Libraries: Books Are a Hard Sell

Two recent Washington Post articles explore the difficulties libraries face in meeting the demands of the 21st century. The first looks at the Fairfax County (Virginia) library’s attempt to modernize, and the resulting book purge.

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.

The author understands the necessity of these moves, but is worried nonetheless. I’ve encountered this problem before. Ten years ago in my hometown, I was alarmed to note that the library was purging lovely old volumes of the classics. “We don’t have shelf space,” explained the head librarian when I asked why. “And nobody borrows these books.” Instead they were adding a shelf of internet books. For the next five years, whenever I went to the library, I’d swing by that internet bookshelf. Most of the titles had become obsolete within a year. I wonder if they got any more use than the classics the library had discarded.

Tinkerty Tonk researched the Washington Post story and found that he Fairfax County library system still had many copies of the books being purged from the branch discussed in the article. I think this is what consoles me when I see books being purged: interlibrary loan has become a simple convenience now. It’s a simple matter to visit my library’s web site to reserve a stack of books to be picked up on the weekend.

In the second article Washington Post article, a librarian laments that books are a hard sell.

A library’s neglected shelves reveal the demise of something important, especially for young readers starved for meaning — for anything profound. Still, I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I’m turning the new-arrivals shelf into a main attraction in my school’s library. Recently I stood Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House” next to the DVD version produced by the BBC. Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson) graced both covers. A senior fingered the DVD for a minute, then turned it over to read the blurb. “The book is too long,” she said. “Is the movie any better?”

“You’re right. The book is long,” I said. “But once you start this one, you won’t be able to put it down, right from that first page about the London fog.”

“I think I’ll watch the DVD,” the student said.

Chicken or egg?

[Washington Post: Hello Grisham, so long Hemingway? (via Tinkerty Tonk) and A librarian's lament: Books are a hard sell]

Libraries Still Losing Items From the Shelves

Ever found a library book in the computer system but been unable to locate it on the shelf? Perhaps the book has been stolen. The Oregonian has a reports that at the Multnomah County Library, about 12 perecent of materials are missing or unreturned.

The first inventory in nearly two decades estimates that 6 percent of the 1.7 million items thought to be on the shelves are missing. Another 6 percent were borrowed in the past four years but not returned.

“The numbers are definitely a cause for concern,” library director Molly Raphael said. The budget office started the loss study after a Portland police officer’s accidental discovery in 2004 of hundreds of stolen library DVDs and CDs — materials the library didn’t know were missing. The patron who lifted the items had discovered what library officials hoped would remain a secret: Staff annoyed by frequent false alarms had shut off the security gates years earlier.

[The library director] promised swift action, and the nine-month study she commissioned, which concluded in November, found that nearly 50,000 items, or about 3 percent of the collection, were declared missing the previous 18 months. Another 52,000 items probably are missing. And in the past four years, just fewer than 100,000 items were borrowed but never returned — though many might eventually be returned. And the library doesn’t know how many more items were written off, because it doesn’t track the numbers. After a book has been declared missing for at least a year or unreturned for three years, it is deleted from library records as if it never existed. The library also does not count the number of books tossed because of damage.

I’ll admit to my own share of sketchy library behavior. While I’ve never stolen a book, I have “lost” books before, usually obscure out-of-print books. I always pay whatever the replacement cost is, but a librarian friend to whom I confessed this sin gave me a tongue-lashing. “The library isn’t your own private book store for hard-to-find books,” she told me. Still, I’m happy to have that handy Latin grammar that nobody else had borrowed for over a decade. It’s my guess that the library probably would soon have just thrown it out.

[The Oregonian: Libraries still losing items from shelves]

George Bernard Shaw: Man and Superman

When I left for college, I was a devout Christian. More precisely, I was a zealot. My goal was to obtain an education firmly rooted in both religion and Latin American cultural history (and to learn Spanish) so that, like other Mennonite brethren before me, I might become a Christian missionary to Central and South America.

The first book we were assigned to read for our freshman seminar was George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Willamette mailed each incoming freshman a copy of the play during the summer. That fall, before the upperclassmen had returned to campus, we were introduced to the rigors of college life by dissecting Shaw.

Yesterday I read Shaw’s Man and Superman, ostensibly a play but more of a social and philosophical commentary. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to say exactly what Man and Superman is. It demands re-reading.

Shaw uses his work to espouse his social agenda: socialism, women’s sufferage, Darwinism, etc. Man and Superman is no exception. In fact, there is a prolonged digression in the third act in which Don Juan and the Devil argue over social issues. A primary theme here is Shaw’s conception of a ‘Life Force‘, which seems to be a kind of cultural Darwinism, a force that causes human civilization (and, to a degree, humans at a physical level) to be constantly ‘advancing’. (It seems to me that Shaw is one of those that misuses the word ‘evolution’ to mean ‘advancement’ where evolution really means nothing of the sort. He seems to view each evolutionary step as some sort of progression to a higher stage.) It is, in some ways, a substitute for God.

As I say, I’m going to have to reread Man and Superman. I’m afraid I missed the forest, though I was able to see the trees.

It’ll have to wait, though, because I’ve started Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion in the meanwhile. This play is not much of a play. By that I mean that only 41 of the 158 pages in the work are devoted to the actual stage production. The rest, it seems, are devoted to Shaw’s interpretation of the New Testament gospels and their implication on socialism and communism.

Shaw wrote extensive prefaces to his works, and these are generally considered to be integral to the plays themselves. In this case, I’m willing to wager that the preface is the work, and that the drama for which it is written is secondary.

In any event, I find this preface fascinating. As I mentioned earlier, when I left for college I was a devout Christian. I was also a budding communist, and I believed that communism was the only socio-economic system compatible with Christ’s teachings. Though I had arrived at this belief independently, I soon found many others had reached the same point before me. Somehow, I never managed to find Androcles and the Lion or George Bernard Shaw.

Though I’m only two-thirds finished with the preface to Androcles and the Lion, what I’ve seen has convinced me that if I had read this when still young and impressionable, it would have further solidified my beliefs. Here, in his ever-articulate style, displaying wit and erudition, Shaw is able to describe the communist-Christian connection that I once believed (and still believe) so obvious.

It has always amazed me that American Christians are violently opposed to communism and ardently in favor of capitalism. I’m not sure how they reconcile their religion and their socio-economic system; I’ve never attempted to have a conversation with anyone on the subject, even when I was a communo-Christian.

The most interesting part of Shaw’s discussion in Androcles and the Lion is his exploration of how a redistribution of wealth ought to be implemented, if it should be implemented at all. He believes — or believed in 1916 — that the inequitable distribution of wealth is obvious, and that there is little argument that something must be done. But he finds it difficult to determine precisely what this something is. (Of course, I’ve still got thirty or forty pages left in the preface — perhaps he actually arrives at what he considers a good solution for redistribution.) This is fascinating.

He argues that distributing to each person according to that person’s need (or merit) is impractical; who is to determine the need (or merit)? The decision is subjective. I might think that you need 100 units of currency, while you think that you merit 250 units of currency. Who is right? How is this to be determined? (You can see how he’s skirting the issue of capitalism and market-determined wages/prices. This is essential, I think, because just as the world has never seen a pure communist system, it has never seen a pure capitalist system. What the United States has today is not capitalism, but some bastardized version of capitalism.) To this point, Shaw seems to be saying that each person should be allocated enough to subsist. In common parlance, he argues that each person should be allocated a living wage. What happens to the remainder of the capital after this living wage has been assigned everyone? (Because there will be capital remaining.) Well, I’m not sure — I haven’t reached that point yet.

Shaw is careful to note that an important factor in a system of redistribution is coping with ‘idlers’, those what will not carry their share of the load. He has not discussed this in depth yet, and I don’t know if he will, but he does make it clear that idlers are a factor that must be considered in any communist system.

I’m no longer a communist, just as I’m not longer a Christian. I don’t subscribe to many creeds. I’ve seen too much and read too much, so that I have come to believe that everything is cloaked in shades of grey. Every viewpoint has some credence. There is little in this world that is absolute. There are some aspects of communism that seem fair and just. There are some aspects of capitalism that are fair and just. Which is better? Who is to say? How do you measure better? The Left can tell you that you measure it in one way, while the Right will tell you that you measure it in another way. I will say that I am pleased to live in the United States, where I am allowed a great deal of freedom and am able to provide for myself if that’s what I desire. However, I also recognize that as a white male, I am afforded opportunity that is not available to all members of this society.

Best American Novels of the Past 25 Years

Bibliophilic reader Paul passed along a New York Times story from last spring. Thought it sits behind a paywall now, “What is the Best Work of American Fiction of the 25 Years?” answers that very question. As judged by a panel of experts, the winner was Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Runners-up included:

Several other books received multiple votes.

[The New York Times: What is the best work of American fiction of the 25 years?]

Audible: Is Anyone Listening?

The Compete blog has an interesting post about Audible, the on-line audiobook vendor. The author writes:

Site traffic is down 39% year over year which corresponds to a 40% decline in Audible’s stock price. One of Audible’s biggest problems is that it can’t get its members to spend more money. Its executives talk about this issue in the Q3 earnings call and Compete data corroborates.

I’m an Audible fan. I’m on a two-books-per-month plan, which I take advantage of religiously. (In fact, today is my renewal day — I have two more book credits to use.) I find Audible and an iPod an unbeatable combination. Unfortunately, it seems others are less enchanted.

Now I’m no stock analyst, so I can’t tell you why the company’s share price may be declining. But I am a user, and a user with opinions, so I can offer a perspective on why usage has dropped in the past year.

  • Apple introduced audiobooks at the iTunes Music Store.
  • The site is difficult to navigate. There’s no convenient way to simply browse Audible’s library to find new stuff.
  • Audible introduced a new “by-the-year” pricing structure in December 2005. I didn’t move to it, but several people I know did. They rarely go to the site now, whereas I have to go at least once a month to make my purchases.
  • For as many books as Audible has, their selection is actually rather limited. My public library has a wider variety than Audible.

I don’t know much about Audible’s health as a company. Personally, I hope they continue to thrive for a long time. I like the service, and I have no intentions of canceling it any time soon.

The Ten Greatest Books of All Time

Writing for Time, author Tom Wolfe examines J. Peder Zane’s The Top 10: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.

[What if you] went to all the big-name authors in the world — Franzen, Mailer, Wallace, Wolfe, Chabon, Lethem, King, 125 of them — and got each one to cough up a top-10 list of the greatest books of all time. We’re talking ultimate-fighting-style here: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, modern, ancient, everything’s fair game except eye-gouging and fish-hooking. Then you printed and collated all the lists, crunched the numbers together, and used them to create a definitive all-time Top Top 10 list.

What would the list look like? Something like this, apparently:

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  7. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
  10. Middlemarch by George Eliot

What, no Moby Dick?

Of these, I’ve read Anna Karenina, Lolita, Huck Finn, Hamlet, Gatsby, and roughly one-fifth of Proust. As it happens, I’m tempted to select Middlemarch as my next book group choice in a few weeks — I recently watched the BBC adaptation, and it piqued my interest.

Welcome to Bibliophilic

Welcome to the re-launch of Bibliophilic.

This is my forum to collect all my book-related ramblings. I’ll post reviews of recent reads, notes from book group discussions, random book facts and news that I stumble upon, and anything else book-related that I find. I tend to prefer classics, graphic novels, and personal develoment books, so expect to see these covered often.

I’ll also write some about writing, the other side of book production. Though I’ve not yet produced a book of my own, I hope to do so some day. I’m an active writer — I currently maintain several weblogs, as well as participate in a writers group.

Though this site is primarily intended to be a personal repository, I hope that others find it useful, too.