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Thread: A Washington-area library tosses out the classics.

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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    A Washington-area library tosses out the classics.

    I thought this might be an interesting article to discuss here on lit net. Can libraries shun classics if no one checks them out? I can understand their point, but they also have certain responsibilities.

    Checked Out
    A Washington-area library tosses out the classics.

    BY JOHN J. MILLER
    Wednesday, January 3, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

    "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?
    If the answer is the latter, then why must we have government-run libraries at all? There's a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the recreational habits of bookworms.

    Fairfax County may think that condemning a few dusty old tomes allows it to keep up with the times. But perhaps it's inadvertently highlighting the fact that libraries themselves are becoming outmoded.

    There was a time when virtually every library was a cultural repository holding priceless volumes. Imagine how much richer our historical and literary record would be if a single library full of unique volumes--the fabled Royal Library of Alexandria, in Egypt--had survived to the present day.

    As recently as a century ago, when Andrew Carnegie was opening thousands of libraries throughout the English-speaking world, books were considerably more expensive and harder to obtain than they are right now. Carnegie always credited his success in business to the fact that he could borrow books from private libraries while he was growing up. His philanthropy meant to provide similar opportunities to later generations.

    Today, however, large bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders bombard readers with an enormous range of inexpensive choices. An even greater selection is available online: Before it started selling mouthwash and power tools, Amazon.com used to advertise itself as "the world's biggest bookstore." It still probably deserves the label, even though there are now a wide variety of competing retailers. (Full disclosure: Years ago, I was a paid reviewer for Amazon.com.)

    The reality is that readers have never enjoyed a bigger market for books. Shoppers can buy everything from hot-off-the-press titles in mint condition to out-of-print rarities from secondhand dealers. They can even download audiobooks to their MP3 players and listen to them while jogging or driving to work. Companies such as Google and Microsoft are promising to make enormous amounts of out-of-copyright material available to anyone with a computer and a browser.

    The bottom line is that it has never been easier or cheaper to read a book, and the costs of reading probably will do nothing but drop further.

    If public libraries attempt to compete in this environment, they will increasingly be seen for what Fairfax County apparently envisions them to be: welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille's newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Wal-Mart.

    Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn't merely describe the words of a language--it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends.
    The particulars of this task will fall upon the shoulders of individual librarians, who should welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral, as librarians traditionally have done. They ought to regard themselves as not just experts in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System, but as teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.

    The alternative is for them to morph into clerks who fill their shelves with whatever their "customers" want, much as stock boys at grocery stores do. Both libraries and the public, however, would be ill-served by such a Faustian bargain.

    That's a reference, by the way, to one of literature's great antiheroes. Good luck finding Christopher Marlowe's play about him in a Fairfax County library: "Doctor Faustus" has survived for more than four centuries, but it apparently hasn't been checked out in the past 24 months.

    Mr. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of "A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America" (Encounter Books).

    http://www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110009472
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

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    X (or) Y=X and Y=-X Jean-Baptiste's Avatar
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    Oh, Virgil, that's disgusting! Ugh! The library that I work at monitors the circulation of each book, and discards quite a few every year, but the classics are definitely on the permanent safe list. Although, the local public library discards many books, regardless of how necessary they are (one of my coworkers found a book that belongs to our library on their sale rack recently-- --it was returned there instead, and they put it up for sale. ) Anyway, yes, a library is not necessarily the place to go when you don't want to spend $3.99 at the checkout of the grocery market for the latest best seller. I'm sending this link to my librarian; she'll laugh her *** off.
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    Suzerain of Cost&Caution SleepyWitch's Avatar
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    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?
    If the answer is the latter, then why must we have government-run libraries at all? There's a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the recreational habits of bookworms.
    interesting article, Virgil!
    Although I'm generally sceptical of highbrow notions such as 'edifying the public' blablabla, I agree with the author that libraries shouldn't be like those stores.
    why don't they just exhibit their classics in a flashy showcase somewhere where every 'customer' can see them and do something like a classics months or something?
    The public library in my town does that and it seems to work.
    But I suppose it depends on the size of the town? If it's a very small town, there will be less people taking out the classics?

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    Just another nerd RobinHood3000's Avatar
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    Tsk tsk...that's tragic, really it is.
    Por una cabeza
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    Para qué vivir

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    A ist der Affe NickAdams's Avatar
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    Middle-class readers look for mainstream fiction, because there are advertisments on TV, stations etc. How would they happen upon a classic if it's not sitting on the shelf? Lets see what becomes of the world when the majority reads plot-driven-sensationalist-fiction with flat characters.

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    solid motherhubbard's Avatar
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    Nick, I agree that it is a shame. We have two libraries in my small town, a county library and a community college library. Recently I wanted to check out a copy of “A Long Days Journey into Night” and could not find it anywhere. I had to order it as neither of the bookstores carried it. It is commonly thought to be the greatest American play and no one has it. I’m still in shock.

    I disagree that it’s the middle class that is the cause of this problem. In my opinion every class is guilty of being sucked into the commercialization of civilization. While upper class people may be more likely to purchase their books instead of checking them out at the library they are also more likely to be on the board.

    Also, you make me think of how sick I feel when people I know scoff at the wonderful literature I’m reading while they are reading Harlequin if anything. You can’t even talk to someone like that. How can you liberate that kind of mind?

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    If grace is an ocean... grace86's Avatar
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    That is horribly upsetting Virgil I understand that libraries need more room, but to toss out a classic to make room and favor for today's trash is not my idea of clear thinking. I would say "well as long as people are reading..." but not at the price of classic novels...what if no one checks out Thomas Aquinas for two years??

    I once heard that if you have an article of clothing that sits in your closet for two years without being worn, it is time to get rid of it...but you know...there are some things you just can't get rid of because they are timeless and fit all occasions; cough cough...like classic novels!

    My library does something similar to what Sleepy's does. Maybe Fairfax should try being a little more innovative. How could LIBRARIANS get rid of the classics?
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    shortstuff higley's Avatar
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    There should be a permanent "safe" list for the classics-- there are plenty of other B-andC- list books that aren't checked out, and those can be pitched.

    On the other hand, the real problem is that the Fairfax library is simply responding to the flow of demand from its county. And I know it sounds sacriligeous but I can't get angry at them for doing this because really, Faulkner's genius isn't appreciated any more when it's sitting on a shelf collecting dust as opposed to lying in a bin. Targeting the library isn't any good because it's not the source of the problem. The public needs to be encouraged to show interest in the classics. Then the binning wouldn't be necessary.
    '...A cast of your skull, sir, until the original is available, would be an ornament to any anthropological museum. It is not my intention to be fulsome, but I confess that I covet your skull.' --Dr. Mortimer, The Hound of the Baskervilles

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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Wow, this thread got revived. Thanks Nick.

    Quote Originally Posted by motherhubbard View Post
    I disagree that it’s the middle class that is the cause of this problem. In my opinion every class is guilty of being sucked into the commercialization of civilization. While upper class people may be more likely to purchase their books instead of checking them out at the library they are also more likely to be on the board.
    Yes, I agree what's class got to do with it? Lower class are even worst I'm sure and the upper class doesn't care either. It has to do with education to understand classics and love of literature.

    Quote Originally Posted by higley View Post
    There should be a permanent "safe" list for the classics-- there are plenty of other B-andC- list books that aren't checked out, and those can be pitched.

    On the other hand, the real problem is that the Fairfax library is simply responding to the flow of demand from its county. And I know it sounds sacriligeous but I can't get angry at them for doing this because really, Faulkner's genius isn't appreciated any more when it's sitting on a shelf collecting dust as opposed to lying in a bin. Targeting the library isn't any good because it's not the source of the problem. The public needs to be encouraged to show interest in the classics. Then the binning wouldn't be necessary.
    I think I agree with everything Higley says here. There ought to be a certain maintenence of important classics as a requirement for being a real library, but if no one will ever take out a book what's a library to do?
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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    Virgil;

    This may be disturbing... but it certainly shouldn't be surprising. Such a shift has been taking place in our cultural institutions for years. Whether we are speaking of libraries removing classics from circulation, art museums "deaccessioning" (ie. selling) art in the permanent collection to gain cash and make room for something with more appeal with the public, or colleges and universities filling their curriculum with absolute fluff studies, it is all a result of the fact that such institutions have shifted away from their role as protectors and transmitters of cultural history and headed toward the concept of the corporate entertainment industry. Whereas museum directors, college presidents, etc... used to be educated in the field in which their institution was involved (ie. education) they now tend to be MBAs with a special flair for raising money. If what the people want are blockbuster art exhibitions related to The DaVinci Code or Hip Hop Posters, libraries filled with Harry Potter, Dan Brown and Steven King (or worse yet... fewer books and more CDs and videos for those not wanting to read at all), and college degrees in the History of Sex Films and Rock Music... then that is what the new corporate institutions will be glad to provide.
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    dreams too much Bebbin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by RobinHood3000 View Post
    Tsk tsk...that's tragic, really it is.
    I agree. However, luckily for me, my small city has four flourishing libraries, and I doubt any of them are becoming obsolete any time soon. Though I consider the article to be a kind of revelation as to what could happen in the near future...

    Depressing.

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    laudator temporis acti andave_ya's Avatar
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    oh man, that's awful! Seriously, if my library does that, I shall set up a ruckus. Protest! Yes, even me!
    "The time has come," the Walrus said,
    "To talk of many things:
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    And why the sea is boiling hot--
    And whether pigs have wings."

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    Registered User Set of Keys's Avatar
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    This is all commonplace. Having worked in various library services for years, I've seen it all first hand.

    The last large library I worked in discarded much of its stock in preparation for the building being demolished and rebuilt. 80% of its lending stock was tossed into a skip. That's about 40,000 books.

    The criterion for a book being kept?

    A bright, shiny cover.
    Last edited by Set of Keys; 05-29-2007 at 06:55 AM. Reason: Idiocy
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    solid motherhubbard's Avatar
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    Appalling. I have such a texture fetish. I love the way an old book fills in my hands, that grainy cover and thick yellowed pages. There is something almost sensual about holding a book that hundreds of others have shared. It’s a sad testament that our society gives merit to a book based on a bright shinny cover.

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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by motherhubbard View Post
    Appalling. I have such a texture fetish. I love the way an old book fills in my hands, that grainy cover and thick yellowed pages. There is something almost sensual about holding a book that hundreds of others have shared. It’s a sad testament that our society gives merit to a book based on a bright shinny cover.
    Fetish, sensual, wow, I didn't think books could be erotic.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

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