Normally I turn to Cracked for levity which begets fascination which begets something vaguely unsettling and distressing, but not actually of importance to my existence (an article I usually get to about 15 minutes before I’m going to go to bed, which is the perfect time to be creeped out by the world).  Okay, so maybe “6 Reasons We’re in Another ‘Book-Burning’ Period in History” didn’t exactly sound like a rollicking good time, but I was expecting Cracked to deliver something funny and dubiously connected.  I wasn’t expecting a really sad breakdown of what libraries do when there’s no more money to keep the books they’ve already got: burn them.  Even if they are incredibly valuable first editions or of some historical significance or perhaps the only extant copy (physical or otherwise).  Because it’s the most cost effective thing to do and needs to be done and there’s no money to do what many of us would think makes sense and because maybe in some ways the digital age means throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  My reading process was very much “But why can’t they…?  Oh.  But surely they could…?  Oh.”

It seems like this is something worth contemplating, as we face down an age in which we value physical objects less and less and digital ones more and more.  It’s a pretty safe guess that today’s children’s children will not have anywhere near the attachment to books as objects that I do—I grew up as the world was beginning this shift, so even my grasp is at times tenuous, where things like music and photos are concerned—so it seems like maybe this problem will more or less go away on its own.  Not because we’ll stop burning books, but because people like me will stop being around to find it sad and surprising.

So it saddens me, perhaps for dubious reasons, that this is the reality.  I have no answers, and I strongly suspect that the people who do these things don’t come to the decision lightly.  But I do know we have some librarians lurking round these parts, so I wonder if you’ve ever had to face this very task.  Have you found an alternative solution?  Or found a way to come to terms with tossing books onto the pyre?  Is it just the symbolism that’s getting me down?

7 Responses to Oh.

  1. RamseyH says:

    I came to understand this problem while working at a used/rare bookstore. Here’s the thing: There are TOO MANY BOOKS. There are more books printed every year than people ever read, and we can’t save them all. Even if we kept expanding libraries and building more shelves, it wouldn’t be enough.

    The heart of the problem is emotional. We have this idea, as a society, that destroying a physical book – not the words, but the physical object – is EVIL. But have you ever walked into a crappy used bookstore and found a pile of Sunset cookbooks from the 60s? They’re crap. Nobody wants them and they’re not worth rescuing. But people have this knee jerk reaction that books ought not be destroyed. We were constantly dealing with this where I worked. Folks would bring in boxes of books that were worthless, unsaleable, and then get angry when we didn’t want to buy them. Because books are valuable! They’re BOOKS! Well, if they’re so valuable, why are you getting rid of yours?

    Like a violin, the only truly valuable book is one that’s being used.

    You can also think of it like your kid’s artwork. If you saved everything your kid did from kindergarten to high school graduation, you’d be living in a landfill. Eventually we have to pick and choose those things which are most important to us, then take photographs and toss the rest.

    Only right now, nobody’s choosing. We’re closing our eyes, sticking our fingers in our ears, and shouting “NO NO NO” because we don’t want to accept the idea that some books might be trash.

    I’m hopeful the digital book age will change that. As people become more divorced from books as objects, they’ll see that the truly important part of a book is not the pages, but the words. Once we have that in proper perspective, we’ll be able to go back and determine which books (as physical objects) are truly worth keeping around.

  2. Kerry Gans says:

    I understand the problem. I do. And I do agree with RamseyH that some books can be trashed with no compunction or guilt. But as he points out, it should be a process of CHOOSING what books are of value and which ones are not.

    It seems to me that libraries are overlooking possible income sources by blindly tossing everything on a computer generated list. If you have first editions or rare copies, put them on Ebay. Get those several hundred dollars worth from that book, and let someone who wants it have it.

    And yes, I understand that they don’t want to pay people for the time it would take to sort through the books. Or the time to put it on Ebay and ship it out to the buyer. The same way they do not want to pay people to debug the books so they can be donated. But I bet they wouldn’t have to.

    High school kids and college kids can work as free Interns. I bet if they knew they would specifically be saving books, there would be a number of people in the community willing to volunteer to do the work.

    And then the libraries could donate the books to a school or group or organization that could use them.


  3. It’s a terrifying prospect, that books are being destroyed indiscriminately! Certainly there are some that aren’t worth the cost in warehousing, but if no process is applied to sift through them, imagine what could be lost!

    I’ve no idea if this is happening in the UK (where I live), but the danger is there – we are also experiencing a rash of library closures and downsizing. Burning books… I shudder to think. At least over here they are more likely to be recycled, as there are government guidelines on handling of large volumes of paper-based waste…
    Still. A tragedy. And a horrible bit of imagery to advertise our emergence into the digital era.


  4. Clix says:

    It just seems like libraries could use all that righteous indignation uproar to their benefit. If they had the $$ to have someone mark the books slated for destruction and the time to leave them on the shelves, why not say “you can save this book; donate $5 and we’ll keep it.” Or however much would be needed, you know? Or you can BUY it from us.

  5. Lauren says:

    Thanks all for your thoughts! I wonder if things would be different if they didn’t do their book burning in secret. If the public knew of specific instances, as or before they happened, maybe the pressure to get the libraries funding would increase–or they could get the volunteers they might need for the sorting. Or, perhaps, maybe it would make no difference at all.

    Of course I see what you’re saying, Ramsey, about how getting rid of books is an unavoidable necessity. It does seem ridiculous to think that there’s no practical way to avoid throwing away something truly valuable.

    The question I have, though, is how many people are reasonably qualified to discern which books have value. Are there enough volunteers that could process the load quickly and accurately enough? Perhaps not. And are there libraries that almost certainly have no stock in which the books themselves have value? Probably many of them, right?

    Perhaps the one positive take away from this experience could be encoding the barcodes with more detailed metadata. In the future, as even the most basic data entry systems become more sophisticated and libraries likely have less space and funding for physical books, a system that cuts out some of that guess work could be invaluable. Imagine if the lists they work from could not only indicate how recently the book had been checked out, but could automatically cross reference (or make human cross referencing simpler) with the available digital books and compare edition dates vs. some sort of metric of value.

    If anyone out there is a computer genius, please feel free to steal that (probably not terribly original) idea and then name your database after me.

  6. Library-type who lurks around here, although I’ve joined the conversation a few days too late.

    I’m glad people are talking about this and making it more known, although what he describes is a little more exaggerated than what I’ve experienced at my library, because the simple fact is we have no money, which leaves us no way to get more space, and we cannot collect and preserve and expand at previous levels when we’re underfunded and understaffed.

    @Kerry Like I said, I can only speak for my library from experience, although I know the other ones in my system do the same, but there is usually more choosing than the article implies. Yes, the list usually is generated by a computer, but our criteria are a little more advanced–i.e. we look for books over ten years old that have not circulated in five years, or that have an equivalent online copy, or that have been replaced with a newer edition, etc. Any rare or valuable books we have are already in Special Collections, so they’re not at risk of being blindly tossed. And your idea for interns as free labor is nice, but not really feasible in larger libraries. For one, we’re already understaffed, and training those interns, especially if they rotate out with any frequency, takes more time than you would expect. Second, my library is over capacity by several hundred thousand volumes. We don’t have the work space/computers/etc. to situate enough interns to through that many books. We do sell quite a few of our books in an annual book sale, though for very cheap prices. To really expect us to do more, though, is a bit naive and idealistic given our current staffing and the fact that our focus has to be on providing an adequate level of coverage and services to our patrons.

    @Tony I was surprised the article author claimed to have burned very old Shakespeares, too, as usually those things are housed in special collections or archives units where more consideration goes into getting rid of anything. I’m actually quite skeptical. Like I said to Kerry, though, in my experience there is usually some process to select and sift through the books to be eliminated. Even the article said “lowest circulation”, and in my library, several other factors are taken into account as well. But you’ve got to remember, all libraries are understaffed right now, and automation of some tasks is, unfortunately, keep to sane workloads.

    @Clix Sometimes space is an issue, too, and all too frequently, people will claim that a book or journal is completely indispensable when it hasn’t been used in ten years.

    @Lauren There are some programs that do limited cross-checking for different formats, etc., at least for what’s in a library’s (or library system’s) own catalog. The biggest obstacle to checking against all the available e-books in the world is getting the vendors on board, each of whom have a different platform that they change from time to time.

  7. Rebecca Downey says:

    Perhaps we could start a Library of Forgotten Books like the one in Carloa Ruiz Zafon’s novel, Shadow in the Wind. Anyone who is privileged to visit the library must sponsor one author, whose works you promise to keep alive as long as you live.

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