Why have libraries? part 2

I’ve posted before about how much I love weeding. It’s extremely satisfying to pull outdated books off of the shelf. You can congratulate yourself on getting old, yucky material off of the shelves, and you can go work on finding updated information to replace it. Like cleaning, it is even more satisfying if you postpone it awhile–then you find all sorts of appalling things, because the shiny new book about Cameroon that you bought back in 1990 is now 20 years old and should have been discarded years ago.

Almost all libraries face space issues. With the thousands and thousands of books that are published yearly, it’s inevitable that eventually your space will fill up. So sometimes we must weed to make room for the new materials. That’s not as fun, but you can usually find books that your patrons just don’t love as much as you think they should, so they have a low circulation rate and you choose those to go away.

Those are normal issues. What concerns me is that even librarians are embracing a vision of the almost book-free library. Books are bulky and dusty and even germy if you worry about that. They are old-fashioned. Who wants to be seen as old-fashioned? Librarians embrace the newest technologies and have happily learned to work with databases. We love the improved access that computers allow, where you can combine search terms to come up with exactly the information your patrons need.  And who doesn’t love face-out shelving, with the beautiful covers enticing people to pick up the books?

But I’m sorry, it’s sad that librarians are so happy to throw away the books from the libraries. I too love the look of a newly weeded shelf, where the books look so pretty and the room doesn’t look like a storeroom.  But lately, it’s going too far! Everyone feels that their library is not the one that should be keeping older books–that’s the job of some other library. Small libraries assume that the larger libraries are doing it.  They aren’t. They assume that the biggest libraries are doing it. They aren’t. Everyone thinks that the special collections like the Center for Children’s Books at the University of Illinois is keeping them. They aren’t. They don’t have the space, either.

I get lonesome when I talk about this–it’s not popular with my peers. It is much more popular with the people who grew up loving libraries and books, but aren’t librarians and aren’t faced with the challenging issues of how to keep libraries and books vital in people’s lives.  But it seems to me that the surest way of losing taxpayer support is to stop fulfilling the role that taxpayers expect us to fill–cultivating library collections with care and discernment. We need to figure out what’s working in the bookstore model and shape it to fit our mission, not change our mission to feel like we aren’t so old-fashioned anymore. We need to consult with the experts and visionaries, but remember that when it comes to libraries, we ARE the experts.

On the bright side, the Internet allows book lovers to find the books they love so they can add them to their own collections. It allows libraries to share collections with patrons all over the country. So it’s not all bad news.  It’s great that libraries are wrestling with the issues of supplying what patrons need in these busy times. Let’s just not leap to the conclusion that we have to get rid of those stodgy books to make our libraries seem fresh and new.

One final note: Don’t use this post as an excuse to stop weeding!

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