These Librarians are Heroes

At a time when the term “slacktivism” often defines social movements, and protest means ticking a box on someone’s online petition, it’s worth pausing to celebrate some good old-fashioned civil disobedience.

For those of you too busy playing Candy Crush on your smartphones to notice, public libraries around the world are struggling to survive in an era dominated by digital resources and technology.

One of the casualties of this ongoing library crisis are the books on the shelves—many classics and older publications are being pulped to make way for more computers or newer volumes, often with little thought to the value of what the books themselves contain. The process mirrors the one Nicholas Baker described many years ago—only with newspapers—in his award-winning book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.

Ironically, newer technology allows libraries to track precisely which books are in circulation most often (and thus most popular) and which books languish on the shelves for years, never to be circulated among library patrons. The latter are the books often deemed “underused resources,” which sent to be pulped or donated, regardless of their cultural merit or literary value.

But some rebellious librarians in East Lake County, Florida, decided to methodically protect the books on their shelves by cleverly gaming the library’s checkout system.

A man named Chuck Finley had checked out 2,361 books in East Lake County, making him quite the avid reader. But as National Public Radio reported, it turns out that Mr. Finley was made up by the librarians. They “recorded him checking out books so they would not be purged from the shelves. The supervisor blamed for this episode says he just didn’t want to get rid of books that he’d be forced to buy again for real readers later.”

They’re not the only ones to protest the removal of books from shelves. Last spring, when a library in Berkeley, California, removed 40,000 volumes from its shelves in what it called a “deaccessioning” move, protestors appeared denouncing the “purge” and waving signs saying, “Don’t pulp our fiction!” (The controversy was significant enough that the director of the library was eventually forced to step down).

Of course, there is a difference between purging a library’s collection and thoughtfully “weeding” it, as some librarians prefer to call the culling process. Two Michigan librarians even sponsor a blog, Awful Library Books, that highlights some of the dead wood in their library’s collection (featured texts include a nonfiction book aimed at young adults called “Wax in our World,” a children’s book, “Little Corpuscle,” about a dancing red blood cell, and an inexplicable tome called, “Be Bold with Bananas!”).

And there are glimmers of hope on the horizon when it comes to our collective reading habits. Gallup recently released the results of a poll on reading, noting, “The demise of books has been greatly exaggerated.” More than half of young adults had read between one and ten books in the past year (which isn’t a lot, frankly, but is an improvement on previous years). More notably, 73 percent of people surveyed preferred printed books to e-books.

Nevertheless, until library policy catches up to public opinion, let’s cheer these bookish rebels willing to protect our libraries’ resources. As writer Neil Gaiman once noted, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

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