Thursday, January 04, 2007

Can't someone invent shelves with infinite space for books?

An article in the Wall Street Journal reports that a library in Virginia is apparently combating the constant problem of storage space for books by eliminating classics of literature:

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" may be one of Ernest Hemingway's best-known books, but it isn't exactly flying off the shelves in northern Virginia these days. Precisely nobody has checked out a copy from the Fairfax County Public Library system in the past two years, according to a front-page story in yesterday's Washington Post.

And now the bell may toll for Hemingway. A software program developed by SirsiDynix, an Alabama-based library-technology company, informs librarians of which books are circulating and which ones aren't. If titles remain untouched for two years, they may be discarded--permanently. "We're being very ruthless," boasts library director Sam Clay.

As it happens, the ruthlessness may not ultimately extend to Hemingway's classic. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" could win a special reprieve, and, in the future, copies might remain available at certain branches. Yet lots of other volumes may not fare as well. Books by Charlotte Brontë, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have recently been pulled.

Library officials explain, not unreasonably, that their shelf space is limited and that they want to satisfy the demands of the public. Every unpopular book that's removed from circulation, after all, creates room for a new page-turner by John Grisham, David Baldacci, or James Patterson--the authors of the three most checked-out books in Fairfax County last month.

But this raises a fundamental question: What are libraries for? Are they cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been thought and said? Or are they more like actual stores, responding to whatever fickle taste or Mitch Albom tearjerker is all the rage at this very moment?

This policy is a reasonable one, it seems to me. That it also leads to rather sad results in the case of a lot of classic texts seems to indicate more a problem with the reading public than the libraries: nobody is checking these books out. Just as retail bookstores stock material based on what sells, libraries -- which are, incidentally, government-funded non-profit organizations -- must do something of the same.

It's also worth noting that this particular library is a member library of a larger system, much like the Buffalo and Erie County Library, thus bringing in the collections of more than twenty branches into a much larger, shared collection. So the books removed from this branch are unlikely to now be completely unavailable to that town's library patrons.

The problem is, of course, one of balance. What should libraries do? What service should they provide? The thing about literature is that it's an art that doesn't require special accommodations to appreciate. Moby Dick, to pull one example out of thin air, is one of the great works of human art, but not in the same way that, say, the Mona Lisa is. There's only one Mona Lisa, and if you want to see it, it's off to Paris with you. Imagine if the world contained exactly one copy of Moby Dick, and that was in a library in, say, Oslo. Luckily things aren't like that for literature.

But the problem of making literature available to everyone still exists. Moby Dick "belongs to the human race" in the same way that the Mona Lisa does, but because it's a book, we can all participate. So, in a way, we kind of expect libraries to be the "museums of literature". But that's not realistic.

I, along with my family, go to my library regularly -- once a week. I'm continually baffled by people who scoff at the idea of going to the library in the day and age; as much as I love owning books (a trip to Borders with the family is planned for this weekend), why on Earth would I limit my reading to only those books that I could afford to buy? Putting it another way, I hate the idea of prioritizing my reading based on how much is left in this week's paycheck after I buy the food and pay my bills and, yes, get a bottle or two of rum.

If you hate to see copies of classics removed from libraries, then check them out. There's no law that says you have to check out the books you intend on reading! Every time you check out a book, you give that book a stay of execution. And don't complain about aggressive collection maintenance practices if you're likewise unmoved by the fact that libraries face funding cuts far more frequently than they do unexpected budgetary increases.

Here's an earlier post of mine about libraries. I also strongly recommend, for people interested in the vagaries of the book world -- collecting, making, storing, archiving, preserving -- the books of author Nicholas Basbanes, which I mention in this post and in this GMR review.

UPDATE: Reading through this MeFi thread, I note that the library system mentioned by the WSJ responds here:

Recent media reports have misled readers to believe that we’ve eliminated all copies of classic titles from our branches. This could not be further from the truth. Although we occasionally have to trim the number of copies we offer in a particular branch, we definitely keep multiple copies of these works in the Fairfax County Public Library. In some cases, we’re even able to offer the text in multiple formats: in large print, on CD, as an e-book, or in languages other than English.

Because there’s a growing demand for more and more books in more and more formats, we have to balance the need to offer classic literature, and satisfy public demand, with the physical limitations of our finite shelf space. We are physically unable to warehouse every book that every resident may want to read. Therefore we have to make difficult decisions about what items to keep in our collection.

The WSJ article implies that the entire Fairfax County library system has pulled For Whom the Bell Tolls from its shelves ("Precisely nobody has checked out a copy from the Fairfax County Public Library system in the past two years"), but it turns out that this isn't the case, as this MeFi commenter demonstrates:

God forbid that editorialist John J. Miller actually do any research of his own. After all, that's what lowly reporters do, right? And heaven forfend that mere facts get in the way of a good rant.

Sadly for Miller, the Fairfax County Public Library, as do many public libraries these days, makes its catalog available online. It records 84 copies of For Whom The Bell Tolls in their system. And that's only the print version--I didn't count the audiobook (available on either CD or cassette) or the e-book. Of these 84, 24 are currently checked out.

Miller's statement (attributed to a Washington Post article, as if that excuses Miller from doing the basic fact-checking it took me two minutes to accomplish) that "Precisely nobody has checked out a copy from the Fairfax County Public Library system in the past two years," may be true if he means "there's one particular copy which has not been checked out in the past two years." But that interpretation wouldn't really support his rant, now, would it? What he's trying to imply, "no copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls has been checked out of FCPL within the past two years" is clearly and demonstrably false.

I don't know whether 24/84 is typical of how many copies of For Whom the Bell Tolls are checked out of FCPL at any one time, but if it is, it seems entirely reasonable to get rid of some of those 84 copies. And 24 copies checked out is hardly a harbinger of the End of Civilization As We Know It.

So I think some of the handwringing, such as this, is misplaced.


All Things Jennifer said...

I blogged about this too and then sent the link on to my library friends who left comments on what they thought...

Anonymous said...

What I love about my library system is that I CAN use it like Amazon - oder on-line any book in the 30+ library system and it's delivered right to my local library. Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

What libraries should do is advertise the great classics remind them that they too are on the shelves and are a good read.

Speaking of magic bookshelves. I want a bookshelf that can some how fit three rows of books that can rotate so I can see the books one row back with jsut a press of a button.

Anonymous said...

I think it was Mark Twain who said "Classics are books every wants to have read, but nobody wants to read." Unfortunatly this appears to be true. It's a shame that libraries are throwing out the older books to replace them with 'newer, more popular' books. I thought libraries were a little more respectable than that.

Roger Owen Green said...

I showed the WSJ article to one of my colleagues and she was LIVID at the elitist tone of the piece, as though popularity were the sole criterion. That said, there uiis a balancing act that libraries are always doing. Who's to say Harry Potter (to pick one current popular book) won't be considered a "classic" in 20 years?

Anonymous said...

At least as far back as the late 80s/early 90s, when I was in library school, poor circulation was one of the main criteria for weeding books. Shelf space is just too limited in most public libraries to be able to indefinitely store books that nobody is checking out and still serve the completely reasonable public demand for new books.

Every few years some outraged columnist or blogger realizes that his or her library is about to remove the dog-eared copy of Pilgrim's Progress that was last checked out in 1979 and has a fit about it. This trend will probably continue until books are obsolete and libraries have become nothing but kiosks containing the sum of human knowledge, in searchable full text. :-) The complaining columnists always seem to think the librarians are just being big meanies, but in my experience, the librarians are usually the most likely people to have actually READ the poorly circulating books, and the saddest to see them go.