All You Need is Less: The KonMari Test of Collection Strength

Bonsai photo by William Neuheisel
“Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
Antoine de Saint Exupéry

My maternal grandmother, like many others who lived through the depression, kept a lot of stuff. Sitti’s house was full of things with no rational reason for hanging on to, but it wasn’t until the leukemia ran its fatal course that my mom and aunt could finally clean up the place. I imagine many failed retail stores experience something comparable, where a shopkeeper wastes time and money stocking merchandise there’s no demand for, until the joint goes out of business and the wares are scuttled. And then there’s the dusty tomes sitting in the hallowed stacks of a research library, perhaps destined to share a similar fate.

The usefulness of a library collection is often objectively measured by its size, to the point where the number of volumes a library holds is touted as a self-evident testament to its worthiness. Collection girth is the most common base yardstick used when comparing libraries. But saying that a library with more items is superior, solely by virtue of its size, is akin to arguing that Donald Trump is a better person than you because he has more money. Any worthwhile measure of a library’s value accounts for not just the depth and recency of what subjects are represented but also how well these materials are used, and I would argue, penalizes librarians for wasting dollars by maintaining collections there are no demonstrated needs for.

A perfect library, from a patron’s perspective, would contain everything, immediately available on site. Finite acquisitions budgets ensure this is an unrealistic ideal. Furthermore, as we complete the turn towards more electronic and digitized holdings, improvements to resource sharing networks make the parallel maintenance of duplicative collections all the more unnecessary.

A glance at my university’s new books shelf shows that knowledge is advancing in many areas, but these innovations are not necessarily evenly distributed where they would most benefit mankind. So even a top tier research library should feel no obligation to purchase Transportation of Grand Pianos in Western Pennsylvania, 1876–1926 for its collection on the off chance that it may be read some day. Given the speed of modern interlibrary loan and patron-driven acquisitions services, such esoteric works with minimal anticipated use are not worth the expenditures, yet the “just in case” mindset stubbornly still pervades many collection development practices. We act as if allergic to change at times.

Marie Kondo’s bestsellers on the value of not hoarding are a worthwhile read. She describes and espouses the benefits to weeding and organizing your personal clutter, thereby minimizing physical and emotional waste. A proponent of feng shui and an apparent follower of Buddhist practices, her perspective is perhaps a bit more spartan than mine regarding what should be thrown away (I say while looking at my bookshelves of textbooks on calculus and chemistry and ecofeminism that will likely never be read again), but her primary thesis of asking the question, “Does this spark joy?” when deciding to keep something is one of enormous practical and psychological merit.

In the pre-Internet, pre-ILL era, bigger meant better, more often than not, when it came to measuring up libraries. Nowadays, the notion of making speculative purchases with likely severely limited resources is financially irresponsible. Library materials exist to not be admired on the shelf—the boondoggle that is “rare books” perhaps notwithstanding—but their value is rather found only as they are enjoyed by our constituents. Proper collection management should focus on curating items which can be put to worthwhile use ahead of building up a library just to boast about its size.

Further Reading

Check out my other posts for related commentary.