Public library discarding the classics

Public library discarding the classics

What is the purpose of a public library? Is it to hold classic books in trust for society, even if they are not popular right now? Or is to provide books that are popular right now, no matter their long-term quality? Some would say both, but what if the library decided it could only do one of those things. The public library system in Fairfax, Virginia, has done just that and has decided in favor of the new over the old.

“We’re being very ruthless,” said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system. “A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that’s a cost.”

Tulips? The list of potential casualties of this new approach appears to be a bit more shocking than obscure technical references. The Fairfax libraries are now using new computer software programs to identify titles that have not been checked out in 24 months.

Which books aren’t making the cut? So far, they’ve removed the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln and the poems of Emily Dickinson. Other books due to get the “Logan’s Run” treatment include The Works of Aristotle, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Aeneid by Virgil.

New technologies make this less of a problem

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  • In Loudoun county one approach the library has taken is to try to work out who their readers are – which in this case is a LOT of homeschoolers.  They’ve talked several times to the HS’s to see what they want.  I don’t really know what’s come of it but I’ll bet it isn’t to get rid of classics…

  • Traditionally, librarians have always had to make decisions like this. It’s called de-accessioning, and it is sometimes necessary. However.

    Traditionally, librarians have been careful to balance usage by the public with usage for the future. They know that somewhere out there is a child who needs a chance to encounter the great writers, or an old person who needs comfort and wisdom, or a poor person who needs inspiration and a chance at betterment. They are supposed to be there for the individual as well as the crowd, and for the future as well as the forgotten past. At the very lowest level, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their town to keep important information bought at taxpayer expense accessible to taxpayers.

    In short, they’re supposed to use judgment when they cull, not some arbitrary standard of popularity. If they don’t do that, then obviously, you don’t need librarians—only a checkout line or even a self-checkout.

    It is a pity that duels are against the law. Somebody deserves to be called out for an utter lack of professional honor.

  • I work in acquisitions for a public library. I basically do online ordering or books selected to be purchased by the adult librarian, the children’s librarian and the director.

    Choosing which books to purchase is an art, and can be influenced by one’s personal agenda. For example, our library’s new non-fiction is very heavy on “Bush bashing” books. Other neighboring libraries have a heavy collection of “gay-lesbian” titles for young adults.

    Weeding ( discarding of low circulating or out dated titles) can also follow one’s agenda.

  • Anecdotally, chuck-the-old-books is happening a lot, and part of the reason may be due to (surprise!) the training of the new generation of librarians.  While living in northern Maine, we experienced contrasting library philosophies with our children.  The public library had a marvelous collection of new and old, including very old, books.  Some authors I remembered from my own childhood had written books I hadn’t known existed—but they were in that public library, together with the new/shiny ones.  The two Catholic schools, however… well, when they merged, the full-time librarian from one took over from the volunteer parent/librarians at the other, and immediately began discarding.  Not only did she discard duplicates, she discarded anything she thought was “too old”.  This included older historical books which emphasized things like, say, the role of religion in America.  It also included classics like “The Biggest Bear” (with which I hope you are all familiar!).  The funny thing is, older children’s librarians would get to know their “regulars” and guide them toward classics the kids would enjoy, whereas the newer librarians wouldn’t bother.  Might this behavior have something to do with willingness to keep all that “old stuff” around?