Wednesday, January 3, 2007

This Might Actually Make Me Check Out Hemingway

One of my very favorite books, Bellwether by Connie Willis, is all about fads throughout history including those in our politically correct times. Among the infuriating trends that the protagonist faces is her local library's tendency to throw out books if they haven't been checked out in the last year. Therefore, whenever she goes to the library she picks out a classic to take home, thereby "saving" it for another year on the library shelves.

I was struck by this and have thought of it often when coming across a classic, but likely little read novel, on the shelves ... wondering if it would come to that in our library. Sadly, truth is imitating fiction, at least in Fairfax, Virginia.
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" may be one of Ernest Hemingway's best-known books, but it isn't exactly flying off the shelves in northern Virginia these days. Precisely nobody has checked out a copy from the Fairfax County Public Library system in the past two years, according to a front-page story in yesterday's Washington Post.

And now the bell may toll for Hemingway. A software program developed by SirsiDynix, an Alabama-based library-technology company, informs librarians of which books are circulating and which ones aren't. If titles remain untouched for two years, they may be discarded--permanently. "We're being very ruthless," boasts library director Sam Clay.
As the WSJ points out, this brings up the ultimate question of whether a library's purpose is to be a cultural storehouse or to reflect public tastes.

I don't know enough to debate the answer to that question. What I do know is that if I ever hear of a similar policy being issued in Dallas, I will be going home every week with a classic to "save."

I received this thoughtful response from a librarian who reminded me that media spin is probably responsible for making it sound as if librarians are gleefully tossing copies of books at the drop of a hat. I thought that y'all would like to consider it as well.
Sadly it is true that when classics do not circulate they often get removed. As computer programs beginning to track every book, it will happen more often. Checking out a classic is a good plan to save it for everyone. Why not read it as well?

I disagree entirely with the attitude of the article however. It implies that Librarians are delighted to see this happen. It is not true. What is true is that the political bodies that fund libraries are interested in only one thing--constantly rising circulation figures which drives us to purchasing more DVD's than books.

I am in charge of a very large Children's Department that serves as an afterschool site for school age children, a coloring and craft center for little ones, as well as a refuge for many mothers from other countries who are trying to adjust to American culture. ( Where else are they going to go that is halfway and sane if they have limited income and no car. The Mall?). The Mayor's office however is totally unimpressed with any of these services. Funding for staff and books has been cut every year since I joined the staff. I have sadly come to the conclusion that these funding bodies are looking for any excuse to cut money to public libraries. Could it be that the young (and not so young) upwardly mobile males that make up most of our political officials simply do not read nor see any reason to do so? And therefore do not see any use for libraries.

Yes the Director is right. If he is not ruthless he will lose his job. Saving the classics may be a matter of campaigning with the Library and the local political body to establish a library policy that it will maintain a classic collection as its core. If the point is made by citizens (not librarians, no one listens to us) the politicians might listen.
She makes a good point about reading the books when we have them checked out ... which any of the interested people in the Dante to Dead Man Walking Project comments would definitely agree with. I will say that I have tried Faulkner enough times to know that I ain't a gonna do it agin ... though I will be happy to save him for someone like Rose who is working her way through classic American authors. If not for the library we would have had to buy the copy of Anna Karenina that she is working her way through now. How would I ever have known that Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of my favorite books if not for our library having it available? We certainly can't afford to buy all the classics that we want to read.

The point about afterschool care made me think of a recent announcement here in Dallas. The Nashers are a family who I applaud for giving the public such wonderful luxuries as sculpture gardens and the like. They own Northpark mall near our house where they display many pieces from their modern art collection. They are going to donate the space and buildout for a public branch of the library to be at the mall. I thought that was a wonderful way to possibly convert nonreaders or, at the very least, people who don't remember to use the library.

It very well may be that the only thing stopping ruthless cutting of library funds in Dallas is that noble organization "Friend of the Library" and wealthy supporters such as the Nashers. If you don't know what the state is of library support in your area this is a good wake up call to check it out and send a letter to your local government about areas needing support. Your librarian will thank you ... and, as a library lover, so will I.

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