I knew the word “curate” had successfully shed its musty history—cluttered with Etruscan vases and dioramas of American bison—when I got an email from Brooks Brothers a few years back announcing that it had “carefully curated” a collection of shirts for my consideration. No matter that they were the same dull shirts foisted on me the week before. Congratulations to you, “curate,” I remember thinking at the time. You’ve joined an elite handful of other buzzwords—like “artisanal”—that have gone on to attempt to transform the banal into the fabulous.
Since then, I’ve followed with glee as “curators” keep popping up everywhere. Wherever we once created lists or merely organized stuff, suddenly, we are now curating. Curators have since presented me with selections of cheese, mystery novels for people who read Louise Penney, and boutique hotels in Italy.
I’ve even gotten into the act myself. Just last month a friend was moving, and I was pressed into service as a guest curator. I helped him go through his wardrobe, removing all the worn, unfashionable, and ill-fitting items, cramming them into garbage bags, and dropping them off at Goodwill. Where, no doubt, they will be curated again.
At this point, the “curation” movement shows no signs of weakening, and it may even be gaining new ground. At the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference last month in Las Vegas, the air in the convention hall was as thick with talk of curation as the casinos were with tobacco smoke.
I must admit, sometimes the use of the “c-word” makes sense to me, as with “digital curation”—the selection, preservation, maintenance, and archiving of digital resources. At its core, digital curation is what research librarians have always done with print, except with the technical skills involved being so different and the job itself being so ill-defined, these folks seem to have earned the fancier, if perhaps awkward title.
But often, the librarians I heard touting their curation skills at ALA were talking about the same old stuff we’ve always done—creating book displays, building online guides, or even aggregating content on social media like Tumblr and Pinterest.
Why are we now calling this curation? To my ears it sounds unbearably pretentious. But, hey, some librarians are always looking for a break from the “l-word” and no doubt they like the opportunity “curate” affords them to connect libraries to a larger social trend. Or maybe they’re just after a little self-inflation, which is not altogether unreasonable. In some cases, I thought, it might just be a bit of harmless fun.
But recently, I’ve noticed more and more librarians talking about “curating” their collections—and I’m not talking about rare-book and manuscript collections, which are indeed curated in the traditional sense. I’m talking about your run-of-the-mill public library collections. And, it occurred to me, there is more going on here than a simple word choice.
Back to Basics
Librarians buy books in anticipation of user demand. It’s what we do. We call it collection development, but all that really means is that as books get published, reviews roll in, authors appear on Jon Stewart, or a title just takes off for no apparent reason and the holds start to pile up, we tweak our collection by adding titles or increasing the number of copies we own.
But when librarians today talk about creating a curated collection they are largely looking to upend this consumer-based model and replace it with something quite different. The thinking goes like this: we shouldn’t try and keep up with bestseller demand—after all, readers today have so many other opportunities to buy or, in some cases, even rent bestsellers cheaply and easily. Buying and managing 20 copies of Dean Koontz’s The City and Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm? Why, that just siphons away money and time that could be better spent elsewhere.
In fact, no one really needs libraries to learn about popular books, the new proponents of curation claim—libraries should be about some grander sense of “discovery.” As librarians, we should use our expertise in content, combined with knowledge of our communities, to assemble collections that will surprise and delight, provoke and entertain, our patrons, they argue. It’s our job to introduce our communities to new things and to expand their reading experiences—that is, as long as you’re not be looking to read James Patterson’s Invisible any time soon.
To me, this is dangerous stuff, although it really isn’t it anything new. Librarians have long been conflicted about buying popular fiction and supporting mass taste, and we have always had a strong, almost paternalistic urge to elevate our patrons’ reading habits. The rise of so-called curated collections is just the latest iteration of what one turn-of-the-century librarian dubbed the “miracle business” of changing a reader’s tastes. Just pick up Dee Garrison’s brilliant Apostles of Culture: the Public Librarian and American Society, 1876–1920 and check out the chapters on fiction. It’s one of the few books on library history you really need to read because the same issues from the early years of our profession reappear, year after year.
At my library, we struggle to keep up with bestseller demand, but we still purchase one copy for every four patron requests, at least in print. And we often acquire titles we merely hope our readers will enjoy—a first-time mystery novelist, for example.
With shrinking budgets, we do take fewer risks these days. And circulation of nonfiction continues to decline—except for a few, often politically charged titles. We still buy heavily in health and lifestyle, for example, but we’re skittish about biographies. That brilliant new assessment of Eisenhower’s military career featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review? We’ll hold off on that one until we get a user request—and, truth is, we often never do.
Our collections are continually under review. Sure, we’ll always keep many of the classics on hand. But usage is the primary guide for what stays on our shelves, and if a title hasn’t moved in two years, it’s likely heading to the book sale. At the same time, we try and gauge the impact of a writer’s career. New titles generate interest in older titles, so we pay attention to fiction series, and stay on top of books adapted into films. For example, in anticipation of the October movie release, we’re keeping our 50 copies of Gone Girl (20 are e-books), and will probably freshen up our paperback holdings by acquiring the movie tie-in edition.
The bottom line—which is easy to understand, but hard to put into practice—is that we want our patrons to find the material they are seeking every time they come into the library or visit our website. Obviously, the rise of e-books—and, more specifically, the well-publicized complications libraries now experience in acquiring and circulating e-books—is a factor in how libraries are approaching collection development issues. So much so that, it’s not just librarians who are talking about curated collections these days—vendors are getting in on the conversation, too.
At a PW-moderated breakfast last month, Mitchell Davis, founder and chief business officer of digital-platform provider BiblioBoard strongly promoted curated collections of e-books, which he called his Breaking Bad model. Basically, Davis told librarians they should consider giving up on acquiring expensive e-book bestsellers that generate huge holds lists and a lousy user experience and, instead, focus on creating a better digital experience based on our long-tail collections.
In short, Davis thinks libraries should become like Netflix’s streaming video service: since users can’t get that new release movie they want without paying, they’ll be satisfied to watch something from three years ago for free. I can see the allure. But, I have to say, I am not on board.
On a personal level, I don’t want to be the one at the reference desk explaining over and over that, no, we aren’t leasing the e-book version of The Silkworm, but have you tried Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles? And on a political level, I’m not ready to explain to my elected officials and funders why we have radically changed our mission, and no longer supply our community with the books they really want to read but, instead, put our resources towards a collection that we think they should be reading. And, by the way, has anyone given Ivy Compton-Burnett a go?
Earlier in my career I worked for several years as a museum librarian, where I developed a library for one of the curatorial departments. It was a fascinating job, and I learned an immense amount from my colleagues, who were curators in the true sense of the word.
It was also the job I also where I learned the true difference between a curator and a librarian: The curator’s loyalties lay with the object and, in turn, the collection. Acquiring, understanding, researching, promoting, and preserving the object are a curator’s primary responsibilities. A librarian’s loyalties, however, lie with the user. Let’s try not to forget that.