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Fun with Petitions

It’s always a little bit fun to watch what happens when a library gets rid of a lot of books. The protesters come out, sometimes with good reasons to protest the elimination of the books, but mostly full of baseless alarm and nostalgia. The response to this county law library in Massachusetts is no different. Well, maybe a little different.

In a transition from a 1930s courthouse to a new “justice center,” the collection of print law books was reduced by some very large amount, and the book collection was moved to a small space away from the first floor to make space for a legal service center.

The usual justifications were used. The books had seen declining use over the years. There weren’t many in-person visitors anymore. A lot of the books were outdated. And, of course, all the relevant legal material is online, and there are folks in the service center to help people with that research.

That hasn’t prevented people from protesting. For example, one concerned person “said he’s used the law libraries for years to do research as a private citizen and calls the state’s arguments that the law libraries are seldom used and that materials are easily available online ‘a whitewash. Even if they’re available online, it’s just not the same.’”

There’s a lot of confusion in there. For one, just because he’s used the law libraries for years doesn’t make the claim of low use a “whitewash.” There’s no financial reason to keep a county library to serve one devoted user.

Especially if the books he needs are online. Oh, but online, it’s “just not the same.” No, it’s not, but it’s how legal research is done these days.

But what about the outdated material? To fight that charge, you need only read this Moveon.org petition to stop destroying county law library books, because Moveon petitions are like lawsuits: anyone can start one. Let’s take a look at some of the very reasonable and rational arguments why the library should have remained just as it was, despite the outdated books.

These books represent 200 years of the thought and experience of our most learned practitioners of the law, people who devoted their lives to the wise interpretation and defense of our Constitutional Rights, some of whom lived at the time our US and Massachusetts Constitutions were written.

That’s certainly something to consider. The books were written by people long dead. Okay.

“Many of these books were over 100 years old.” Wow! You had me at “books.”

These are clearly the concerns of a reasonable person worried about the preservation of American history.

These books are the living memory of how our constitution was interpreted a century ago, before our constitutional rights had become so eroded that they are now no longer being properly enforced.

Never mind. So the books aren’t relevant to how the law is interpreted today and thus are completely useless for the legal research people might need to do, but they are reminiscent of some mythical era when our Constitutional rights were “properly enforced,” whenever that was. Got it.

If We the People are to rescue our Constitutional Rights, it is essential to preserve the memory of the correct interpretation of our Constitution, which is accurately recorded in these books.

It’s perhaps a fact of significance to note that the petitioner is a graphic designer, not a lawyer, or even a historian. Nothing against graphic designers, but they aren’t the people I’d go to for interpretations of the Constitution, especially if they think there is a single “correct” interpretation of the Constitution. If that was true, we wouldn’t need federal courts.

“I am simply a citizen….” Emphasis on simple.

…but the former Franklin Law Library was a place I loved. It was, to me, the most beautiful historical architectural space of all the local county law libraries; a perfect, magical ‘Harry Potter’ library, with rows upon rows of 20 foot tall book shelves, a 200 year old collection or books.

My goodness, it was “beautiful,” “perfect,” and “magical” in addition to being outdated. Although if we put that in the context of “all the local county law libraries” it might change things. I’ve never seen a county law library on one of those “most beautiful library” lists. Perhaps the petitioner should get out more.

It felt like walking back 100 years in time, to a time and place where it was still treated as an honor to be a citizen.

I have no idea what to make of that one. Is this some sort of alt-right speak or something?

The library has gone “from an incredibly beautiful space, to a mundane modern office space.” That, unfortunately, is the way of the world. I blame capitalism, and also architects.

If armed gunmen had entered the Franklin Law Library, and destroyed 86% of the books, it would have been on the cover of every newspaper in the country.

Yes, it probably would have, because it would have been a bizarre crime indeed. Of course, the response to them would have been, “the laugh’s on you, armed gunmen, because we’ve got all we need online.” Ignoramuses that they are, the armed gunmen would no doubt have destroyed the computers and thought themselves rid of these pesky laws forever.

Supposedly, most of the books aren’t online, although I suspect that’s the outdated ones. “Furthermore, it is neither feasible nor practical to consult books which are in many cases 750 – 1000+ pages long, by clicking on them one page at a time, with no means to search the contents.”

Okay, here I might be missing something. I’ve done a bit of legal research over the years, and I don’t recall a legal database that required you to flip through virtual book pages with no way to search. Is that really a thing? If so, petition Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw to get their acts together.

But, but, preservation!

As I have told this story to groups of people in one community after another, the common consensus is clear. It is fine to be able to access the books on line, but we still need to preserve the original books.

If the story was told in the lopsided way it is here, we can dismiss the consensus of the uninformed, but even so it’s okay. The books are being preserved somewhere, just not the copies in that county library. Happy now?

People want the right to work with the physical books.

I guess not. It doesn’t matter what right people want, the right they have is to use legal material for free. Right granted. Some people are never pleased, though.

Having access to the originals is also the only way to ensure that parts of these books have been neither removed, nor abridged.

Paranoia strikes deep.

Furthermore, there is a growing silent epidemic of people who are experiencing computer-related repetitive stress injuries from excessive computer use, as we are forced to do more and more things online that we used to do in other ways.

Really? That seems very 1990s to me. I haven’t even seen an office worker with a wrist brace in many years. That’s because it’s not using a computer that causes the injuries, but the way in which the computer is used. Perhaps the library could put up some signs on the proper ergonomics of computer use.

Finally, removing the physical copies of the books removes the constitutional rights of citizens who don’t have access to, or can’t afford, a computer or internet access.

According to the article, there are computer terminals at the legal service center people can use and librarians to help them do research. So it doesn’t matter if people don’t have Internet access. They can’t get to the online books from home now, but they couldn’t get to the physical books either.

Stuff like this is why librarians don’t consult the public before weeding books. Most of the time the people who get the most passionate about the topic are maybe a little too passionate for their own good, and definitely too passionate for everyone else’s good.

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Comments

  1. Frumious Bandersnatch says:

    Sadly, the entire social and political worldview of a significant percentage of the U.S. population is founded on “baseless alarm and nostalgia.” It’s not a phenomenon particular to library weeding.

  2. You know, there are good reasons to keep old law books in print (I run a law library that still has quite a few on the shelves) but the petition manages not to mention a single one of them. Whenever anyone waxes poetic about loving books and libraries, I know they haven’t done any actual legal research in years, if ever.

  3. It’s, frankly, clueless to think that one hundred year old interpretations of the Constitution, an era before women’s suffrage, labor protections, and the civil rights movement, are somehow going to guide a modern effort to “rescue our Constitutional Rights”.

    Also, the term “armed gunmen” a silly redundancy. A gunmen, by definition, is armed, right?

    • sciencereader says:

      Many hundred-year-old legal decisions are still relevant, but you don’t need to go to the old books to see them.

  4. I see the great historical value in those books. Like, this is history being dumped away! I’d be upset, too! And I honestly think law written around the time the constitution is very important. It shows the mindset of our ancestors, sorta. But I’m upset they threw away all that history, too. Maybe see if any museum wanted it, or if someone wanted to start a museum with them at least.

    • If you had clicked on the article link above, you could find that:

      (County law librarian) Ludwig — who Fournier says consulted with the Franklin County Bar Association — weighed which printed materials are available at other libraries or online, how much each are used, and inquired whether there was interest by other libraries to take any “antique books.” Fournier said none of the very old books were destroyed but placed in storage or found homes . . . .

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