Wednesday, January 10, 2007

You. You. Not you.

Another article has been circulating through the staff list at my library. This time, it's about a new book weeding process that is ongoing in a neighboring public library system. Apparently, the Fairfax County Public Library System (VA) has devised a new program to clear up space on their shelves. There is a computer program that informs them about which books have not been checked out for 24 months. It turns out that, shocker of shockers, the "classics" are the books most at risk for being tossed aside.

The original Washington Post article has been picked up and bandied about by a large number of library journals and blogs. From what I've read, most people seem to think that the weeding of classics will only hinder the purpose and legacied function of libraries. The main question being debated is whether or not libraries should act like a business and conform to the wishes of their customers/patrons, or if they should attempt to become/remain repositories for knowledge, even if said knowledge is out of vogue.

I can see the pros and cons for both sides of this. The librarian side of my cringes at the thought of removing classics from the shelves. It reminds me of when I was in middle school and could not locate Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." It was not available at the school library or the local public library. I finally found a copy at the local used bookstore (where, in a few years, I would be employed). At the time I was shocked and appalled that such a literary classic was not readily available. Then I worked in book retail. At that point, I didn't want to shelve anything that wouldn't sell. I hated having to inventory and shelve books that I knew would languish in the store for years. I didn't see the point of buying something that we could not sell for profit. After all, I had to be paid.

So the conundrum of this story comes down to shelf space versus primary function. In this instance, librarians get to play God. They decide what stays and what goes, in essence, possibly crafting the reading habits the nation (or at least that county). Should they let their patrons dissolve into nothing but mindless-poorly-written-popular-fiction reading drones? Or, should they risk becoming obsolete my stocking nothing but those volumes which professors everywhere claim to be vital to the interests of the history of the English (and other) speaking languages? What is a librarian to do!?!

To be honest, I think that is a bunch of hooey. If people really wanted the classics, they could find them. Libraries disperse to the masses what they want. Sure they could argue for the repository of knowledge theory; they'd be correct to do so. They could also argue that any reading is good reading. Again, they'd be correct.

To me, this is not a debate about the purpose of a library. That purpose is two-fold with one goal. Stock the classics. Stock the popular fiction. Mainly, get people to read, whatever that reading may bed. This article has been picked up not because of the debate but, rather, because it represents our own unease. Libraries are supposed to have the classics. Everyone knows that. Fairfax is doing what is not supposed to happen. They're making us consider that a library can/should/should not be more than it is stereotyped to be.

People are debating this story because it makes them realize that they take their local library for granted. They want Fairfax to carry Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, and John Maynard Keynes, because there may be a chance that, one day, they'll have a desire to read a classic. It's a comforting thought to know that, even if these books are never read, they're still available. It's a security blanket of knowledge.




And, honestly, a simple way to increase circulation of the volumes at risk is to make a display. It's all about how you sell it. People have trouble avoiding tables with items and shiny things on them. It's all about the shiny things.

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