Slayer & benchmarking of library collections

November 13, 2013, 9:29 pm

A friend of mine once remarked that Jack Kerouac judged diners solely on the quality of their apple pie. Apparently you can infer a lot about an establishment based upon the size, presentation, and taste of this classic dessert.

When it comes to libraries and bookstores I’ve always used a similar measuring device: Hermann Hesse. Most libraries have the classics (Steppenwolf, Siddhartha) but what really impresses me is seeing lesser-known (and in my opinion better) novels like Beneath the Wheel and Demian. And the pinnacle for me is Narcissus and Goldmund. To me this is his masterpiece.

As superficial as it sounds, I use to think that I could tell a lot about a library’s collection based upon these works. I liked to think that it revealed something about the library’s intellectual curiosity and that it suggested something about what else might be found in the stacks. I guess you could say that Hesse was a representation to me of what was possible and probable: my personal benchmark. And on top of that, the older Hesse translations were more valuable too—they are edgier compared to the more modern editions.

Hesse was once very influential on me, but these days my new signature book is: Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. I hope to meet Brad Feld someday; I’d like to interview him for this blog. But in a general sense, I look at the entrepreneurial collection to determine a sense of value. How is your library supporting the startup movement?

Over the years I’ve realized that many of us librarians have similar measuring sticks or personal benchmarks. A good friend of mine looks at the range of books on Shakespeare criticism to size up a library. A former colleague of mine remarked that having a copy (or replica?) of Diderot’s Encyclopedia was a must have for every research library. It seems interesting that there are these symbolic books that transcend the way we view and value collections.

I was recently walking through the stacks with our Director of Development and we wandered in the CD section. Tons of jazz and classical offerings but there were also some odd things that stood out like KMFDM, Iron Maiden, and Black Flag. These artists are a bit unusual for us, but not completely unexpected. But then I saw Slayer and that changed everything!

Full disclosure, I’m not a Slayer fan. I prefer early-Metallica and Danzig for my metal fix. But the fact that we had Slayer in our collection was borderline shocking. I feel collection-wise that Virginia Tech leans toward conservative. I never would have imagined we’d have two CDs by this artist.

But as I reflected on this I realized that it deepened my appreciation for our collection. The Slayer CDs not only exceeded my personal expectations but expanded what I thought was possible. This is one of the brand drivers/themes that I want my patrons to experience—for me it took the inclusion of a Big Four thrash band in order to feel this myself. (Note: this statement is only meant to reflect on general collections—obviously there are lots of amazing things in every special collections.)

I looked in the catalogs of some peer libraries and Slayer was hit or miss. Some had the classics (Reign, Abyss) while many had no records at all. Granted this review was based on six or seven libraries and is in no way generalizable—in fact, I’m not even arguing that Slayer should be a defining aspect of collection analysis, but I just find it interesting.

slayer_recordI was particularly proud (if that’s the right word) that my library not only had a Slayer classic, but also a lesser-known album: Undisputed Attitude. They are a Grammy winning musical group so it’s not like that are completely underground, but I think that Slayer has become my new metric. Of course, students don’t listen to CDs anymore and we have hundreds (or more?) of these discs just waiting on the shelf for listeners. But beyond the legacy format issue, I’m impressed with any library bold enough to catalog Slayer.

What’s your metric?
So what’s your symbolic book or other material? What’s the one thing you typically search for that reveals something to you about the character of the collection?

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