Thursday, January 04, 2007


Weeding any library collection (including the one in my home) is a professional duty but emotionally challenging. Nonfiction in a school library is fairly easy. Is it out of date? Are the pictures in dreary black and white? Is the typeface and reading level friendly to young readers? Is there something better out there that can replace it?

Fiction and picture books are a my biggest challenge. Once you disgard the damaged and dingy, it gets rough. My personal prejudices come into play. I remember I kept a novel that had few circulations because it was wonderfully illustrated by Edward Gorey. I also confess I left a badly-needs-weeding picture book collection to my successor at the elementary school. I just ran out of time. She is a brilliant librarian and has made the tough calls.

One funny note, on a recent visit back there for book fair, I was cruising the shelves and noticed the Gorey book still on the shelves. I mentioned it to the library aide who commented that the librarian WAS going to weed it but it had illustrations by Edward Gorey and she couldn't bear to chuck it at this point. Ha, the torch is passed!

The Washington Post reports that budget cuts, space demands and popular reads are squeezing classics by Hemingway and Brontë off the shelves in the Fairfax library system. Libraries, trying to offer what their users want, are using a retail model to weed their collections and a book must now have 20 circulations in order to remain on the shelf. Each branch looks at their own users.

Public libraries traditionally are also "archives of literature and history." Aggressive weeding threatens this role as Eugene O'Neill's plays are binned in favor of James Patterson.

John Miller at the Wall Street Journal ponders if public libraries themselves are outmoded. Google is planning/hoping to digitize a world of print, Amazon, WalMart and Barnes and Noble offer discounts on the latest reads.

Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn't merely describe the words of a language -- it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends.

The particulars of this task will fall upon the shoulders of individual librarians, who should welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral, as librarians traditionally have done. They ought to regard themselves as not just experts in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System, but as teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.

The alternative is for them to morph into clerks who fill their shelves with whatever their "customers" want, much as stock boys at grocery stores do. Both libraries and the public, however, would be ill-served by such a Faustian bargain.

That's a reference, by the way, to one of literature's great antiheroes. Good luck finding Christopher Marlowe's play about him in a Fairfax County library: "Doctor Faustus" has survived for more than four centuries, but it apparently hasn't been checked out in the past 24 months.

I've never worked in a public library but I make heavy use of our county library system. Entling no. 2 thinks she wants to do grad school in library science after she graduates so it is
interesting to consider the future of libraries, especially when your own kid is hoping to step into the profession.


Jill said...

Thanks for the link to the Wall Street Journal article. Although it's rather patronizing in some ways (no one who's never seen the four volumes of DDC should have a right to knock it), I'm glad to see that there's a reaction going on against the clerks/customers/commercialization model.

Camille said...

I agree Jill, let's see Mr. Mill use the tables!

MotherReader said...

I work for FC and I've been appalled by the model we've been using. I hope that the press coverage will make the system look a little more deeply at what they are doing and why.

Janette Rallison said...

This article makes me so sad. I remember as a kid browsing through the library and checking out books that looked interesting--that's how I found and read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. It looks like kids won't even have that opportunity.

But then, perhaps I'm not the best one to talk about weeding. I have a ton of books in my personal stash that I'll probably never get around to reading.

Janette Rallison