Dumpster diving at the library


A few daring students found a treasure trove of old and rare books inside the dumpsters behind the library. Photo credit: Allison Lex

Allison Lex

By Allison Lex

The dumpster behind Homer Babbidge Library is always filled to the brim. But not with discarded candy wrappers, old coffee cups and used tissues. It is brimming with books.

“It was like a treasure trove,” said one student who crept across campus in the middle of a winter’s night to rescue stacks of books from the giant metal bin two years ago.

UConn’s main library has ushered in the digital age, in part by tossing away countless books, regardless of their condition.

“As far as I understand it, the director of the library is taking low circulation books and seeing if there are digital copies of them elsewhere,” a library student employee said. “And if there are, they throw [the books] away.”

A variety of titles

Among these books are volumes of environmental records, public service announcements and other itemse used less frequently than other research materials. But many of the books that take the trip to the dumpster have recently passed through the library’s conservation lab, meaning they have been widely circulated and are in close-to-new condition.

The conservation lab, part of the university’s preservation department until it was recently disbanded, repairs library books that are worse for wear so they can be returned to Babbidge’s shelves.

The move to digitization has also sent books to the dumpster. As a research library, Babbidge sees an influx of new materials on a yearly basis. Digitizing books removes the need to pay for increased storage as the library’s collection grows.

The process itself is far cheaper than traditional book repairs, which require expensive material and hours of manual labor.

“At only a dime per page, [digitization] is among the lowest of any other ethical efforts in the industry,” said David Lowe, leader of the Digital Program Team.

The digital age

UConn is not alone in the move to digitization. Other major universities, including New York University and Northwestern University, have also expanded their preservation departments to include digitization.

But at UConn, these two departments are separate. And while the leader of the digitization department says the two speak to each other on a daily basis, their efforts still seem counterproductive.

“We fix things so they can be kept longer,” the student employee said. “[The other department is] responsible for digitizing things so they can be thrown away.”

But while the two departments work in conflict with one another, some enterprizing and adventurous students are able to reap the benefits. The dumpster diving students of two years past are now the proud owners of more than a dozen books and other publications, including copies of the “Clean Air Act of 1977,” “American Midland Naturalist” and “Polish Folk Stories.”

Not exactly bestsellers, but treasures nonetheless.

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