For some reason this story raised a bunch of hackles last week: 6 Reasons We’re In Another ‘Book-Burning’ Period in History. Usually the stories at Cracked.com are at least funny.
It details various reasons libraries destroy books, such as that they have no room to store them or that it’s cheaper to destroy them than give them away. One commenter said it would be fine to destroy books, but just don’t burn them! Another mentioned pulling 1970s era encyclopedias from a fire. They were outdated and useless, but they shouldn’t be burnt!
In some ways, these kind of reactions should be good for libraries. People still like books.
More than just like them, people worship books. Books themselves are fetish objects with an inherent value in themselves. Burning a book is like burning a crucifix.
Historically, I expect this is a cultural holdover from the days when books were expensive and hard to come by. Prior to the eighteenth century, books were too expensive for most people.
The situation has changed a lot since then. Nowadays, unless we’re talking about prisoners, just about everyone can afford a book, or even many books. Maybe not every book they want, but plenty of books. Go to a library book sale, and for ten dollars you can walk away with six month’s worth of active reading.
There’s a little bit of emotional nostalgia in the article. “Imagine holding a beautiful, dusty, illustrated volume of Shakespeare printed in the 1700s, a calligraphic message from its long-dead owner inscribed on the inside cover, and throwing it straight in the trash. I’ve been there, more than once.”
Okay, I can imagine it. You know why? Because there are a LOT of Shakespeare editions from the 1700s. Some people just imagine that old must mean classic or rare, but with books that’s not the case. Usually old and dusty just means old and dusty. Add in mold and red rot and it’s even worse.
What that article didn’t mention was that there are way too many books published each year, there have been for over a century, and most of them are garbage. Sift through the remainder pile on sale at any bookstore, and you can see what I mean.
The article discussed libraries destroying large numbers of books at once, which makes it obvious what libraries are doing. But anyone who uses public libraries and give ten seconds of thought to the problem must realize that some books are being destroyed.
Libraries buy books every year, and yet usually their amount of shelf space doesn’t increase. If anything, it’s decreased in the last 20 years to make room for computers and other non-book material.
If books steadily come into the library, eventually the finite shelf space will be full. Then, something has to happen. Often that first thing is a library book sale.
I always find library book sales sad affairs. Dozens of people or more spill into the space for the book sale desperately searching for a bargain book they would like to read. Anything will do, because the prices are right.
Yet so few walk away with much, for many reasons. Too many of the books are the bestsellers of yore, and the number of books that maintain an interested readership for longer than a few months is very small.
How many people are going to be interested in that 10-year old John Grisham novel, or a moldy paperback of Dow 36,000?
What else is there to do? Other commenters say, donate the books!
People who say that don’t know what they’re talking about. You can be assured they have no professional familiarity with the library or book trade. There are too many books. The books aren’t wanted. That’s often why people donate their books to libraries in the first place!
The library is often the donation center of last resort, because no place else feels an obligation to take the moldy “Great Books” set you found in the attic after your granny died, or that like-new edition of the complete Reader’s Digest Condensed Books from 1957-1972 your aunt left you in her will.
And yes, we know that 40-year run of National Geographic Magazine is a thing of beauty, but not so beautiful you want to keep it in your house.
The people who value books so much they don’t want them destroyed are the same people who don’t want the books in their house in the first place. NIMBY for the booklover’s set.
By destroying books, libraries are doing the booklover’s world a favor. Most of these books are crap. Those that aren’t are still easily available from a hundred other libraries. Nobody wants this stuff, but most people just don’t have the heart to throw away that spine-cracked paperback they loved so much in college or that Gideon’s Bible they somehow ended up with.
It’s up to librarians to do what needs to be done. They’re the ones who love books enough to know when the books have suffered enough from worshipful neglect and put them out of their misery.
Every book is not a holy book. By destroying these books that are loved in the abstract but unwanted in the concrete, librarians prove what brave heroes they really are.