On the delights of a small collection

My collection is small, and getting smaller. Mind you, when I say “collection” I mean my print collection. I have electronic resources both wide and deep, and those do form an important part of what the library offers. But strictly speaking I didn’t collect those as much as I acquired access to them. There are ebooks that I have purchased singly, that’s true, but as all of you can attest, ordinarily one buys access to bundles of materials that have been collected for us. But this isn’t a screed on the removal of the librarian from that curation process – it’s really not.

Instead, it’s a celebration of what it means to really know your collection well, inside and out. I’d love a bigger collection and the budget that goes with it, but let me demonstrate with this charming anecdote:

Last week I was giving a talk to a ninth grade class about the Acropolis in the age of Pericles, chiefly its architecture and architectural sculpture. (Really this mostly means the Parthenon, but time permitting I work in the Erechtheion too, if I can.) As is usual, they were full of questions about life in fifth century Athens, and I did my best to oblige while trying to steer them back on track. At the end of class one boy was urged forward by the teacher. “Ask her!” she said. Yes, ask me. Please ask me – I’m just here waiting to be asked. Aren’t we all, fellow librarians? ASK US.

“So, you know a lot about music, right? I saw you singing in the practice room the other day.”

I actually don’t really know all that much about music – I was in there practicing for my Bat Mitzvah 2.0, per last month’s article. Sheepishly I owned up to this, and then I asked him what I could do for him nonetheless.

This student is a seriously accomplished violinist and the son of our choral director, and it turns out he was really interested in what ancient Greek music was like. The bulk of the collection lives in the library space, but I myself occupy our new student center with a small print collection nearby. Luckily, everything I needed was close at hand. I have weeded, inventoried, packed, unpacked, shelved and shifted that collection so much I could probably feel my way through the stacks blindfolded and still find the right book, so it was small work to lay hands on just what I needed.

In less than ten minutes I was able to grab an article from the Oxford Classical Dictionary, find a chapter on music and dance from Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean, check out an audio recording of a re-creation of ancient flute music, and print off a description of a hydraulis from Oxford Music Online.

I don’t know a single librarian that wouldn’t love more books, more DVDs, more databases, and a bigger budget to buy them with, but there is such a thing as being spoiled for choice. Briefly I worked in the downtown branch of our public library, and what I noticed was that many patrons preferred to browse the carts of books to be shelved rather than the stacks themselves. Looking at forty or so books means you only have to rule out thirty-nine others (OK, thirty-five!), but looking at an entire row of authors just in the B’s is overwhelming – the brain shuts off and the patron leaves empty-handed.

My small, friendly collection means that I can usually fill a request on the spot at the moment when interest is high, and I rest easy in the knowledge that I probably really did offer all we locally collect on a particular, narrow subject without drowning the student with too much. If I didn’t quite satisfy his request, or if he were writing an expansive paper on the subject, we could sit down and really comb through EVERYTHING we have in Questia, EBSCO, Gale ebooks and so forth. But for now, violinst and librarian are both quite happy.

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