Should Libraries Ditch The Classics?

from the rethinking-the-library dept

J. Austin writes in to point us to an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, which talks about how public libraries are trying to cope with the times. Apparently, faced with "the long tail" problem of limited shelf space, libraries have started removing books that don't get checked out. Unfortunately for lovers of literature classics, this appears to include books like those by Charlotte Bronte, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway. Instead, they're being replaced by more popular books like those by John Grisham, which will never be mistaken for fine literature. The commentary then looks at what the purpose of the library is, especially in an age where so many books are available so cheaply from online sources. I know that, personally, when I've needed a particularly book, it's often easier to just find a used copy online. The question is whether or not libraries should look at themselves as basically an alternative to bookstores, or if they should be something entirely different. The suggestion is that librarians shouldn't just be store clerks handing out the latest bestseller to people who don't want to buy the book, but "teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance." That sounds great, in theory, but if no one is coming to the library for that purpose, it's hard to see how that helps much. What the article doesn't note is that these same forces that have made books cheaper and more available to online purchasers also applies to libraries as well. You can go into most libraries these days, and if they don't have a specific book, they can order it from another library. It would really be great if libraries could set themselves up as guardians of an intellectual inheritance, but if no one cares about that inheritance, it's difficult to see how that helps very much.

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  1. identicon
    SailorAlphaCentauri, 4 Jan 2007 @ 11:14am

    How encouraging...

    As a recent library school graduate, hearing people call for the end of libraries because they're dead is a little disheartening. I'm not saying that there's no truth in The Man's sentiments, but I'm also not seeing a decline in library usage in the part of the country I'm in. People come to the library to access databases & check out non-book materials (i.e. DVDs), and more libraries are offering video game nights to make the library more relevent to teenagers [and I've gotten into some interesting competition with young people vying for the same manga I want to read]. People in the library community lamented stocking up on videos because they didn't like the idea of becoming a free Blockbuster, but it's a way of meeting the challenge of providing what people want without completely skuttling everything else the library provides.

    While books are being digitized for preservation and theoretical mass-consumption (but with strings attached to books still under copyright), the library still has relevence for those who seek it out. I've read a number of non-library articles where people were astonished by how the librarians were actually helpful in finding materials for their research and other activites (because they believed that a librarian's role was to keep people quiet all day) so I do not see the library as being a completely dead issue...yet.

    While I do think the idea of a book warehouse is a good one, I'm not completely enthused by the idea simply because serindipidous search results would be much less likely to occur (and I'll be the first one to admit that I would've been screwed on an assignment if not for a sernidipidous find which housed the answer I sought for a school assignment). I like the concept simply because it's a workable compromise which would still make classic literature available to those who want it without using up space at every library in town [by the way, the place where I'm finishing up an internship is actually working on doing something like this for the thousands of libraries in its consortium].

    People have been calling for the end of libraries since the dawn of the World Wide Web and a number of companies have gotten rid of their librarians under the belief that everything they needed was on the Internet (but a recent article shows that some law firms have reversed their thinking when they realized that librarians saved their employees tons of time by doing the footwork for them), but I don't see the library as being an irrelevant tax-waster. I think we still need the libraries to be a place that houses our history in some form, lest we forget that not all digitized items are still readable today (unless all of you have old floppy-disk drives and tape readers). Technology is constantly changing, so I hope that those who are on the the tech end of things are planning on migrating materials to the next new devices so that our entire history isn't lost to the ages.

    Do I have a point to all this? Probably not, but I think that people involved with libraries need to think carefully about where they want libraries to be 5-10 years down the road...and how to maintain (or obtain, depending on your point of view) relevence in our quickly digitizing world. We'll have to see how things evolve with people reading less (but turning to audiobooks, ebooks, & the Internet) to see where libraries are headed.

    Last three points: 1) I can't spell, so please don't give me grief on it, 2) I was a young person who was frequently thrown out of the library for doing things that people can do freely today, so it's rather ironic that I ended up getting a library degree when few libraries could tolerate my presence [My focus was on computers & database/web design in library school], and 3) I'm unfortuantly a product of my generation in that I had a hard time keeping my focus on what I was trying to say, so I worry my short-attention span may have muddled what I wanted to say.

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