Some time ago I read the following:
A neighbour recently loaned me her copy of Atwoods's short stories, Moral Disorder, which I am slowly making my way through - one story a night before bed: my nightcap. It is a collection claimed to be as close to autobiography as Atwood has written in her fiction. More poignant: I find it to be a reminder of what it is I admire and appreciate in a "good story." The book, BTW, with a 2006 copyright, and a first edition, is already a victim of "discard" from a public library. - New Pages Blog
This, of course, started me thinking about what it would take for me to discard a book. I know I don't still own all the books I've ever purchased. A few were leant to people (my copy of A Time of Changes, for example) before I learned my lesson but I honestly couldn't tell you what ever happened to Don Quixote. I think I must have thrown it out about fifteen years ago when I moved house for the seventh time although how it managed to survive six other moves I have no idea. What gets me is that I can't think what could possibly have gone through my mind to throw out a book.
I'm the same with photographs. I never throw out a photo. I tore up a photo of an old girlfriend once (as a gesture to the current girlfriend) and I have absolutely hated myself ever since for it.
In recent years I did chuck out an old and very smelly copy of Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder – which my dad had bought in the 1960s – but only once I'd located a replacement. (It still had the original invoice inside from 1965 for £1.10s.0d (£1.50 in today's currency) and I picked up my copy in 2003 for £1.20. Not bad.) Looking at my shelves I am actually disappointed that I don't have more books and there's a part of me wants to go and buy up all the books I know I've borrowed from libraries just so I have a copy for emergencies. You simply never know when a copy of Spider Robinson's Telempath will come in handy.
But I was thinking about libraries: how do they choose what to discard? It's not as if the books are theirs. Of course it's semantics but discard sounds a little harsh. How about weeding books or withdrawing titles?
All librarians are encouraged to weed their collections every year in order to maintain materials that are still useful and timely. They have to. Space is limited and who needs copies of Yellow Pages going back to nineteen-canteen? I don't think I've opened a Yellow Pages in the last five years and all I do when I get a new one is take the old one out of the writing bureau, remove the plastic wrapper and toss it in the recycling bin. In fact as I write this there are five copies lying in the foyer of this building that my neighbours have neglected to uplift. They must all use Yell the same as I do.
I've been trawling through the Web looking to see what the rules are for disposing of books. The gist of most of them is as follows: An item is considered for discard when it is (1) obsolete or outdated; (2) physically deteriorated or damaged; (3) no longer circulating; (4) one of many copies of a formerly popular title. And that seems quite reasonable to me.
Most lists expand on these. I was particularly struck by this entry which I found in the School Board of Alachua County, Florida's Media Specialist Handbook:
3. Timeliness - This is one of the most frequent criteria: Reference may be to: (a) out-of-date materials, particularly in the sciences and technology. A rule of thumb is to reconsider almost anything more than three to five years of age, (b) materials no longer in demand, or that no longer support the curriculum or current community needs (c) older editions no longer used, and (d) dated textbooks, where they are part of the collection.
Now, I know that with non-fiction books this is easier to determine and other sites list general guidelines, like this one from Omaha Public Schools:
Weeding specific classes of books (maximum age of materials)
- Encyclopaedia sets -- ten years.
- Almanacs -- five years.
- Directories -- five years.
- Biographical sources -- see "General guidelines" above.
- Dictionaries -- ten years.
- Atlases -- ten years.
- Books on mass media, descriptive geography, careers, computers -- five years.
- Topical materials -- ten years.
- Social sciences -- ten years.
- Fiction titles not listed in standard sources and which have not been checked out for three years.
The thing is I misread 'Timeliness' the first time I looked at it. I thought it said 'Timelessness' and that made me ask, "How does one determine if a book is timeless?" There are certainly a great many books that are of their time and yet, at the same time, timeless.
I was impressed to find online something called The Freedom to Read statement on the American Library Association, part of which reads:
7. It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a "bad" book is a good one, the answer to a "bad" idea is a good one.
The freedom to read is of little consequence when the reader cannot obtain matter fit for that reader's purpose. What is needed is not only the absence of restraint, but the positive provision of opportunity for the people to read the best that has been thought and said.
The whole thing is worth having a look at. I wonder if there's a British equivalent? I couldn't find anything.
I don't think I could be a librarian. Okay, I could chuck out old reference books but I would have a real issue with fiction. I'd find myself very protective of other people's novels and short story collections. One of my favourite science fiction novels of all time is A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg and I went to find a copy a while ago (see above) and lo and behold it was out of print. Damn and blast! Okay, I managed to get a second-hand copy. And The Death of Grass by John Christopher – I had to download a PDF because used copies were so ruddy expensive (£55.00 last time I looked). And these are just two books. And what if my local library had decided to toss them?
How can you make that decision without reading the book first? Every condemned man gets to state his case but what about every book? The librarian is judge, jury and executioner. But what if he or she isn't into science fiction? I can just imagine all the copies of The Death of Grass from 1978 that hadn't been checked out in many libraries for over three years and got the chop and there are now queues forming to demand copies of this underrated little gem. And where are they? Okay, maybe not queues but you get the idea. How do they handle the responsibility? How do they sleep at night?
There was an article in The American Spectator back in April 2007 about certain library practices in Fairfax County: "We're being very ruthless," said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system. "A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that's a cost."
According to the article:
The Fairfax libraries are now using new computer software programs to identify titles that have not been checked out in 24 months. Victims, to date, include the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln, The Education of Henry Adams, poems of Emily Dickinson, and, according to the Washington Post's Lisa Rein, "thousands of novels and nonfiction works" that were swept up in the computer vacuuming.
Other books that have been "weeded" from the shelves of various branches of the Fairfax County Public Library system or haven't been checked out in 24 months and could be discarded include: The Works of Aristotle, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.
So, pray do tell, what are the good residents of Fairfax County reading these days?
The top 25 books checked out in December, from Fairfax County libraries, were best-sellers by John Grisham, David Baldacci, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, Stephen King and Alice McDermott, among others. Most are entertaining, but only a few will be considered classics in 25 years.
The world is speeding up. Things go out of fashion quicker and quicker. I look at my contemporaries online and I see the piles of books they have to read and I wonder how many of them read them properly. There are simply too many books being produced. And some of those books will be the classics of the future. But what if they only had 24 months to demonstrate their timelessness? What would we lose?
I used to think I'd like to be a librarian, after all Philip Larkin was one and a very successful one, but now I'm not so sure I could live with myself.