Thursday, January 04, 2007

Weeding the Classics

Stephen Denney notes that the public library system in Fairfax County, VA is weeding unread classics in favor of popular literature. A Washington Post article quoted by Stephen explains the library's decision as follows:

"Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region's largest library system is taking turnover to a new level.

"Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system's return on its investment by each foot of space on the library bookshelves -- and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone -- even if they are classics..."

On the one hand, I understand why Fairfax County is following this path. Space is a major concern for most libraries. Plus, in the online age, when all too many think that everything is available on Google and libraries are no longer needed, public libraries in particular are under tremendous pressure to show their continued relevance. Hence the desire to keep only the most heavily used items in their collections and try to bring in as many patrons as possible. Finally, Fairfax patrons can still obtain almost any book using Interlibrary Loan. As print on demand technology becomes available, this will become even less of an issue.

Still, I think John J. Miller has a point in his essay from Wednesday's Wall Street Journal when he decries the tendency for libraries to adopt the Barnes & Noble model:

Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn't merely describe the words of a language--it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends.

The particulars of this task will fall upon the shoulders of individual librarians, who should welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral, as librarians traditionally have done. They ought to regard themselves as not just experts in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System, but as teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.

For better or worse, the move from "just in case" to "just in time" library collections is well underway. While libraries have successfully adopted elements of the bookstore model, it is important that we not lose sight of what makes libraries unique. We need to maintain our ability to educate and empower as well as entertain.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Replace the classics with more popular works? This looks like something dreamed up by some lout from the Jerry Springer Show.
Someone who thinks that the works of Wayne Dyer and Tom Clancy should be taken seriously. People like this should not be allowed inside a library - at least not in the capacity of staff members.
Libraries should embrace marketing values and corporate culture? This kind of thinking is what brought us prime time television and the Enron fiasco. In libraries it would replace the works of Thomas Hardy and Leo Tolstoy with so-called novels that read like they were composed by a computer and with celebrity-worshiping tomes that seem to be published with a readership of imbeciles in mind.
One of the ironies of the situation is that both Borders and Barnes carry many classics, which take up space that could otherwise be occupied by "fun books" and other nonsense. Actually, where I live - Long Beach,California - one can find classics in these commercial book stores that are not available at the Long Beach Public Library. This forward-looking institution carried out a huge weeding operation last year which resulted in the pulping of thousands of books in good condition so that they could be replaced with junk. Included were serious novels, important historical works, and other valuable volumes.
This trashing of the library's collection really amounted to deliberate destruction of public property, and could have resulted in criminal charges if anyone had really pressed the issue. The director of the San Francisco Public library got canned a couple of years ago when he was caught performing a similar stunt.
Perhaps the worshipers of marketing and corporate anti-intellectualism should find themselves jobs where they will presumably be more comfortable - in a corporation.

7:10 PM  

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