Library Collection Policies

readingrainbow.jpg I learned today via an email sent to EvolDir, that some graduate students at Portland State University have put together a petition for Darwin Day. They plan to present this petition on February 12, 2009 to the Library of Congress, libraries, and bookstores, formally asking that that the anti-science works of creationists and intelligent design activists no longer be classified as “science” in libraries and bookstores.

Their hearts are in the right place, but I believe that they have misunderstood the issues facing our libraries and bookstores.

This is actually a common concern among people who understand that Darwin’s Black Box, Icons of Evolution, The Edge of Evolution, the Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, etc. are not books with scientific content. (See Biologists Helping Bookstores.) We often think that books in a section called “science” should be scientific books. However, this view can be described as myopic because cataloging systems developed by librarians handle all types of books, not just science books. The main logic behind these systems is that they describe what a book is about not what they contain. So books cataloged under science are books about science, not books containing science. Like it or not, barring a more specific category, anti-science books are still about science and can be logically cataloged alongside legitimate science books.

However, what can citizens and customers to do to improve the shelves of our libraries and bookstores? Well, the intent of cataloging is to facilitate patrons’ access to books. It may be possible to convince librarians that a questionable book might belong under “religion and science” (BL239-265) instead of “science”. Other possible alternatives include “bible and science” (BS650-667), “creation” (BT695-749), or “photography” (TR45.H). But remember that categories describe what a book is about; they do not vouch for the quality of its contents.

You may have limited success with this route because most local libraries and bookstores don’t use the complex LOC category scheme. Local libraries tend to use the Dewey Decimal System, which lacks a central categorization authority. Instead, books get DDS numbers from either their publishers or local librarians, who enter their decisions in a centralized database. Of course you can try the same tactic as above and argue that a questionable book belongs in a more specific category like “creation” (213) or “science and religion” (215). Bookstores, on the other hand, tend to put together their own category systems with the intent of shelving a book where it is most likely to be found by an interested customer. If you don’t want a book in the science section, convince the retailer that they can sell more copies if you put it in the religion section (for example).—But, is selling more copies of anti-science books a good thing?

More important to libraries is not how they categorize their books but what books they have in their collections. If a library has no anti-science books, then it doesn’t matter where they would shelve them. Working with a library on their collection development policies is going to be more important than arguing with them about their shelving policies. Librarians, who are always working under tight budgets, will welcome free, informed advice about their science collections as well as donations of quality science books for their patrons.

It is much easier to drown bad information in good information than to get rid of it.

I’d like to thank Glenn Branch for insightful comments, based on his experience answering questions about creationism and libraries at NCSE.