The librarian and the lever

We are sometimes asked why we do not have a particular item in the collection, or, when every copy in the collection is checked out to other cardholders, why we do not have enough copies to always have one available. This can be a difficult question to answer, because every library deals somewhat differently with the constraints on the funds it can use to acquire new material, the space it can use to display and store its collection, and its ability to coordinate the cataloging and processing of new additions. Even the Library of Congress “does not acquire all published materials.” Any time an organization encounters constraints, there are management decisions to be made.

I think of these constraints as a “Trolley Problem.” The standard form: a trolley is racing toward five people who are tied to a track in its path. You can pull a lever and divert the trolley to a different track on which it will kill just one person. Do you pull the lever? And what if, instead of standing near this lever, you are on a bridge above the track and, standing next to you, is a man whose size and weight would be enough to stop the trolley before it reaches the five people in its path? Do you push the man onto the track? (For a fuller exploration of this dilemma, see: “Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us About Right and Wrong.”)

All librarians face a similar dilemma every day. Each year, major US-based publishers produce hundreds of thousands of books; worldwide, major publishers produce millions. And, of course, there are audiobooks, movies, and other materials that libraries collect, plus materials produced by smaller presses and self-publishers. Deciding which books and other materials to add to the library collection, knowing that for every acquisition we make there is an order of magnitude of titles (or two or three orders) that we cannot add to the collection, is a trolley lever we stand next to all day, every day. On top of that, our already full shelves are bridges, each book a man we need to push off every time we want to add a new item.

Every library worker I have ever met loves books. It is a precondition for library employment, and for thriving in this environment. The standard form of the Trolley Problem is not a dilemma for a misanthrope; it is only the rest of us who agonize over this avoidance-avoidance conflict. Similarly, for library workers, collection management is roughly one-third joy, because we are acquiring new materials to share with our community members, one-third dread, because we have to decide which items our new acquisitions will displace, and one-third puzzle, because the first two thirds are not as simple as I have made them appear. There are bestsellers and book clubs to consider—we buy multiple copies of popular works, doing our best to anticipate demand—and “The Paradox of Choice” is also a factor: having a collection that is too large, or offers too many titles in any one area, generally decreases circulation and satisfaction.

My colleagues are doing an outstanding job of balancing these competing requirements, meeting your reading needs, and making the most of the shelves’ capacity (space for over 120,00 books). Recently, reported that Princeton Public Library is the busiest municipal library in New Jersey. In addition, the library’s per capita title count is in the top 4 percent of the state’s 298 public libraries, and our per capita circulation is in the top 3 percent. These numbers reflect our good fortune in serving a community of readers, and they also reflect the complementary relationship between this community and its library. We look forward to exploring this relationship during the next few months, and to celebrating it, together, when the 2Reimagined second floor is again open for you and for the full adult nonfiction collection.

Image of A Surreal Turn from Flickr user Ian Sane. Posted with Creative Commons license.

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