Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Culling the Classics

I have not been intentionally neglecting to mention now-infamous Washington Post article from last Tuesday "Hello Grisham -- So Long, Hemingway?" which has sparked much debate in the book and library communities; I've just been waiting for a spare moment in which I could write about it coherently (and at some length, for which I apologize).

The article, for those who've evaded it until now, is about the weeding policies of the Fairfax County (VA) public library system. Using new computer-generated statistics about circulation and demand, libraries in the system are systematically reviewing all books that haven't been checked out in at least two years ... and then deciding whether to keep them on the shelves, discard them, or transfer them to another branch within the system.

Weeding and replacement of collections is something that libraries have always done, of course, but as the article notes, the Fairfax system is "taking turnover to a new level. Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system's return on its investment by each foot of space on the library shelves - and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone - even if they are classics." A sidebar reveals that among the books up for potential discard at one or more branches are The Works of Aristotle, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Jane Eyre, and Doctor Faustus. Incredible.

Importantly, librarians may use their discretion when it comes to tossing books; they are not bound by the monthly computer printout to abandon Aristotle (thankfully we don't have to close up all the library schools and turn the stacks over to the robots just yet). County system director Sam Clay's comment is probably indicative of the philosophy, though: "We're being very ruthless. A book is not forever. ... We don't want to keep what people don't use much of." True, to a point, but ruthlessness and librarianship aren't generally considered synonymous, at least not in my book.

More troubling than Clay's quote is that from Leslie Burger, the newly-elected president of the American Library Association. She told the Post "I think the days of libraries saying, 'We must have that, because it's good for people,' are beyond us. There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire." Ugh. Yes, popular materials and bestsellers are what have the buzz and what get the long 'hold' lists. But they fade, and fade quickly. Libraries - and especially public libraries - have a long-term duty to the community that goes far beyond making sure no one has to wait more than two days for the latest James Patterson potboiler (no offense to Mr. Patterson intended, of course). Burger is rather far off the mark here, it seems to me.

As Michael Lieberman notes in his excellent post on this, "Luckily there was one breath of fresh air." Arlington County library director Diane Kresh told the paper "Part of my philosophy is that you collect for the ages. The library has a responsibility to provide a core collection for the cultural education of its community." Kresh, who served for thirty years at the Library of Congress, has begun a new program "that gives forgotten classics prominent display" and works to increase their circulation.

Kresh's approach seems, to me, the far better one. Why not, instead of buying 80 copies of Sue Grafton's S is for Silence (as per a search of the Fairfax county system catalog this morning), buy oh, 40 copies of that and replace aging copies of the classics with new ones? I'd be willing to bet that many of the classics that haven't been checked out for a while are older copies which have seen better days. Perhaps sprucing up the shelves wouldn't be a bad idea (and would nicely complement a classics-promotion program). New copies and some emphasis might make an important difference for many of these books.

I should note that Mr. Clay has responded to the Post article with a statement on the library's website, which notes in part "Recent media reports have misled readers to believe that we’ve eliminated all copies of classic titles from our branches. This could not be further from the truth. Although we occasionally have to trim the number of copies we offer in a particular branch, we definitely keep multiple copies of these works in the Fairfax County Public Library. ... I want to assure you that we take our stewardship of public property very seriously. We make every effort to manage the public’s investment in library materials in a prudent, reasonable and rational way." I don't doubt this in the least, and I suspect the Post article was slightly overreactive. However, I think that public scrutiny of decisions and policies in public libraries is not only healthy but vital, and perhaps this exposure will make a difference when a librarian is asked to decide whether to relegate Marlowe to the book-sale table.