Of course, it’s not just the replacement of liberally-educated librarians by a new generation trained “professionally” which is responsible for the American town library’s new policy of purging the classics in order to make space for items in active demand, i.e., new best-sellers, career guides and test preparation texts, and videos.
The old-fashioned library was a quiet place, typically with one librarian on hand, and modest traffic. Most of the books were generations old, and had been sitting unread on their shelves for decades. Obviously, there’s no money in that sort of thing.
If an enterprizing and up-to-date librarian gives the old heave-ho to Hazlitt, discards Dickens, and purges Pope, replacing all those unread classics with multiple copies of the latest John Grisham, or Harry Potter, or the freshest video release, this strategy of responding directly to public demand will reliably increase library use, thus justifying increased staffing, facilities expansion, and… raised budgets!
The old-style librarian served the timeless cause of culture disinterestedly. The modern librarian is in business for herself (in direct competition with retailers), and is building and expanding a personal empire, all at the public expense. The cost to the public is actually twofold. Not only is the town library becoming another massive public extravagance and tax burden with ever-increasing staffing and perennial building and expansion. But the American town has also lost a unique cultural repository and educational resource. A few decades ago, a young person could find the documentary record of American reading culture for generations prior to his own carefully preserved and readily available for examination. Today, the same shelves offer twelve copies of the same number one item on this week’s New York Times best seller list, the same item available down the street at the chain book store and in the local supermarket. A few decades ago, the poorest child in America could undertake a very serious program of personal education for free at his local library. Today, he can prep for a licensing exam, or read the latest Clive Cussler.
It seems obvious that the public library is doomed to become an objectionable travesty of its former self (and socialist boondoggle). The hope of future autodidacts will not be free public libraries, but the Internet combined with ever cheaper and more numerous reprint editions.