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 @ 10:35am

    Re: Seems like there's an obvious and simple solut

    Well, as the role of a library becomes more esoteric (shifts more towards preserving and promoting our intellectual heritage and less about making cheap pop fiction available) then there is less need to have anything but one centralized library with everything stuffed in it.

    Of course, one would hope that we could then turn around and improve this role to the point where it is easier for more people to engage in the esoteric. At that point you would want to have the sophisticated distribution of esoteric materials to branch locations.

    But while we are in the intermediate, more attainable phase of removing the role of free books to the masses, we can rethink even the esoteric role: why do we need a university and a public library in the same city, for example?

    And for that matter, if there is a cherished tradition of buying a book and lending it to anyone who needs it, why in god's name can't we just scan the books and put them online for anyone who needs it? Because it cuts down on sales because people who might buy it will be able to get it for free? But can't they do that with a library? Well.. there must be a difference. Lets see.. ah yes, the library is INCONVENIENT (for certain classes of literature which is available cheaply for sale) and only people who need the book so badly to overcome the hurdles of inconvenience will bother to get it that way--and the publishers dont mind those people getting to enjoy it for free. Connect the dots: publishers don't give a crap about free flow of information and permit it only slightly constrained to a library where it is prevented from harming their bottom line.

    If we as a society value this information's public accessibility, then why do we play games with the publishers? Those with the means or the will can get around the hassle. Those without can't--and those are the ones we are trying to lift up.

    If we have public libraries and are treating them as enclaves of free information, then I'm paying taxes for it and by gum, I am not going to be told I have to go to the library just to enjoy it. This is 2007. I pay my taxes and someone needs to figure out a way to get the publishers their cut. Perhaps a fee per page read online paid by the library out of the public budget. Work something out --I leave that as an exercise to another anonymouse coward.

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