DO YOUR INFORMATION needs and reading tastes run to the technical, esoteric, or—the dreaded S-word—scholarly? Do you see your major metropolitan public library as a trove of deep knowledge and a resource for mature research? If so, the Seattle Public Library doesn't want to serve you—at least not as it has in the past. In keeping with nationwide library trends and its own dire funding crunch, SPL has begun planning the most drastic and thorough pruning ever of its 2,200-title periodical collection. Those who advocate and undertake such streamlining call it "collection review." Skeptics, including some librarians, call it "dumbing down."
Librarians have also been directed to weed other holdings in preparation for their December move to the new showpiece downtown central library, but they haven't been assigned any quotas of books to toss. And they're supposed to cut subscription budgets by 25 percent—outpacing a general 16 percent cut in SPL's collections budget. Canceling subscriptions can also have more lasting repercussions than temporary cuts in book buying. It doesn't necessarily lead to back issues and bound copies getting jettisoned, but it does prompt further "review." Libraries can always catch up on missing books. If a periodical run gets broken, it can be resumed and, library officials vow, likely will be if the public clamors. But gaps can't be filled.
Some pruning is certainly in order. SPL's roster of 2,200-odd periodicals has accumulated through happenstance, personal preference, and past priorities that may or may not pertain today. Some costly subscriptions are of doubtful value and will likely be canceled. SPL spends $5,609 a year, for example, for a membership in the American Society of Professional Engineers that includes 27 specialized titles. Worse yet, it pays $1,094 for a sub to National Journal—edited by the overexposed Michael Kelly—while paying much, much less for other Beltway conservative magazines that are more influential. It probably could find better uses for the $4,700 it spends on a collection of professional teaching journals established in the 1940s, which the Seattle Public Schools and two local universities largely duplicate. And "Pacific Rim" is not the magic incantation it was in the 1980s, when SPL established a Pacific Rim Business Center.
BUT MOST OF THE soon-to-go publications in the Pac Rim Center, and many on the block in other departments, are donated to the library; the intent in cutting them is merely to save staff attention and shelf space. The wider goal is to trim the library's collection down to its ambitions. "We're really looking at general interest," says SPL's collection services manager, Tom Horne, who initiated the review. "We want to serve needs through the second-year college level. In some areas we might go to the B.A. level." If your interests are postgraduate, better find a university library.
The downtown library still receives hundreds of decidedly specialized publications—more trade and professional than academic journals. That reflects its traditional but fading role as a research resource for downtown businesses and professionals. More and more, they look up what they need to know on their own computers, and the library functions increasingly as a neighborhood library and cybercafe for people who don't have their own computers or offices. Library managers trumpet the fact that book-circulation numbers climbed 11 percent last year systemwide—and 22 percent at the central library, despite its being packed into stark temporary quarters at the Washington Convention & Trade Center while the new building goes up at the old Fourth Avenue and Spring Street site.
"It's a matter of focusing our priorities and really giving people what they want," says SPL communications director Andra Addison. And so the new building will have much more room for fiction, children's books, video, and music. Not all periodicals will suffer in the general slashing: "We'll look at more copies of the 50 most popular titles," says Lois Fenker, SPL's director of technical and collection services.
BUT JUST ABOUT any title that begins with "Journal" is a candidate for dumping, from the Journal of Geography to the Journal of Air Traffic Control. Many of these are musty, but some prospective targets seem doubtful choices. Ecology, BioScience, Preservation, Planning, Middle East Report,
and American Naturalist are useful to amateurs and nonacademics. The American Journal of Public Health, the premier source on the subject, seems especially timely. The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, the leading American and British medical journals, were targeted but then spared, at librarians' urging. "They often drive coverage in popular newspapers," says SPL medical librarian John Sheets. "And then people come in looking for the original articles." Many journals are available electronically, he notes, and such "full-text" databases are supposed to take up much of the slack as subscriptions get dropped. But "full text" is rarely full; it omits charts, graphs, and illustrations, not to mention many brief articles. "A lot of articles aren't in electronic databases because of copyright issues," notes veteran SPL librarian Eric Cisney.
Other candidates for cutting: Sunday-only subscriptions to the Houston, Eugene, and San Jose newspapers, the distinguished South Atlantic Quarterly, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Calyx, and other lit reviews. Likewise, an on-paper subscription to Rolling Stone. But fair's fair—Classical Review is also on the block.
Cisney and other research-minded librarians, who often feel excluded from collection decisions, say they're relieved at the chance to weigh in on these cuts. Food librarian Linda Saunto howled when she saw the magazine Slow Food marked for cutting—in this hotbed of the Slow Food movement—and got assurances it will be retained. But librarians worry that such off-center choices, which serve Seattle's special needs and quirks, will disappear from the increasingly mainstream collection. "The library will end up with a very bright, shiny collection," says Sheets, "just like every other library in the country."
Seattle Public Library users who wish to learn more about subscription cuts or weigh in on favorite periodicals should call SPL's periodicals review committee at 206-386-4186.