The books we don’t read

A couple of recent articles have me thinking about the value of all those books we don’t read. In Confined by Pages: The Joy of Unread Books, Kirsty Logan writes beautifully about the emotional satisfaction of have hundreds of unread books on her shelves. She also talks about learning from books she has not yet read:

Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.

A Telegraph article recently reported on a study that found that simply having books in the home has a direct impact on a child’s educational outcomes, irrespective of parents’ education, occupation and social class.

In many ways, browsing is about books we don’t read. Perhaps the real value of large, browsable print collections is in the vast number of books that scholars look at but don’t check out. In my own work with undergraduates, I talk to them about the importance of “taste testing”; and I warn them that they are likely to look at many, many more books and articles than will actually end up in their bibliographies.

Donald Barclay argues that the intellectual defense of browsing is largely a myth, and I have certainly questioned whether claiming the need to protect serendipity is an adequate defense for maintaining large print collections. And yet … there is clearly some hard-to-define and harder-to-measure value to all those books that rarely (or never) get read. There is value to individual scholars (and children), and there is a value that accrues to a community as well. We just need to get a better handle on how to define, measure, and defend it … because Barclay is right when he notes that “huge onsite collections have become an unsustainable luxury.” Many academic libraries are already full, and new books keep coming in the door. Figuring out the optimal on-site collection has to include considerations beyond circulation numbers alone if we want to honor and leverage the value of the books we don’t read.

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