Monday, 3 May 2010

Demonstrating the Return On Investment: Renew, Refresh, Recycle

With the best will in the world, all of our catalogues will have a few skeletons in the closet. Human beings being human beings there's always the odd book that's been missed by the stock editors. They're not necessarily the liability they seem to be. They shouldn't be on the open shelves as items of current import, to be sure, but there are creative ways of using them, together with a selection of the "respectable" components of your reserve stock to make useful and informative display collections.

Public libraries hold a lot of the national back-catalogue of books. This is generally held to be important as far as fiction is concerned but, aside from a small proportion of 'classic' texts, not non-fiction. After all, out-of-date information is useless, right?

Not necessarily.

Imagine a view of the history of Germany through the eyes of somebody who didn't know that the Berlin Wall was ever to come down. Or go up in the first place. Or that Hitler would rise to power in 1933. Or... Well you get the idea.

It's easy with history, isn't it? What about science? The history of science is littered with the dead bodies of fallen ideas and Laws Of Science. I remember being baffled at university (yonks ago) by the civil war between the cladists and the phylogenetic gradualists (you'll have to look them up) - they were talking about aspects of the same idea, just using different language with all the intemperance of theologians disputing one or other heresy. A generation before it was the geosyncline versus plate tectonics debate. All a bit specialist and arcane, eh? Not really - all the time that the aeroplanes were grounded by the Icelandic volcano our newspapers were filled with diagrams of plate tectonic processes. How would they have been described fifty years ago?

And as for technology... It struck me recently that the world I grew up in as a very small child in the 60s wasn't wholly dissimilar to that of my parents' childhood (excluding powdered egg and the Luftwaffe). The Swinging Sixties didn't much reach our way, save for the Beatles and beehive hairdos. My brother was born into a world of colour television. My sister-in-law can't imagine a world without computers and MTV. Children born today would struggle with the idea of not having a mobile 'phone with a camera and internet access and umpteen thousand channels and applications. And we've still not got those personalised jet packs and robot butlers.

One of the reasons why primary resources are important is that they are uncontaminated by hindsight. Hindsight always has 20:20 vision. We know what happens at the end and that inevitably colours the narrative. History tells us which were the blind alleys, the discarded values, the paradigm shifts. And hindsight always imposes the prejudices and values of today onto the thoughts and actions of yesterday.

There is a case for our provided access to the unsullied product once every so often in "What we used to know" promotions to give us a better understanding of the historical context. It's not always enough to know how we got here, it's sometimes important to understand what happened along the way.

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