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
    misanthropic humanist, 4 Jan 2007 @ 9:40am

    all the books on a thumbdrive

    The situation at Fairfax is happening around the Western world. In the UK we are closing public libraries faster than ever. It's not just a lack of demand, although it is true people are reading less, adult literacy is at an all time low, education is no longer valued. There are other factors. Urban real estate has gone through the roof in the very areas where libraries are most needed. They can no longer afford the space to keep books which are rarely accessed. Just a few blocks from me the public library has been knocked down and the plot sold to developers to build cheap housing for immigrants.

    There are rather few full-time employed librarians outside acedemia. Local public libraries traditionally rely on volunteers, usually retired or elderly bookworms. Economics mean those people are either working at Walmart into their 60's and 70's or retiring abroad to more pleasant and easier countries. The entire community volunteer sector is in decline, so libraries are nothing special.

    This does leave me with a Lisa Simpson moment, shaking my head at ignorant shallowness and the decline of Western civillisation. But then I think a more optimistic view is to reinterpret the role of libraries. Perhaps it's time to fully digitise our history. Organisations like archive.org and companies like Google are leading the way here. The information is not being "lost", it's safer than ever, it is just not freely accesible any longer. The bar has moved up, we assume even the poorest have access to a computer and internet these days. But that is not so. We are definitely creating an intellectual underclass who do not have the means of access, albeit a small disadvantaged group.

    But there are other rotten forces working against accesibility. The usual suspects, the publishers, the copyright cartels and IP mafia associations are all out to restrict information flow and accesibility.
    We recently built the biggest new library in Europe at Kings Cross when the British Library moved. However this organisation is now effectively privatised and is no longer open to the general public such that anyone can walk in and read. The new self appointed gatekeepers of knowledge actually seem to be going out of their way to make access to printed heritage difficult for ordinary folk and the preserve of the chosen few who can pay.

    However, as a technologist I think this is moot. We all know that information wants to be free, it tends towards that state almost as entropy does, it is uncontainable. Pretty soon we will have data storage devices capable of storing every book ever printed on a thumbnail. The actual buildings and institutions that have served us in the past will cease to be relevant. One day someone will be able to give you a little silver disk labled "books" - meaning ALL the books.

    The only issue then is whether people really care enough to read them in an age where hedonistic experience and money trump knowledge.

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