The Price of Occult Books, Part 3 – The Role of Libraries

In previous posts, we’ve talked about factors that drive up the price of occult books, and books that are high-priced despite this.  I only have part of the story here, and I’d encourage people to comment on what they know.

Are libraries the solution to these problems?

They would seem to be, at first.  You’ve got a large number of institutions which have entire budgets dedicated to acquiring material for its users, defined in terms of a particular community of scholars or practitioners, or the public at large.  They have immense databases that provide information from thousands (I’m being very conservative here) of different publishers.  What’s more, these libraries often lend their books and articles to other libraries, thereby maximizing the ability of even small town centers to access works from around the world. Wouldn’t this be a great boon for the occult community?

Libraries are a great boon, but this does not mean that they do not come with their problems.  One of these is the greatest explosion of information that the world has ever seen, most of which comes with a price tag that’s often substantial.  At the same time, library budgets have not increased.   This ProQuest whitepaper from last year shows that four-fifths of the academic library respondents have reduced their purchasing power for monographs, either due to budget reductions or because their flat budgets give them less purchasing power.  And the United States is much better off than the UK, where libraries are being closed and staff being slashed in favor of volunteers, as part of an austerity-based governance philosophy.  Thus, as the amount of information rises, the ability to process and provide that information to the public shrinks.

Most of the cost associated with this is driven by large publishers interested in short-term payoffs to shareholders rather than providing information to the public.  This has led to an emphasis on books priced at a point where libraries are the intended purchasers.  I don’t know the publishing end, but my uninformed guess is that publisher marketing is one part detailed analysis, trend-watching, and number-crunching, and one part pawing through goat entrails in the woods on a dark night.

Thus, you end up with a situation where publishers decide they’re going to sell to libraries, but libraries are buying less.  Thus, they need to drive up the prices to meet the new margins, which makes the books more expensive, while libraries are buying less… The net effect is to lower the number of books that can be purchased, at a time when more books than ever are appearing.  This situation is likely to become more messy as the years go by, and the end result may not be beneficial to scholarship.

What about interlibrary loan?  This does do a great deal to mitigate this situation, but it only helps so much. All of the lending libraries are under the same financial constraints as the others, which often means that books have to be borrowed from farther away, with increases in shipping and time.  Libraries are often unwilling to lend newly-released books they’ve purchased for their own patrons, and some charge fees or place other restrictions on the service.  Further, I’m just discussing U. S. libraries here – I get the impression that ILL services are fairly good in Europe, and I’m not sure about the rest of the world.

Having set the stage, let’s turn to books on the occult.  We face special challenges here. First, libraries typically seek purchases in particular fields that meet the needs of their patrons.  In academic libraries, these are largely based upon the traditional divisions of the disciplines.  Items that do not fit neatly within these divisions, such as esoteric books, may not be purchased simply because it doesn’t fit the model.

Also, occult books bring with them a set of preconceived notions about the topics within that affects their treatment.  I would love to believe that librarians would not exclude such books simply because of their subject matter – and I believe the vast majority would not do so – but some would.  On the other hand, we also have communities in which such books are looked upon with suspicion, and where patrons might be less likely to ask for them – or to steal them to avoid the judgment of anyone.  The theft of occult books from libraries would make for a fascinating study, but anecdotal evidence indicates it’s a real problem for many libraries. And even the impression that it’s a problem might cause librarians to divert their funds elsewhere.

Also, let’s not forget that many occult works these days are being released by small presses, outside the regular distribution chains.  If you were able to buy a book from Amazon, or a similar one from a small press that required a special invoice and that required you to check to make sure you’d received the item after payment, which one would you choose?  Most of us would choose the former – and that’s a risk we’d be taking with our own funds, let alone those of an employer.  Thus, a great number of the books released these days on occultism are not likely to be purchased by a library anywhere.

This brings us to purchasers and collectors, who will be the topic of my next post.


Published in: on April 28, 2017 at 6:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

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