This summer, Calvin University librarians are doing a “collection review.” That means they’re culling the stacks. Apparently, Calvin has never done this before. And since Calvin is remodeling the library right now, our librarians figured it was high time to do the library equivalent of cleaning out one’s basement and attic. Do we really need to keep a 1955 volume titled The Man of Letters in the Modern World, which has not been been checked out ever since 2010 (and, frankly, rarely if ever before that, I’m guessing)? Probably not, which is why culling is standard procedure for libraries, and there are best practices for doing it well—which of course our librarians are faithfully following.
The librarians informed us faculty about this collection review way back in March with a lovely, gently reassuring letter sent by email. They explained that they are using very careful criteria to decide which books will be humanely ushered out of our collection. In the realm of language and literature, we’re only getting rid of books published before 1991, AND that were acquired before 2010, AND that no more than two people have checked out since 2010, AND that are still available to us through at least six interlibrary loan options in the state and at least fifty nationwide. The email even provided us with a nifty graphic to show how these criteria intersect:
Clearly, we book-besotted people understand each other, because at the end of the email, one of our librarians wrote: “This may be difficult for some of you, I realize; we all love our old books (myself included). But it’s an important and long-overdue project for Hekman, and I very much appreciate your help.”
The help she had in mind? She wanted to give us opportunity to go through the lists of books that fit the “get rid of this” criteria-matrix in order to make sure there isn’t some lone, dusty volume somewhere that one of us book-addicts actually wants to keep. We could certainly keep it; we just had to ask. If Eight Plays for Hand Puppets from 1968 is important to you, so be it.
Of course, when that first email went out in March, we all ignored it. At least I did, and I bet virtually everyone else did, too. We were in the throes of spring semester after all (the librarians politely apologized for that timing in the email) and honestly, we professors are lousy at getting rid of books. We tend to hoard. So no one was eager to go through the lists, Marie Kondo-style, and consider what still sparked joy.
Finally, when we got a kind email reminder nudge this summer, I opened a couple of the gigantic spreadsheets containing the lists of titles slated for retirement. These spreadsheets are masterful works of data management. We’re talking uncountable rows of titles with more than two dozen columns of relevant data for each title. No, that’s not true. The rows are countable, thanks to Excel. In the English Literature speadsheet alone, there are 5621 titles to be removed.
So I started browsing in the General Literature and English Literature spreadsheets, thinking Let’s just take a look a minute. And I was surprised to find: I felt some grief. Why, for goodness sake? Was The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 (from 1965, not surprisingly) somehow personally important to me? It was not. I think I felt some twinges not over losing the books as objects but over the thought of what they represent.
All the labor represented in these pages! Knowledge, even the most seemingly useless esoterica, requires painstaking effort and patience. Henry Burrowes Lathrop no doubt labored for years to produce Translations from the Classics into English from Caxton to Chapman, 1477-1620, published 1933. He probably trudged off to the library day after day even when the weather was fine, missing family events, nudging himself awake with tepid tea, all so that he could produce this service to literary studies. But that book’s day—if the book ever had a day—is past. No one wants to read it anymore. And who knows what affections good old Professor Maurice Cramer inspired in his colleagues during his career? Apparently his colleagues appreciated him enough in 1976 to put together Aeolian Harps: Essays in Literature in Honor of Maurice Browning Cramer.
These books are shadows, each one a shadow of thought and effort and people laboring in the vineyards of knowledge. They are shadows of past eras for scholarly trends, too. For instance, The Psychological Study of Literature: Limitations, Possibilities, and Accomplishments by Martin S. Lindauer—that was cutting edge in 1974. By 1987, Stein Haugom Olsen was already talking about The End of Literary Theory. Nice try, Stein, but literary theory is still alive and kicking.
I could perceive in these lists traces of Calvin’s past, too. I especially grieved letting go of that whole collection on the mid-century Christian playwright Christopher Fry about whom the late Stanley Wiersma was one of the world’s few experts. Meanwhile, who was it back in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s who was ordering all those film scripts and books about film history? I don’t even know. That was long before we had film studies and film production majors. I bet that extensive collection of theater-related titles came from the heroic labors of Ervina Boevé when she established Calvin’s communications and theater programs back in the 1950s. Or maybe she managed to acquire somebody else’s collection whole-hog and finagle it into our library. Anyway, I wish Stephen M. Archer could reappear and explain to us How Theatre Happens (1978) because we currently have no full-time theater faculty.
From the more recent past, I recognized books that represented the special interests of colleagues I worked with for years, now retired. I bet Jim availed himself of that collection of books about dictionaries. Those books on Jewish storytelling may have been ordered by Gary. Karen probably had some of those medieval poetry titles on her desk from time to time. I bet Roy made good use of all that film history material for the several books he wrote on religious meaning in film.
I hesitated most over letting go of some titles from my own field of scholarship. I debated over Literary Patronage in the English Renaissance: The Pembroke Family (1988) by Michael Brennan. I’ve read that one before, and there is a small chance I would actually use that book again someday. Maybe? I don’t know. Honestly, I’ve probably done as much work as I’m going to do in that tiny, tiny sub-sub-sub field. Oh hey, wouldn’t it be interesting to read Literature and the Christian Life (1966) by Sallie McFague, who later became a noted eco-theologian? But come on. I’m never going to do that.
The thing about being a professor is that everything is at least potentially interesting. I would actually like to read The Raven and the Lark: Lost Children in Literature of the English Renaissance (1985) by Barbara L. Estrin. But I’m trying to face the tragic reality that life is too short to read everything. And I know, I know: we still have hundreds of thousands of books! One of our librarians—they do this sort of thing gladly—looked up for me the actual numbers. In the language and literature area (P, PE, PN, PR, PS, PZ), only 3 percent of our collection meets the five criteria for potential weeding (15,611 titles out of 522,621). I think we’ll be OK.
And if for some reason no one can presently imagine, a future scholar wants to trace the history of puppetry and needs to look at Dictionary of Puppetry by A. R. Philpott (1969), it’s OK: we can get the book through interlibrary loan.
Even so, there’s something melancholy about taking books off shelves, packing them in boxes, sending them off to the void. I find libraries deeply calming. A whole edifice built in honor of the human strain toward knowledge and understanding—some of the efforts more meaningful than others, granted, but still. All those books, quiet and vigilant in their Dewey-decimal-assigned places in the stacks, exactly where they are supposed to be, waiting—sometimes for decades, apparently—for someone to become interested in Art, Messianism, and Crime: A Study of Antinomianism in Modern Literature and Lives (1986). There’s something so beautiful about honoring the quest for knowledge, and about an object that’s right there if we need it.
Alas, with Marie Kondo, I guess we need to thank some of these books for their service and say goodbye. Along with the grass that withers and the flowers that fade, books do not last forever.
I worked on a scholarly article this summer—on the influence of Ovid in the poems of George Herbert—and duly submitted it on time to the journal that will publish it. The article draws from my decades of background knowledge in the narrow field of George Herbert studies as well as months of focused reading and writing on this topic specifically. I wrote the first draft in 2020, during the quarantine, for presentation at a conference in June of 2020. The conference was delayed because of Covid until 2022, when I finally delivered the paper. This summer I and four other scholars revised and expanded our papers from the conference at the request of a scholarly journal. It’s an online journal, so our pieces will never see print.
So it goes in scholarship these days, when online journals are much more accessible to scholars and therefore increasingly favored. A few George Herbert scholars and maybe a few other literary scholars will read the essay. I’m glad I wrote it, though. The work is its own reward, honestly. To deepen understanding, to ponder works like those written by Ovid and Herbert, these are good and worthwhile endeavors. Remarkably, the works of many writers do last, which is why we’re still studying Ovid and Herbert. My essay, though, will leave its traces, and someday even those traces will float away, like vapor on the wind.
Much appreciation to our expert librarians at Calvin’s Hekman Library for all they do. Special thanks to Sarah Kolk for looking up the stats for me.
Image credit: OpenArt. The image is NOT of our beautiful and modern Calvin Library, of course.