January 02, 2007

Book-learnin' is for sissies

"Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill" sat on the top shelf of a cart in the back room one day in late December, wedged between Voltaire's "Candide" and "Broke Heart Blues" by Joyce Carol Oates. The cart brimmed with books that someone on Schlekau's staff had pulled from the shelves. Sometimes she has time to give them another look before wheeling them to the book-sale pile. Sometimes she doesn't.

The Oates would return to the shelf, "because she's a real popular author at Woodrow Wilson," even if "Broke Heart Blues" isn't, Schlekau said. The Voltaire would go. An obscure Edgar Allan Poe volume called "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" might be transferred to another branch.

Schlekau hesitated over the volume of O'Neill plays, which was in good condition but had been checked out only nine times in its lifespan at the library, falling short of the system's new goal of 20. She sighed. "The only time things like this are going out is if they're [performing the plays] at the Kennedy Center."

But, she said, she's disinclined to throw O'Neill into the discard pile: "That's the English major in me."
That's Linda Schlekau, manager of the Woodrow Wilson library in Fairfax County, Virginia. Apparently, since she wasn't a Romance Languages major, Voltaire gets the axe! Here's some more books that have been booted off the shelves at various Fairfax County branches: Doctor Zhivago, Remembrance of Things Past, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and The Education of Henry Adams. (Odd, that last one's American—somebody must have screwed up.) Read the whole infuriating thing here. (Via Marginal Revolution.)

Still, it's better than Jackson County, Oregon, which is planning to close all its libraries. Not reduce the number of branches, not limit the hours, not free up shelf space by culling the classics, just close them altogether. Did I miss the ballot measure that said we all should be stupid from now on? Yipes.

3 comments:

Galen H. Brown said...

There's a compelling argument to be made in support of the library's policy, too, and liberal blogger Ezra Klein makes it fairly convincingly:

http://ezraklein.typepad.com/blog/2007/01/libraries_vs_am.html

I have a comment in the comments section, too, if you feel like finding it.

Matthew said...

I think Klein has a very different idea of what a library is than I do. For him, it's a convenient way to stay on top of the current literature. For me, it's a research institution; which means it's those books that aren't being checked out on a regular basis that are the most important part of a library's holdings—the stuff that's too obscure or specialized to a) reprint, or b) go to the trouble of making digitally available. Besides, when Klein points out that you can get Adams's Education for a buck and change, well, speaking from experience, there are times when the difference between free and a dollar can be pretty enormous.

Using circulation numbers like Nielsen ratings is a slippery slope that, crucially, wears away at the very thing libraries are supposed to be—namely, repositories of books. I'll grant that we'll probably eventually reach a time when the technology of accessing information on the Internet is as good as that of a book, but for now, that time is long off; besides the sheer lack of the bulk of the historical published corpus on the Web, there are far too many issues of accuracy, provenance, and textual instability. The other thing that concerns me is the fact that most anything that's still under copyright is only available on the Web on a for-profit basis; as libraries become more and more digital, do you have faith that free access to all information (not just the classics) will be maintained? I don't.

And on the digital front: one of the main digital sources I use is JSTOR, the academic journal database. I get it through an academic affiliation, and my guess is that most public libraries have it, but JSTOR access costs money. If not enough people are using it, will public libraries start cutting that, too?

I remember reading somewhere that Berio chose the pieces for the collage movement of his Sinfonia partially on the basis of what scores were in the public library in whatever out-of-the-way town he was staying in as he composed it. How often do orchestral scores get checked out, I wonder? What would he have used if he was staying in Fairfax County?

rebecca said...

It's unusual for public libraries to provide access to JSTOR. The Boston Public Library does, but that's a fairly recent development.

I think that public libraries should be able to straddle the line between providing their audience with what they want (the pop culture stuff) and the the stuff that is all the things that Matthew outlined. I had the great forture of working at a large urban public library for a few years. It was founded in the late 19th century, and the weeding of the collection over the years had be light. I suspect this was the case because this library had a decent amount of storage space (there were four floors of storage stacks not open to the public under the main floor of the building). During my time there, that space was coming close to running out so some weeding was done. And it was terribly interesting to me to see what was in the collection even though it hadn't been checked out in 50 years.