Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A radical thought: Libraries are for books

Librarians have always had to perform the same nasty task that those of us with limited home library space have to perform--getting rid of books that have not been read in a long, long time or that will never be read. But now, according to an article in The Washington Post, they are performing this task with greater frequency and intensity. The title of the article, "Hello, Grisham--So Long, Hemingway" was enough to make my blood curdle, even before I read the contents.

In Fairfax Country, Virginia, a decision has been made to get rid of any book that has not been checked out in two years. Fortunately, librarians are making exceptions. For example, To Kill A Mockingbird and For Whom the Bell Tolls are staying--for now--even though they have not been checked out in two years.

"We don't want to keep what people don't use much of," say Sam Clay, director of the Fairfax system. That is understandable. But what the hell kind of nation are we living in when To Kill A Mockingbird stays on a library shelf, untouched, for two years? Doesn't that say just about everything about 21st Century America that we need to know?

Libraries, the argument goes, are not what they used to be. People find reference materials via the Internet, so not as many reference books are needed on library shelves. That is true. But what about literature? Are Americans really buying that much more of it via the Internet? Despite the fact that sites like Amazon do offer inexpensive and used copies of books, is everyone buying them? I suspect the answer is "no." I suspect that the people in Fairfax County--and many, many other counties--simply do not give a damn about Harper Lee or Ernest Hemingway or hundreds of other authors who wrote or write literary fiction, drama, creative nonfiction, essays, and poetry.

When I was an older child and younger adolescent, my mother and I would get a ride into town (she did not drive, and the bus rarely came by), and she would drop me off at the huge, ornate, musty public library, then go shopping. By the time she picked me up to go to the Chinese restaurant down the street, my entire world had shifted. I had read Shaw and Poe and Cather and de Maupassant. When I went back after lunch, I read some more, and when it was time to go, I checked out several books, as well as some record albums. Some of these were performance albums, which is how I first learned both Shakespeare and Chaucer.

I regret that I do not devour books the way I did when I was young. In a childhood devoid of many happy times, the hours spent in the public library stand out as some of the best. To think that people are not going to libraries to read literature or to check out literature is a depressing thought.

The Fairfax system has also had to deal with a $2 million budget cut. That is because compassionate conservatism does not concern itself with literacy and thinking, but with important things like invading another country, creating a massive fake airport security program, and giving money to groups that hate women and gays.

Finally, Sam Clay points out, the demand for meeting space and space for story hours has caused books to be swept off of the shelves. Meeting space? Let me get this straight: People want to meet in a library, for whatever reason, but in order for them to be comfortable, books must be removed. Because why the hell would you want books in a library?


I'm equally appalled, but I think some of this is understandable.

I suspect that the universe of people who either read Hemingway and Harper Lee in high school or own their own copies is likely to account for almost the entire universe of people who would check those books out of the library if they hadn't already read them or owned a copy. In other words, the popularity of a book is not necessarily reflected in how often it gets checked out of the library. There may in fact be two non-overlapping groups of books: those that are popular and those that get checked out of libraries, or perhaps the "good books" that people want to own and the "escape fiction" that they just want to borrow. So the fact that these books have not been checked out in years does not mean that nobody is reading those titles, or that anybody who does want to read them will be prevented from doing so by the fact that they're not in the library. (It's a possibility, at least.)

Also, in many communities, especially smaller ones, the library is a general-purpose community space. If you tell yourself that "they're throwing books out of libraries to make room for meeting space!", that sounds counterintuitive. But if you perceive that "they're redistributing the multi-purpose space between book collections and meeting rooms", that sounds both sensible and possibly the right thing to do.

I love books and libraries. I have walls of books at home, and boxes in front of the walls. I can't bring myself to throw them out. But I'm not book-snobbish enough to demand that everyone value the same books the same way, or to insist that reading is the only activity a community should support or make space for with its limited resources. Community groups, clubs, and political meetings are valuable undertakings, too, and it may be worth devoting at least some of the pie to them as well as to books.

By Blogger Kevin T. Keith, at 1:28 PM  

I agree with you, Kevin, for those libraries that already have designated little auditoriums and meeting rooms, but not for those libraries whose administrators choose to move books in order to make more meeting space. There are other places--churches, organizations, schools, etc.--that have space people can use. It sounds counterintuitive because it is, as far as I am concerned, and I can't say I'm surprised, since so much in this culture is counterintuitive.

Call me old school, but I agree with the librarian in the article who thinks that it is a library's mission to promote literature, not just offer books for use.

By Blogger Diane, at 7:07 PM  

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