Tuesday, January 02, 2007

But they're still classics

Heard about this on Bill Bennett's morning show on Sirius radio--which I don't know if I've said before, but is by far the best $100 initial investment and $13/month I have ever spent and I hate being anywhere in any vehicle without it--and then read it at Betsy's Page. It appears originally in The Washington Post:

...[T]housands of novels and nonfiction works have been eliminated from the Fairfax County collection after a new computer software program showed that no one had checked them out in at least 24 months.

Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region's largest library system is taking turnover to a new level.

Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system's return on its investment by each foot of space on the library shelves -- and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone -- even if they are classics.

"We're being very ruthless," said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system since 1982. "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."

But it's not just an abundance of books on tulips that are getting the axe...

Classics such as Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" are among the titles that haven't been checked out in two years and could be eliminated. Librarians so far have decided to keep them.

As libraries clear out titles, they sweep in new ones as fast as they can. A two-month-old program called "Hot Picks" is boosting copies of bestsellers by tracking the number of holds requested by patrons. This month, every Fairfax branch will display new books more prominently, leaving even less space for older ones.

"We don't want to keep what people don't use much of," Clay said. Circulation, a sign of prestige and a potential bargaining chip for new funding, is on pace to hit 11.6 million in the Fairfax system this year, part of a steady climb over the past three years.


Part of my philosophy is that you collect for the ages," [Arlington County's library director, Diane] Kresh said. "The library has a responsibility to provide a core collection for the cultural education of its community." She comes to this view from a career at the Library of Congress, where she was chief of public service collections for 30 years.

Again, I'd like to take just a minute to point out that To Kill a Mocking Bird is NOT an information book on friggin' tulips. As Kresh said, libraries should be ageless collections of knowledge, not simply a collection of popular culture. When libraries are used for academic research, writers such as Hemingway and books such as TO Kill a Mocking Bird are hot-ticket items. Josh Grisham--as good as he may be--is not. That isn't to say that some books, like the 20 some hypothetical volumes on tulips, shouldn't nor mustn't be eliminated, but certainly some books--like those by Hemingway, one of the true masters of literature, must be made exempt, lest libraries find themselves moving towards irrelevancy.


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