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Heroic Librarians Destroy Books

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 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 They were outdated and useless, but they shouldn’t be burnt!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.



  1. The response to this article from the library community was typical:
    1) Library staff jumping in defensively to describe the necessity of the weeding process to remove ‘crap’, duplicates, etc.
    2) The library community missing an opportunity to help establish itself as experts and cultural guardians with regard to the codex, and trustworthy stewards to the new information age.

    I read numerous comments from library staff citing how many books are ‘crap’ … and this begs the question “Why are libraries buying so much crap?” Same thing with duplicates — which I know are significant within libraries and between libraries. The sophisticated communication and material management tools at our disposal, give libraries the ability to coordinate collections to assure quality coverage across subjects and reliable access to books that won’t turn up in the book sales, yard sales, Salvation Army Stores, Dollar Stores, etc. Instead, libraries mostly manage their own collections and contain duplicates of the ‘safe bets’ recommended by LJ, the NYT, etc. Combine this duplication with the statistics on the high number of books that haven’t circulated even once (40 – 50%) and it points to an opportunity to refine and improve the way libraries practice collection development.

    Library staff interpret articles like “6 Reasons” topically, and as criticism. They respond defensively by citing policies and procedures and this makes them look insulated and bureaucratic. What articles like these are really about is the fear and concern many of us feel about the rapid pace of change. Seems like so many aspects of “life as we’ve known it” are changing that we sometimes pick one or two small things to focus on because we can’t comprehend the big picture. This presents a great opportunities for libraries. Library leadership is needed to craft a plan for the institution to weather this particular historic storm AND communicate it to the public with sentiments like these:

    “Most people reading this message are overwhelmed by the breath and pace of change we’re experiencing today. Libraries have historically been cultural anchors during turbulent times and we remain so today. We’re conservators of heritage by [specifics on how truly valuable books are assessed and moved to safe places like the Fisher Library in Toronto]; locally, public libraries across the nation are conservatories for locally produced documents, books and art that would otherwise be lost. For the future, our libraries provide a safe haven for the unique, insightful voices that have always gotten us through hard times. You won’t find these voices supported or promoted by Amazon or Google, but you’ll find them at the library. Our focus is on supporting and making available works of fiction, non-fiction, art and science for the ages. Societies have relied on this library mission for thousands of years, and you can rely on it today.”

    • How many of the titles mentioned above were DONATIONS? Outdated encyclopedias? Readers Digest Condensed Books? 40 years of National Geo? This has nothing to do with library acquisitions.

    • Many of the books that are ‘crap’ now were not crap when they were purchased. For example, books on software – they’re current at one point in time, but well out of date, and useless, within a relatively short period. Medical texts or health-related books are another example. When they are out of date, sometimes they are dangerous. They may recommend things that are later debunked. Sure, there has to be a historical copy kept in a historical collection someplace – but you don’t want the item on a public library shelf anymore, or in a current academic collection.

    • Richard Berthelot says:

      I have a huge problem considering librarians “experts and cultural guardians with regard to the codex, and trustworthy stewards to the new information age.” The problem here is a matter of hypocrisy. The ALA abuses and ridicules and parents who attempt to have a single copy of a book removed from the shelves of a school library, even going so far as to dedicate a week to these so called “banned books.” Librarians fight to allow access to internet porn in libraries despite communities, Congress and the Supreme Court having told them that this is unacceptable. The ALA is struggling to be the determining voice in what is and is not protected speech in this country, and this is a clear example of the hypocrisy involved. It’s okay for a librarian to destroy a book; they after all know better than the communities they serve. But if any member of that community asks that a book be taken out of the young adult section or tries to prevent minor from accessing porn on library computers, that person is branded a censor by the ALA. Librarians and the ALA have accused their opponents of being censors for so long it’s only fair they be branded as such for performing what is a necessary task. In other words, librarians made this bed, they should lie in it.

    • Ms. Joneser says:

      I’m curious to know which libraries/librarians are “fighting to allow internet porn”. Examples?

    • Richard Berthelot says:

      Are you ignorant of the ALA’s policies are just ignorant?

  2. Libraries aren’t even the greatst offender when it comes to destroying unwanted books. The massive volume of print books that get pulped every year as part of “business as usual” in traditional publishing makes me glad we’re slowly switching to digital formats where there isn’t so much flagrant waste.

    At least libraries have made an attempt to get books into circulation before tossing their unwanted remainders in the recycle bin.

  3. As they pounded into our heads day one of library school “Libraries are not an Archive”!! If you want to preserve materials you should be in Archival studies!!

    • The funny thing is that archives don’t preserve
      *everything* either. Some things are deemed unworthy and stripped from a collection of papers. Some collections are not accepted in the first place. You can’t rely on anybody to save it all.

    • But I remember wanting to argue with them in library school–of course libraries are archives! It’s only fairly recently that we’ve started treating them as the literary equivalent of fast food stops, and it’s not necessarily an improvement. The better libraries are the ones where you *can* find that weird, obscure little book that you need to look at for your thesis on Christian Children’s Literature of the 1960s or Lesbian Authors of the Elizabethan Age. No one is going to have that in his or her personal library; having it available is a reason to pay for keeping up a public library.

      Which is not to say that weeding isn’t a good thing. One copy of a bestseller of the 1930s is great. If you’re still lugging around three copies in each branch because once upon a time it was popular, there’s a major problem.

  4. Incidentally, despite claiming to be a “humor” site, Cracked posts a lot of things that aren’t funny. And by that, I don’t mean it’s a matter of taste…I mean, they post a lot of things that are obviously meant to be serious.

    For example:
    “3 Types of Wall Street Protesters Hurting Their Own Cause”

    You might think this was an opportunity to mock dumb people…whether you support OWS or not, we can all admit that there are dumb people, yes? But that’s not what that article is about at all.

  5. Libraryman says:

    I have read for a while and find them very funny and very interesting. They can take things of historical interest and present them in a entertaining way.

    On the subject of books, I agree that they have little real value but speaking as someone that works at a public library I hate it when I see us geeting rid of non-fiction just to make room for six extra copies of James Patterson or Nicholas Sparks.

  6. Soren Faust says:

    Amen! That’s why my motto is “Weed ’em all and let God sort ’em out.”

    I am over the business collection and find great pleasure in weeding all the junk management books from our collection, knowing full well that they will be replaced with more fadish junk management books.

  7. Burning books? Who or what library burns books? We recycle our rejects. Burning only adds to our carbon footprint!

  8. annoyedlibraryworker says:

    These people with their “simple” solution to donate unwanted library books are well meaning but have little clue to what this actually entails. I have spent lots of my own time and money (both of which are rather limited) trying to find new homes for neglected books, whether they are discarded library items, donations, or pre-pub/galleys. First off evaluation takes time, many great organizations would love books, but often have criteria, they are looking for specific genres and/or formats. Many don’t want ex-library copies because RFID tags, tattler strips, or labels cause problems when shipping or with their security systems. Sometimes because they cause hassles when well meaning people assume these are stolen library books and insist on returning them. Some do not want hardcovers (because they could be used as weapons or may cause injury). Some will only accept large print or foreign language materials.
    Naturally, none of them want books that are moldy, stained, chewed, contain outdated information, or have broken bindings.
    Secondly, even if you have the time to sort through these to find acceptable items, most of these places do not have anyone available to pick them up for you. This means you have to box, transport or ship these items yourself typically at your own expense. Since in most cases these items are considered municipal property, it has to be a covert affair, lest some concerned citizens or politicians think you are deliberately discarding the good stuff so that you can smuggle it somewhere else. Sometimes a well meaning recipient sends a thank you note to someone not involved in the donation and all heck breaks loose and you may be in big trouble. Try to go through proper channels and find that your request is mired in committee and usually pretty low priority considering the kinds of issues most libraries have to deal with, like securing funding for staff, tech upgrades and capital improvements. Meanwhile the books pile up, and you have little to no space to store them, and find yourself with increasingly less time and inclination to even bother. Or you save yourself the hassle and just throw them in the dumpster.

  9. I Like Books says:

    AL said: “Books themselves are fetish objects with an inherent value in themselves… Historically, I expect this is a cultural holdover from the days when books were expensive and hard to come by.”

    I don’t know what it is about books, but from the dawn of writing to the present day people have assumed books have power. Not “knowledge is power” type of power, but cure a headache by opening the Bible to Psalm 23 and placing it on the head, it’s not necessary to read it, type of power. It’s unlucky to drop a book. Don’t leave a book open when you stop reading it or you’ll forget what you’ve learned. And then the terrible powers of a grimoire like the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, even if it’s a mass-market paperback.

    Not that I’m saying most book lovers think books are actually magical. But there is a thread of reverence for the book that has existed throughout its history, even including modern mass-market paperbacks, and not because of their cost. A wagon was (and still is) pretty pricey, too, but not particularly revered.

    I think book burners feel it, too, and that’s why they burn books– they want to make a powerful statement.

  10. Slade Barker says:

    It is bad enough that today’s librarians do the opposite of what their predecessors did long ago. But to call them “heroic” for participating in the groupthink of a mass malicious movement is nauseating — & self-serving in the extreme. Do you readers feel queasy that librarians should take such relish in destroying books? Does it bother you that librarians consider themselves “heroes” for demolishing stuff that you might love to read or even own? Then read the book the Annoyed Librarian & allies don’t want you to read: Nicholson Baker’s “Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.” Read about it here:

  11. So I read this article, thought about it for a week, and then came back to it. After thinking about it, and trying to keep all emotions aside, I have to agree with the author. Books, are just paper. From a physical perspective, no different than what you use to clean your behind. The reason we worship books is because of the ideas they contain. Before, it was easy to burn a book and kill an idea. Nowadays, our technology makes that pretty much impossible. This love affair that some people have with books is sickening. They want to preserve books (I don’t know where), regardless of the kind of book and regardless of the merit. Not all books are created equal–and people should come to terms with it. We have been brainwashed–almost religiously–into believing that books are items of worship, and destroying a book is a crime only comparable to murder. All the book “savers” should put their money in what they believe and rent acres of storage for books, and actively preserve them. Otherwise, they should understand that getting rid of books is a matter of convenience, while the ideas we’ve learned from them carry on.

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