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This summer, Calvin University librarians are doing a “collection review.” That means they’re culling the stacks. Apparently, Calvin has never done this before. And since Calvin is remodeling the library right now, our librarians figured it was high time to do the library equivalent of cleaning out one’s basement and attic. Do we really need to keep a 1955 volume titled The Man of Letters in the Modern World, which has not been been checked out ever since 2010 (and, frankly, rarely if ever before that, I’m guessing)? Probably not, which is why culling is standard procedure for libraries, and there are best practices for doing it well—which of course our librarians are faithfully following.

The librarians informed us faculty about this collection review way back in March with a lovely, gently reassuring letter sent by email. They explained that they are using very careful criteria to decide which books will be humanely ushered out of our collection. In the realm of language and literature, we’re only getting rid of books published before 1991, AND that were acquired before 2010, AND that no more than two people have checked out since 2010, AND that are still available to us through at least six interlibrary loan options in the state and at least fifty nationwide. The email even provided us with a nifty graphic to show how these criteria intersect:

Clearly, we book-besotted people understand each other, because at the end of the email, one of our librarians wrote: “This may be difficult for some of you, I realize; we all love our old books (myself included). But it’s an important and long-overdue project for Hekman, and I very much appreciate your help.”

The help she had in mind? She wanted to give us opportunity to go through the lists of books that fit the “get rid of this” criteria-matrix in order to make sure there isn’t some lone, dusty volume somewhere that one of us book-addicts actually wants to keep. We could certainly keep it; we just had to ask. If Eight Plays for Hand Puppets from 1968 is important to you, so be it.   

Of course, when that first email went out in March, we all ignored it. At least I did, and I bet virtually everyone else did, too. We were in the throes of spring semester after all (the librarians politely apologized for that timing in the email) and honestly, we professors are lousy at getting rid of books. We tend to hoard. So no one was eager to go through the lists, Marie Kondo-style, and consider what still sparked joy.   

Finally, when we got a kind email reminder nudge this summer, I opened a couple of the gigantic spreadsheets containing the lists of titles slated for retirement. These spreadsheets are masterful works of data management. We’re talking uncountable rows of titles with more than two dozen columns of relevant data for each title. No, that’s not true. The rows are countable, thanks to Excel. In the English Literature speadsheet alone, there are 5621 titles to be removed.

So I started browsing in the General Literature and English Literature spreadsheets, thinking Let’s just take a look a minute. And I was surprised to find: I felt some grief. Why, for goodness sake? Was The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 (from 1965, not surprisingly) somehow personally important to me? It was not. I think I felt some twinges not over losing the books as objects but over the thought of what they represent.

All the labor represented in these pages! Knowledge, even the most seemingly useless esoterica, requires painstaking effort and patience. Henry Burrowes Lathrop no doubt labored for years to produce Translations from the Classics into English from Caxton to Chapman, 1477-1620, published 1933. He probably trudged off to the library day after day even when the weather was fine, missing family events, nudging himself awake with tepid tea, all so that he could produce this service to literary studies. But that book’s day—if the book ever had a day—is past. No one wants to read it anymore. And who knows what affections good old Professor Maurice Cramer inspired in his colleagues during his career? Apparently his colleagues appreciated him enough in 1976 to put together Aeolian Harps: Essays in Literature in Honor of Maurice Browning Cramer.

These books are shadows, each one a shadow of thought and effort and people laboring in the vineyards of knowledge. They are shadows of past eras for scholarly trends, too. For instance, The Psychological Study of Literature: Limitations, Possibilities, and Accomplishments by Martin S. Lindauer—that was cutting edge in 1974. By 1987, Stein Haugom Olsen was already talking about The End of Literary Theory. Nice try, Stein, but literary theory is still alive and kicking.

I could perceive in these lists traces of Calvin’s past, too. I especially grieved letting go of that whole collection on the mid-century Christian playwright Christopher Fry about whom the late Stanley Wiersma was one of the world’s few experts. Meanwhile, who was it back in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s who was ordering all those film scripts and books about film history? I don’t even know. That was long before we had film studies and film production majors. I bet that extensive collection of theater-related titles came from the heroic labors of Ervina Boevé when she established Calvin’s communications and theater programs back in the 1950s. Or maybe she managed to acquire somebody else’s collection whole-hog and finagle it into our library. Anyway, I wish Stephen M. Archer could reappear and explain to us How Theatre Happens (1978) because we currently have no full-time theater faculty.

From the more recent past, I recognized books that represented the special interests of colleagues I worked with for years, now retired. I bet Jim availed himself of that collection of books about dictionaries. Those books on Jewish storytelling may have been ordered by Gary. Karen probably had some of those medieval poetry titles on her desk from time to time. I bet Roy made good use of all that film history material for the several books he wrote on religious meaning in film.

I hesitated most over letting go of some titles from my own field of scholarship. I debated over Literary Patronage in the English Renaissance: The Pembroke Family (1988) by Michael Brennan. I’ve read that one before, and there is a small chance I would actually use that book again someday. Maybe? I don’t know. Honestly, I’ve probably done as much work as I’m going to do in that tiny, tiny sub-sub-sub field. Oh hey, wouldn’t it be interesting to read Literature and the Christian Life (1966) by Sallie McFague, who later became a noted eco-theologian? But come on. I’m never going to do that.

The thing about being a professor is that everything is at least potentially interesting. I would actually like to read The Raven and the Lark: Lost Children in Literature of the English Renaissance (1985) by Barbara L. Estrin. But I’m trying to face the tragic reality that life is too short to read everything. And I know, I know: we still have hundreds of thousands of books! One of our librarians—they do this sort of thing gladly—looked up for me the actual numbers. In the language and literature area (P, PE, PN, PR, PS, PZ), only 3 percent of our collection meets the five criteria for potential weeding (15,611 titles out of 522,621). I think we’ll be OK.

And if for some reason no one can presently imagine, a future scholar wants to trace the history of puppetry and needs to look at Dictionary of Puppetry by A. R. Philpott (1969), it’s OK: we can get the book through interlibrary loan.

Even so, there’s something melancholy about taking books off shelves, packing them in boxes, sending them off to the void. I find libraries deeply calming. A whole edifice built in honor of the human strain toward knowledge and understanding—some of the efforts more meaningful than others, granted, but still. All those books, quiet and vigilant in their Dewey-decimal-assigned places in the stacks, exactly where they are supposed to be, waiting—sometimes for decades, apparently—for someone to become interested in Art, Messianism, and Crime: A Study of Antinomianism in Modern Literature and Lives (1986). There’s something so beautiful about honoring the quest for knowledge, and about an object that’s right there if we need it.

Alas, with Marie Kondo, I guess we need to thank some of these books for their service and say goodbye. Along with the grass that withers and the flowers that fade, books do not last forever.

I worked on a scholarly article this summer—on the influence of Ovid in the poems of George Herbert—and duly submitted it on time to the journal that will publish it. The article draws from my decades of background knowledge in the narrow field of George Herbert studies as well as months of focused reading and writing on this topic specifically. I wrote the first draft in 2020, during the quarantine, for presentation at a conference in June of 2020. The conference was delayed because of Covid until 2022, when I finally delivered the paper. This summer I and four other scholars revised and expanded our papers from the conference at the request of a scholarly journal. It’s an online journal, so our pieces will never see print.

So it goes in scholarship these days, when online journals are much more accessible to scholars and therefore increasingly favored. A few George Herbert scholars and maybe a few other literary scholars will read the essay. I’m glad I wrote it, though. The work is its own reward, honestly. To deepen understanding, to ponder works like those written by Ovid and Herbert, these are good and worthwhile endeavors. Remarkably, the works of many writers do last, which is why we’re still studying Ovid and Herbert. My essay, though, will leave its traces, and someday even those traces will float away, like vapor on the wind.  

Much appreciation to our expert librarians at Calvin’s Hekman Library for all they do. Special thanks to Sarah Kolk for looking up the stats for me.

Image credit: OpenArt. The image is NOT of our beautiful and modern Calvin Library, of course.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

17 Comments

  • David Hoekema says:

    When exploring the byways and remote corners of Hekman Library I made it a practice, years ago, to pull interesting titles on unfamiliar topics from the shelf. If they had not been checked out for a decade or two (if ever) I would check them out, take them home, and peruse them — my little therapy program to lift the spirits of lonely books. (A few linger in memory: a survey of temple architecture in Edo Japan, jeremiads against 19th C French socialism, an overview in German with lovely tipped-in color photos of the colonies Germany had just lost in SW Africa, a comprehensive report to Her Majesty’s government on all the colonies on which the sun never set — the last proved useful for my research.) I hope my date stamp will save at least some of them from the flames.

  • Nancy Ryan says:

    ‘…trying to face the tragic reality that life is too short to read everything.’
    That and finding libraries so calming. I wonder what our society would be like if we all spent more time together, in libraries, learning, discovering, exploring, and discussing together? Could we in sharing our particular reading pleasures help one another to understand that diversity is a gift to be cherished? Thank you Deb, I too am one who struggles mightily with letting go of books and the potential of what they offer.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    “ The thing about being a professor is that everything is at least potentially interesting. I would actually like to read ”

    Not just professors. So many books and so little time. I was an assistant librarian in a little library up north. Many culled books are still on my shelf for a someday read.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Too cool. I must have been only a minor culling of the Hekman LIbrary, but in 1975 picked up a discarded Eleventh Britannica (which I am about half-way through reading–I’m not going to make it!) plus a Chambers Encyclopedia. I guess they were duplicates. I loved the Chambers for the unapologetic opinions of its contributors, always done in great style. But it was too big to survive our latest move. The Britannica, however, which is the Handy Size edition, will have to be put in my grave with me.

  • Jack says:

    A couple weeks ago after church, a fellow parishioner came up to me and with great happiness said she had been able to get one of my books: “The library had it with the books they were giving away.”

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Like Hekman Library, retired ministers also need to cull their libraries knowing full well they won’t use 95% of their remaining books and that if they don’t dispose of them in an orderly way, it will only take 12 minutes for their kids to toss them all in a dumpster some day. Even so, it’s difficult for ministers to dispose of their books because so many of them have had a deeply formative influence on their personal, spiritual and theological development. After a number of culling attempts, I’ve given up and decided to keep my remaining library in tact and let the inevitable exigencies of life take care of it. It will only take the kids 12 minutes.
    Disposing of reams and reams of sermons raises similar issues, but that’s another subject.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Oh I hear you completely. Getting rid of one’s own books is even worse. And sermons! I know we’ve had numerous reflections on the blog from pastors about struggling with their legacy. Here’s one example: https://reformedjournal.com/was-it-all-worth-it/. Other readers can no doubt suggest other posts.

    • George Monsma, Jr. says:

      Suggest to your kids that they find a used-book store to buy the things they don’t want to keep, rather than heading for the dumpster. I have done that through several rounds of down-sizing, and although it didn’t bring much money, I hoped at least this way there was some possibility that they could be used. Or see if a seminary would take them to offer free to their students.

  • Ronald Vander Molen says:

    Well, the alternative to culling is to make the library larger. In a disposal in 1967 or 68 Erasmus of Rotterdam found himself in the discard bin, only to be saved by a curious historian.
    Thanks for the essay. Want some history books?

  • Jane Brown says:

    So enjoyed hearing George Herbert’s name 😊-and remembering his work-
    ( from an English teacher in 1970s!)

  • Henry Baron says:

    Making the move from a spacious condo to our semifinal retirement home entailed disposing of 90% of my beloved book collection.
    It was the most traumatic part of our move for me, especially to part with those books I could hardly afford to buy in my teenage years, and which had become lifetime companions; books given and inscribed by favorite authors or dear friends; books assigned by memorable teachers and featuring many an underlined passage and margin notes; books I loved and had taught for their power to move the human heart and mind.
    Every now and then a book comes to mind, and I look for it on the few shelves left.
    It’s not there, of course, and I wonder if it found a friendly home.
    I’d like to think it did.
    I find some comfort in Tennyson’s famous line: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost
    than never to have loved at all.”
    For what one has loved is never quite lost.

    • EMILY JANE STYLE says:

      I find some comfort in Tennyson’s famous line: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost
      than never to have loved at all.”
      For what one has loved is never quite lost.

      Thank you for the truth comfort of this concluding thought, Professor Baron!

  • Mary Huissen says:

    Assessment + User Experience Librarian at Swarthmore College weighing in here, belatedly. But as one of my colleagues says frequently in meetings at work: “I have feelings about this!” and I’m compelled to share.

    I wondered about using the verb “to cull” rather than the more commonly used library term: “to weed.” Culling and weeding have similar definitions, but in the dictionary, the second definition of cull means “a selective slaughter of wild animals” – which is one of the reasons I prefer weeding (even though the end result for culled or weeded plants, animals, or books seems sad.)

    Yet, libraries that weed regularly tend to have higher circulation rates than libraries that don’t. It’s healthier for collections, just like culling and weeding make for healthier herds and gardens. And while my friend David Hoekema was only joking about books being saved from flames, in this political climate, I want to assure people that libraries don’t do that, nor do we often use dumpsters as other commenters seem to think. Most libraries donate the majority of weeded titles.

    I offer my heartfelt thanks to the author, not exactly promptly, but definitely sincerely, for her appreciation of Calvin’s librarians and especially for recognizing their labor. Kudos to Calvin’s librarians who have approached this necessary, fraught, and often painful process with the care for which our profession is noted.

  • Jack Nyenhuis says:

    Thanks, Deb, for your thoughtful reflections on books and libraries. And thanks to the many respondents.

    During my tenure as professor of Classics at Wayne State University (1962-75) and Hope College (1975-2001), as well as my twenty-six years as dean and provost at Hope College, I devoted extensive efforts to building the library collections of both institutions. I received two significant grants from NEH to help achieve that goal at Hope. I did all that because I have loved books since I was a child, because I have been greatly enriched both intellectually and spiritually by my reading, and because I desire to have as many books as possible available to our faculty and students. President Jacobson and I often talked about the importance of library holdings as a measure of an institution’s stature, so he strongly supported all my efforts as provost to enlarge the collection of the Van Wylen Library at Hope.
    Would the Bodleian Library at Oxford University enjoy its international status, if its librarians had consistently culled its collection? I doubt it!

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