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]

1 Comment »

  1. chris said,

    January 31st, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    that makes me sad - as a child and teen I spent hours and hours browsing library shelves. While I may not have checked out many of those books, I was still exposed to a broad range of classics.

    Perhaps counting the number of borrows is the wrong metric to use?

    It also occurs to me that with better interlibrary loan, maybe libraries should start specializing so instead of every library purging their classics in favor of contemporary bestsellers, there should be libraries that specialize in classics?

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