04 Jan 2007

Welfare Programs For Middle Class Readers

And John J. Miller, at the Wall Street Journal, agrees with us that the local public library has evolved in a direction which makes it a highly questionable use of public funds.

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.

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