The New Public Library: Great Works or Popular Preference?
Wisdom is the principal thing:
therefore get wisdom:
and with all thy getting
- Proverbs IX 7.
The above axiom appears somewhat ironically in Lindsay Anderson's films The White Bus
(1967) and if....
(1968), as with here. I would like to first go on record by saying that I wholeheartedly support public libraries, but generally hold them to a high standard. As a playground for young intellects, they are essential in promoting, assisting with, or otherwise encouraging interest in the written word. I hate to see them neuter themselves.
I was shocked, though not exactly surprised, to read this
article in today's Washington Post
. Fairfax County Public Libraries (the biggest library system in the D.C. Metro area and the public libraries that I frequent, when I frequent such places) are conducting a massive campaign of "weeding" out their shelves. Their current computer system creates alerts or flags on books that have not been checked out in the last 24 months and suggests they be pulled. These books are then put on a grim looking cart, where their final fate will be decided by the circulation managers. Some books will be spared, given a second chance. Others will not be so lucky and might find their way to the Friends of the Library book sale, where they'll be sold for a paltry sum.
The case for this sort of inventory management is clear, if misguided - given a limited amount of shelf space and competing materials such as audio books, DVDs, and computer software, a library's core collection of books is inevitably going to take a "hit." This "hit" consists of unpopular books, but of course encompasses texts that are necessary for any respectable public servant and absolutely essential for a research library. What books might go? Here's a quick rundown.
The main article notes that some essentials (the tip-top of the canon, i.e. The Great Gatsby
and works by Shakespeare) will always be on the shelves. What bothers me, though, is that this wholesale dismissal of important works will lend a decidedly anti-serious bias to an already anti-serious library system. Allow me to qualify. County and regional libraries are not research institutions. College students (or even hopeful college students) cannot find all the materials that they need to complete their courses or write their papers - the level of specificity is just not there. By getting rid of an even greater number of serious works, students interested in the humanities will have even less of a chance of understanding a) what the humanities are, b) what works comprise the "great" canon (problematic in itself, but still essential), and c) what to expect in their further studies. While many of these works will still be available in bookstores, their access will come at a cost. I feel that it is a public responsibility of provide the body populace with the sort of texts that will help them think, feel, and dissent their way to being better citizens.
Oh, and here is the list of the 25 most requested books.
I don't recognize any of them, so I guess I am out of the loop. The same thing is happening at Blockbuster and Hollywood video - the great titles in world film are just not available, or are being tossed in favor of another row of the latest Michael Bay movie.