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
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jan 2007 @ 4:02pm

    Re: what makes a classic work of art better?

    Wait 200 years and see if people are still talking about. The definition of classic is that we still talk about it, and the assumption is that it is good. Sometimes I think that more precisely, it is the best representative of an era and we hope to use those works to keep the era in memory, and to grow a bit wiser by sampling an older, different way of thinking. Given this, the classics are unique in their value and really can't even be compared in quality to a new work. Once a form of expression hits a certain level of refinement, I dont think it necessarily ever improves on an absolute level. It rolls through its many phases and variations on theme and shows different faces and in the end all you can do is point to an older work and say 'this is worthy of praise' and get everyone to agree for the sake of having something in common to praise and know and remember.

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