02 Jan 2007

Libraries Run by Imbeciles

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Local libraries today are commonly staffed by low-grade morons with professional degrees in “library science.” How the Dewey Decimal System can possibly be elevated into a field of academic study and a degree-program remains a mystery to some of us. Visions of courses titled “Advanced Book Stamping II” and “Alternatives to Alphabetical Shelving” dance through one’s head.

But, consequently, for more than a decade now, a retail-inventory model of tailoring libraries’ holding to books frequently checked out has been supplanting the idea of the town library as cultural repository of the classics. Librarians have (for years) been busily purging infrequently-borrowed canonical classics in order to maximize shelf space for high demand choices, i.e., current best-sellers and career references.

The Washington Post just noticed.

You can’t find “Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings” at the Pohick Regional Library anymore. Or “The Education of Henry Adams” at Sherwood Regional. Want Emily Dickinson’s “Final Harvest”? Don’t look to the Kingstowne branch.

It’s not that the books are checked out. They’re just gone. No one was reading them, so librarians took them off the shelves and dumped them.

Along with those classics, thousands of novels and nonfiction works have been eliminated from the Fairfax County collection after a new computer software program showed that no one had checked them out in at least 24 months.

Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region’s largest library system is taking turnover to a new level.

Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system’s return on its investment by each foot of space on the library shelves — and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone — even if they are classics.

“We’re being very ruthless,” said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system since 1982. “A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that’s a cost.”

That is the new reality for the Fairfax system and the future for other libraries. As books on tape, DVDs, computers and other electronic equipment crowd into branches, there is less room for plain old books.

So librarians are making hard decisions and struggling with a new issue: whether the data-driven library of the future should cater to popular tastes or set a cultural standard, even as the demand for the classics wanes.

Library officials say they will always stock Shakespeare’s plays, “The Great Gatsby” and other venerable titles. And many of the books pulled from one Fairfax library can be found at another branch and delivered to a patron within a week.

But in the effort to stay relevant in an age in which reference materials and novels can be found on the Internet and Oprah’s Book Club helps set standards of popularity, libraries are not the cultural repositories they once were.

When American society allowed “professional” forms of credentialization to replace liberal education as the means of entry to a career as librarian (just as was the case with primary and secondary level teaching), educated people vanished from the profession, being replaced by the dimmest species of fonctionnaires and bureaucrats.

So, instead of serving as the place the poor kid can access the important books and educate himself for free (as so many American writers and intellectuals in the past have done), the modern local library has become a tax-funded way for cheapskates to get their hands on the latest Grisham or Stephen King, without actually paying for it. My former town library in Newtown, Connecticut, back in the 1990s, had already purged the English poets in order to make space available to offer popular movies on videotape, in active competition with Blockbuster.

One Feedback on "Libraries Run by Imbeciles"

Dominique R. Poirier

Oh yes! I noticed that; and I found it puzzling at that time. As examples I have seen in Massachusetts public libraries, from recollection; and as striking examples fully justifying this complaint:

There is only one available edition of the unabridged version of the famous Study of History (the one in 12 volumes) by Arnold Toynbee. It is located at the Anna Maria College Library, MA. (Didn’t have time enough to read it and has not been reprinted. Good Lord, help me! I don’t want to die before reading that book).

Only one available copy of the famous Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, by John von Neumann and Oscar Morgenstein.

Only one available copy of The Mind of Society, by Vilfredo Pareto; and only one copy of The Ruling Class, by Gaetano Mosca, and only one copy of The Machiavellians, by James Burnham (three great authors and three must read books for whoever is interested in Machiavellian thinkers).

Only one available copy of the enthralling The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas C. Schelling published in 1960. (Quite an ill advised decision librarians have had to get rid of that great book since it happened ,ironically, that Thomas Schelling won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for the ideas presented in The Strategy of Conflict, 45 years after its was published. Aaargh!)

But perhaps the most surprising I found is the rarity of, guess what… The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith (No. I’m not kidding you). Actually, and inasmuch as my memory be good, The Wealth of Nations was nowhere available in any public library of the whole State of Massachusetts (electronic formats excepted, on some websites such as the Gutenberg Project). Von Hayek books were quite hard to find here too.

In revenge, and for wants of Adam Smith and von Hayek, plenty of John Kenneth Galbraith books (and in several copies on same shelves in some instances) fill shelves dedicated to economics. (Well. OK, the book he wrote on the Crash of Wall Street is probably the best on the subject, but…).

Eventually I noticed that public libraries get rid of plenty of very good books through annual grand sales at which you can buy them at ridiculous prices ranging usually from 25 cents to $1 a book!

However, I would like to add that I suspect that, in some cases, books disappear and appear on a case by case basis for obscure reasons. Try to find a book on modern small arms in Massachusetts public libraries…


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