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One of the major successes of the Industrial Age, thanks to the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, was the establishment of thousands of public libraries. I have some very happy memories of a childhood spent in my hometown public library, first enjoying the whimsical offerings of the children's section, then gravitating toward reference, research and other serious pursuits.

If you blindfolded me and plunked me down at the entrance of Kent Memorial Library, I have no doubt that I could find my way to the periodicals section, the card catalog (remember those?) and, of course, the section containing Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. I may have been the only one reading and rereading some of those works, but I knew where to find them if I needed them.

But a piece in the Leisure & Arts section on OpinionJournal.com, Checked Out, mentions a startling development at the Fairfax County Public Library system near Washington, DC: thanks to a new software tool that identifies which books have not been checked out in two years, the library is making the decision to toss some of the classics.

Hemingway, Bronte, Faulkner, Hardy - these are all headed for the trash heap simply because they haven't been borrowed recently. No mention of Conan Doyle, thank goodness (I like to think that his works are constantly in circulation).

So, the Industrial Age which saw the rise of public libraries gives way to the Information Age, which sees libraries turned into nothing more than entities that cater to the whim of the latest book craze. Shouldn't libraries serve a more noble function? Should they not act as repositories of classics that are perpetually available, as temples of scholarship and reference for the ages?

Do take a moment to read the entire opinion piece - it offers an excellent perspective on what we should value with regard to our libraries. And feel free to drop a note if you have a strong view on this yourself.


Anonymous said... January 3, 2007 at 10:31 PM

Thanks for inspiring pleasant recollections, Mr. Blogger. I still remember the awe and excitement I felt when my grandmother took me to the Boston Public Library, starting when I was seven. Just seeing the row after row, the titles, the authors! It informed me about the pleasures of learning.

Bobby the Bike

Anonymous said... January 4, 2007 at 7:06 AM

Working as I do in a big public library in England, I can confirm that, depressing though it is, this is a growing trend. It's partly down to the huge number of books published every years, partly to the vastly increased use of computers as an information resource, and partly, alas, to the fact that real librarians have been overtaken by 'managers' who think in terms of 'targets' and 'statistics' rather than enlightenment and the enrichment of life. Can we do anything about it? Probably not...

The Pall Mall Gazette

Anonymous said... January 6, 2007 at 7:50 AM

Shocking in one way, understandable in another. I would like to think that won't happen in the Toronto Public Library system -- there are 100 branches and you can order a book from any of them and pick it up at any other branch. So they might end up removing "unpopular" titles from some of the branches, but still keeping them in others or in central storage, so you can get them a day or so later.

-Cliff Goldfarb

=Tamar said... January 7, 2007 at 6:44 PM

The first time I bought a book because it wasn't available in the local public library, it was the Complete Sherlock Holmes. That was in the 1970s. The trend continues, unfortunately. If I could trust the libraries, I'd have a much smaller collection of books at home.

I can't even let the librarians off the hook because they have limited space and must provide certain things for students; I know of at least one who gutted a formerly excellent fiction collection because she personally dislikes all fiction.