Hidden from History hidden from library users
When I started this blog I was planning to read Sheila Rowbotham‘s Hidden from History, a feminist text which, it had been suggested to me, was perfect for a family history researcher interested in women.
I found the book in our city library’s online catalogue and logged a reservation for it. It usually takes no more than a week or two for a book to turn up at my branch, unless there’s a long queue of reservations. Weeks passed, and I began to wonder. More weeks passed, and I visited the branch in person to find out what was up.
It turns out that the book isn’t coming, for mildly interesting as well as annoying reasons. Of the three copies formerly held in the system, two have long been retired as damaged, while the third is supposedly located in the library of one of the local hospitals. This means it shows up in the catalogue, and can technically be reserved, but is not in fact available for circulation to other branches (because the hospital branch, understandably, doesn’t have dedicated staff to handle requests – same goes for prison libraries). Apparently, when someone logs a reservation for a book like this, nothing happens; it just doesn’t turn up.
The librarian who explained this to me also looked at the history of the book on his computer, saw that it was last checked out by a reader in the late 1990s, and presented this as evidence that there’s no demand for it anyway. I suggested that it might just be evidence of the book being effectively unavailable to anyone who might wish to read it. Like me. He said he’d ring the hospital branch and try to find out more, but that the book was “probably missing by now”, and we agreed that I’d check back next week.
Thoughts on this:
1. Massive eye roll at the notion of any book, but especially an important, acclaimed book focusing on the way women have been “hidden” from mainstream history, being stowed away, entirely inaccessible, for more than ten years in the age of modern computer-based library systems. Few people stuck in hospital for any length of time have sufficient focus or energy to even consider reading a book like this, so it was doomed to languish on the shelf. It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s an agent of the patriarchy working covertly as a saboteur of the library collection *paranoid eyes*
2. It seems like it should be simple to resolve: if the holdings of local hospitals and prisons are fixed and don’t circulate, couldn’t there be a flag on their catalogue numbers to prevent them from being shown on the user-facing system as available to reserve? Or maybe any clearly unfillable reservations made by users could be set to somehow trigger a really minimal response, like an automated message or something. I don’t know, but this total absence of communication with people trying to get hold of books is a bit crap.
3. What other significant feminist titles don’t we have in our (large, urban) local library system? How did we go from three copies to one “probably missing” copy of this feminist classic without anyone noticing or caring, when the local branch shelves have an absolutely constant stream of brand-new crappy “women’s” fiction titles with sketchy drawings of cocktails and stilettos on the jackets, misery memoirs, romantic sagas and the like? Is this all women are supposed to read? How depressing. I’m not saying anything new here, I know I know I know; but still.
My impression is that these issues are really nothing to do with the librarians; more about underfunding and short-term decision-making way in the background, plus an attempt to keep circulation figures up by concentrating spending on “popular” titles at the expense of everything else. Libraries are of course getting it in the neck from our government at present, so there’s not much point getting cross at the staff on the frontline
. I guess I’ll just keep asking about this particular book until I get a definite answer.
Meanwhile, my immediate focus has shifted to Laurel Ulrich’s Good Wives, mentioned in an earlier post here, which is probably more connected to my current research anyway. I’ve ordered it (from a bookseller, using actual money), and look forward to getting stuck in.