit”: fairly straight forward in terms of reviewing the currency, examining the authority, and, finally, the applicability of the title’s subjects to the strengths outlined carefully in the Redwood Collections Development Policy (available on the library’s website). Fiction titles, however, prove more difficult to carefully cull or re-house in our always limited shelf-space. A majority of these mostly American and British titles were published at the turn-of-the-last Century and well into the 1930s and 1940s; and many of these authors have either been innocently forgotten or purposefully ignored along the winds of changing cultural tastes. That doesn’t mean they are not potentially valuable, not only for entertainments, but also for research as many of these stories readily reflect social, cultural, and even political norms (and in some cases anti-norms) of the periods in question. And it is unfortunately the case that many public libraries have gotten rid of these titles through the years in reflecting the afore-mentioned, mercurial tastes. Titles published after 1923 are still protected under copyright laws, so there are not many – if any – electronic eBook surrogates available for these tomes. Titles published before 1923 are often available via internetarchive.org (or other free-use depositories); however, the quality of scans can be variable, not to mention often cumbersome to use depending on the method of electronic access.

So, how to decide what to keep and what not to? Like much in the library sciences, systematic objective criteria is developed in concert with a limited subjective approach (all evaluation regarding cultural material is subjective on one level, although it’s the librarian’s duty to make sure it’s not totally subjective: this is not an exercise in Wilmarth Lewis’ classic tome, The Collector’s Progress, after all.) In this systematic approach, we start with a 2004 Excel spreadsheet, providing all the bibliographic information for each title. When I take a book out of the box, I look it up on this spreadsheet that had been created when these books were originally sent off-site (unfortunately in the rush to box these titles, many didn’t make it to the spreadsheet -- so far, close to 15%(!) – therefore, although the spreadsheet suggests 8,000 titles were housed off-site, it’ll probably be closer to 10,000).

I then examine the Wilson’s Contemporary Author reference series, outlining hundred-of-thousands of authoritative author biographies to better understand not only the author but also what were the author’s ‘best-sellers’ as opposed to their more mundane titles, as well as examine any literary awards won, etc. It also provides bibliographies of literary-biographies which is quite helpful. In one case, I was able to consult a literary biography that fortunately we own, entitled Victorian best-seller: the world of Charlotte M. Yonge: PR 5913 .M3 1947. (This also points to the importance of not willy-nilly de-accessing titles based on subjective emotion as some libraries have done recently. “Who’s this Charlotte Yonge?” I can already hear an impish, first-year librarian possibly ask; then, “Eh…throw it out!” Simply a terrible state of affairs, that).

As a backup and for secondary support, I utilize Wikipedia sparingly for these biographical accounts. Secondly, I look the title up in Book Review Digest, a compendium of authoritative yearly book reviews since 1908. It’s a magisterial work. If a title received mostly positive reviews, we’ll be more apt to retain; if a mix of reviews, we’ll be more apt not to retain. Of course, it depends if the review was signed, by whom (say Edmund Wilson writing in the New Yorker that Kay Boyle’s 1944 novel, Avalanche, was ‘pure rubbish’), and in what publication; but indeed, that is not the end of the story as reviews can only take you so far (again, subjectivity…even Edmund Wilson’s). Finally, I check the title on WorldCat to view how many copies are available in not only local, but worldwide, libraries. If there are less than 20 libraries worldwide that hold a particular title, we’ll tend to retain it. I also consider how many checkouts the title incurred, as well as when it was last checked out.  After all that, a decision is made about retention or de-accession based on the above-mentioned criteria as well as, yes, your humble narrator’s professional opinion. This decision is recorded on the spreadsheet so that we have accurate statistics on exactly how many titles we are retaining and de-accessing (currently we are retaining about 30% of the collection after reviewing close to 25% of the collection thus far). If a title is retained, it goes to the cataloging department for its appropriate, easily searchable (http://redwood.kohalibrary.com/) electronic record. Most of these titles will be available for member perusal in the lower-level of the library.

We hope these titles will provide thousands of hours of future enjoyment!