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
    Lawrence Salberg, 4 Jan 2007 @ 12:34pm

    In the library's defense, when I want to read a classic, I always buy it. Why? First, I'm no genius and pouring through a Sherlock Holmes book is likely to last longer than three weeks. I've been trying to read Moby Dick for about a year now.

    On the other side of the coin, however, it does seem a shame that once again, libraries are looking to become hippy-chick cafe's, with wireless access, computers, and DVD's, rather than preserving much of anything. I know folks won't agree with this, but this is one reason, among many, that we need a return to private libraries in this country. Public libraries will, at some level, always appeal to the lowest common denominator in our society. Here in Brevard County, they have no problem allowing vagrants and bums to sleep in the library (as long as a newspaper covers them up mostly). What kind of place are libraries becoming for children? I see the huge Bill Gates posters that say "Read!". Why doesn't he and others start some private libraries. I'd happily pay $50/year to be a private member of a library - with classics that weren't in paperback. And with some nice areas to actually study or read that weren't surrounded by bums and kids updating their MySpace profiles online.

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