How Can We Sleep for Grief? And Other Ideas About Weeding.

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Last weekend my mother said to me, “I just don’t understand why libraries have to throw away books.”

I said, “Well Mom, public libraries aren’t archives. It’s important that the collection is of use and interesting to the community. Think about if you were browsing a shelf of twenty musty old books, and one interesting one. Do you think you would find it? It’s more important that people are able to find and use books, than to hoard every book the library has purchased.” I said some other stuff too. I was very eloquent.

My mom said, “Yes, well can’t they just keep them? If they aren’t keeping books, I worry about the ones we will lose forever.”

Oh, Mom.

My mom is a wonderful, gentle person, who thinks learning and reading are incredibly worthwhile pursuits. She is an excellent library patron. She uses them regularly, and she taught her kids to use them too. I wouldn’t have become a librarian if my mom hadn’t hadn’t nourished my own love of libraries. My mom is the kind of person that libraries owe their living to. I think I just said I do, too.

How do you tell a person who loves books that you will be throwing them away on a regular basis?

And more, how do we reassure people that the books we throw away aren’t lost forever?

I talked to my mom a little bit about the weeding process. I talked about criteria that we use before we get rid of books and how now before we get rid of a last copy we can look on WorldCat, to see if anyone else has it, or on Amazon to see if used copies are cheap and plentiful. I talked about how certain libraries do give themselves archival missions, for example the entire core of the Main branch of the Oakland Public Library is devoted to storing fiction, and if you want to read all the Perry Mason novels, that is the place to visit.

Here’s another library secret that I’m not sure we should share: some books are really crappy. Some books probably aren’t worth saving. If you are a serious lover of books, I think it’s difficult to realize this until you become a librarian looking at the breadth of your collection, and discover that no one has ever checked out your Sunset guide to knitting because it’s a thin volume smack in the middle of 15 different editions of Crafting with Ducks. This is a made up example, but it is still true. You don’t need all 15 editions. One or two will do. And after the duck crafting craze goes away, you may not even need those.

And of course books don’t always get thrown away. There are library book sales, and charitable organizations, and sometimes you just put a big box in the lobby with a “Free to Good Home” sign. And personally, I do like to keep a very small percentage of musty old clunkers on the shelf. This is part of the library experience. You want patrons to discover a tucked away old treasure: to open up a book and see check out dates and signatures from 1965, or 1944 or even earlier. This is like the flaw the rugmakers put in, because only God can be perfect. This keeps the library human, and reminds people that they are next in a long line of their community’s thinkers and readers. I know I sound a bit like a whack-a-doodle here, but this is part of the art of collection development.

But musty old books should be a miniscule part of an otherwise limber and useful collection.  At the library, books need to work for their keep.

Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia has a bit where the main character learns about the burning of the library at Alexandria. She says:

“….the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library!….How can we sleep for grief?”

Her tutor reassures her:

SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”

Change happens in libraries too. The books go out, and the books come in again.

The_Burning_of_the_Library_at_Alexandria_in_391_AD
Photo By Ambrose Dudley, (fl. 1920s) (The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 357910) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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