Posted by: paultovell | January 14, 2010

My week in the bargain basement

This week I have been spending a lot of time sifting through the graveyard of any library – the fiction reserve collection.  That motley collection of books which no-one dares throw away even if they haven’t moved from their spot fifty years (I’m not exaggerating, several books I checked had last issued in 1960).  It’s also a fascinating place to be in the library – someone famous once said you can tell a lot about a library service from its reserve stock – well, it sounds like something someone might have said once.  In all seriousness, the selection method and criteria that go into defining a reserve pile are very telling about the progressiveness of a library – do they hang onto everything, including those unfit for human hands to touch?  Remove the grubby ones but keep everything that has ever issued?  Keep the “classics” but consign all else to the skip of change?  Or even, not have an outmoded and unfashionable shelf of books at all?

My library falls somewhere in the middle of the extremes, as I’m sure most do.  But I wonder how up-to-date library policies are on what should be kept or discarded.  I have got rid of roughly 50% of the stock down there in the last few days, using a criteria of only keeping books I’m happpy to touch without the safety of a nearby sink, and those that have issued in the last ten years.  Perhaps a little harsh, but ten years is still a remarkable back catalogue compared to bookshops – one of the big advantages we have over them.  Where a decade has passed and not a single person has thought they might quite like to read that volume, the odds of it coming back into the public consciousness suddenly must be a million to one.  Even if the BBC decided to do a stage adaptation of Kenneth Travers’ long-lost classic “Summat’s up at t’mill,” * there would be a new edition released faster than you could say, well, “t’mill”.   So I do see the point of a reserve collection, but only up to a few years or so.

Then of course there’s the fact that we hardly promote our reserve list.  Is that because it generally looks about as attractive as a day in a lion pit?  It’s clearly being kept for “emergencies” – those urgent scurrying customers who must desperately find the long-forgotten novels of Kenneth Travers.  The chances of us being able to satisfy all of them must be minute.  Surely we need to concentrate on other services than being this vast antiquarian book repository that keeps every item ever published – there’s always ILL for such things – why not concentrate on promoting that truly excellent service instead?

* OK, I made this up.



  1. Bit of a bizarre concept having a reserve book stock and surely a waste of space and time. Most fiction is republished at some time or another.
    Couldn’t it just be moved as a special collection to either the Local History Department if the authors are “local” or to the Reference Department’s Literature section. Or if all else fails the BL???
    I’ve worked in public libraries 13 years as a stock librarian and never come across such an outdated concept as a reserve fiction section

    • Hi Joel, I see where you’re coming from. However, it’s a policy decision to have it here and in my previous local authority too, so it has to stay. I think it mainly exists so people can order in back catalogues of authors that they like, even if, say, not all of the H.G.Wells novels either issue well or are well known. Several of the books in there have issued very recently, however, but not often enough to justify them taking up valuable space on the “open” shelves. I suppose it’s the public library version of a rare books collection. I’m afraid I’ve not come across a Reference Department Literature section – our reference section is about two shelves and contains no fiction at all – perhaps this is it!

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