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Hard Choices: Do Libraries Really Destroy Books?

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 12, 2011

Yesterday, an Australian blogger named S Peter Davis wrote a piece for Cracked (the surprisingly interesting online offshoot of the old comedy print magazine) called “6 Reasons We’re In Another ‘Book-Burning’ Period In History.” It’s not about the destruction of books based on content or community objections; it’s about the destruction of books because libraries (and sometimes bookstores) don’t know what to do with them, or don’t know what to do with them that makes economic sense.

The situation as Davis describes it is basically this: Libraries have a certain amount of space and a certain amount of money. The careful culling of books is painstaking work. Perhaps the pithiest part of the discussion is where he says this:

Imagine you’re the manager of a library, and some accountant tells you that you need to get rid of 100,000 books, and do it in a week. You really have two options. One, you can get a bunch of academics to scour your collection and painstakingly rate each book according to its value and importance. Then you can hire a bunch of people to take down the 100,000 least important books and painstakingly stamp and debug them, one by one. Your second option is to get the computer to spit out a list of the 100,000 least borrowed books, and hire a few people to walk down the aisles with their arms out, throwing those books in a shredding machine.

That second option is much quicker and much cheaper. Sometimes you can find a paper recycling centre that will pay you for the pulp, so destroying the books leads to a net profit. Nobody likes it, but for a librarian it’s like your best friend just got bitten by a zombie and you’re the only one with a gun.

That’s sobering stuff. It’s obviously an oversimplification, but it’s a stark choice. And it created a heated discussion not only on that site, but also where I found it, at Metafilter.

When you want to talk about libraries, you talk to the American Library Association, so I spoke to Betsy Simpson, the president of the ALA’s Association For Library Collections & Technical Services. She told me that while there are always choices to be made because it’s simply not possible for every library to collect and retain every book, it’s not as if they’re throwing books in the shredder because they don’t care. “Libraries really take seriously their mission to preserve the cultural record,” she says.

But it’s tough. Not only are there challenges that come from the limited space and the vast number of new books that come out every year (and month) (and week), but the number of functions that library users are looking for from libraries is increasing as well. “The space issue is a concern,” Simpson says, “because more and more, there’s a realization that our users need space to interact and collaborate and space to contemplate.” When you need more space for group work, you can’t pack every inch of your library with more shelves just to avoid getting rid of books.

Furthermore, there are ways other than destroying books to deal with space limitations, and libraries typically try those first. Simpson points out that libraries have book sales and, in some cases, permanent bookstores for books they don’t want to keep (there’s a bookstore just like that where she works, at the University of Florida). On top of that, there are growing initiatives to create “shared print repositories,” where books can be stored offsite and remain available for retrieval when they’re needed. It’s not as convenient as keeping books on-site, but it means you can still give your users access to that book. (Here’s a 2005 ALA report on this practice.)

There’s also some help to be found in some of the same technologies that have sometimes been pitted against the printed book. There’s a massive online library catalog called WorldCat that helps librarians (and others) know how many copies of a book other libraries are holding. It would presumably not be as big of a deal to get rid of a book 3,000 other libraries have as it is to dispose of one of the last three copies of something that remain available for borrowers.

But yes, sometimes, books are destroyed.

Now, obviously, there are absolutists who believe that any destruction of any book is inherently wrong. For them, this is agony, just knowing it’s happening to any book, whether it’s a classic gem or a dry manual on TV repair from the 1970s.

There always appear to be other options that could be explored. As Simpson points out, books can often be sold or donated. At the same time, doesn’t it seem inevitable that a certain number of books are created for which the benefit of possession doesn’t outweigh the costs of storage (even if the book is free) for any purchaser/taker the library is likely to find without making heroic efforts that they lack the resources to expend for very many volumes? There are obvious examples: outdated tech manuals, lifestyle books from trends gone by, obscure biographies. But there are also books that have been superseded by better or more current books, from atlases to science books to history books that are of little value because they’re so out of date. There may truly be no reasonable likelihood that you’ll find them a home.

It’s easy to argue that some of these books are their own important documents, because an out-of-date atlas, for instance, may not record the world as it is, but it records the world as it was, and isn’t that a better source, in fact, than a perspective we have now on the way things were then?

But if you’re the library, how many of those snapshots can you keep, at what cost? Digitizing is one solution, but it doesn’t at all satisfy everyone who loves paper books. On the other hand, if you can store 100 paper books or 1,000,000 digital books in the same space, what should you do?

And it’s not just libraries. It sounds terrible that bookstores might destroy books when they close down rather than going to the trouble of giving them away. But when the Borders near me was closing, the sale prices went down … and down … and down. And a certain number of books stubbornly sat there. They were genuinely unwanted, even at next-to-nothing prices.

Aren’t some books too off-the-beaten-track to save?

Maybe so. But … but … let me tell you something: My grandfather died many years before I was born. I’ve seen pictures of him, and I know he had the same face as my father and uncles and one of my cousins and one of my nephews. I call it the “Holmes face.” (Creative, I know.)

But my grandfather also wrote this book, Air Conditioning In Summer And Winter. It was published in 1938. (Second edition: 1951.) There is absolutely no reason I could demand that it be kept with any degree of remove. It’s a 74-year-old book about air conditioning. My father is not living off the royalties.

My parents have a copy of it on their shelf at home, so it’s not as if I’ve never seen it. But when I saw that it was on Amazon, and that there were nine used copies for sale, I smiled. It’s a thing. It’s in the world. Somewhere, nine copies of Air Conditioning In Summer And Winter still exist for sale. And I clicked around to the university libraries that still have it, too. (Again: WorldCat.) I visited it. Someone is even selling it on eBay.

I would have been so sad if it had looked like my father had the only copy. I am a Kindle user, and not a noted paper-book sentimentalist, and I don’t need to smell my books or lie around in bed with them. But I’m glad someone has it, and doesn’t just have its picture. You can try to separate the utility of the information in a printed book from its dearness to you as an object, but you can’t entirely. And my guess is that nobody knows that better than people who spend their days working in libraries, which takes you back to Betsy Simpson’s request that you not picture librarians throwing out books with their cold, cold hearts.

Yes, some of it is sentiment, and sentiment is personal. Maybe finding a home for every library book would require a loving book detective to find the granddaughters of authors who know their grandpas from pictures. It’s too much to ask, I know.

But hey — let me know if you’re thinking about pulping a copy of Air Conditioning In Summer And Winter. I’m pretty sure I have the shelf space. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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