Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dumbing Down Public Libraries

(All emphases by Always On Watch)

So much for the public library as the poor man's university in Fairfax County!

According to this article in the January 2, 2007 Washington Post, several classics have to go at certain branches so as to make room for books which are more popular:
You can't find "Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings" at the Pohick Regional Library anymore. Or "The Education of Henry Adams" at Sherwood Regional. Want Emily Dickinson's "Final Harvest"? Don't look to the Kingstowne branch.

It's not that the books are checked out. They're just gone. No one was reading them, so librarians took them off the shelves and dumped them....

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....

"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."

That is the new reality for the Fairfax system and the future for other libraries. As books on tape, DVDs, computers and other electronic equipment crowd into branches, there is less room for plain old books.

So librarians are making hard decisions and struggling with a new issue: whether the data-driven library of the future should cater to popular tastes or set a cultural standard, even as the demand for the classics wanes.

Library officials say they will always stock Shakespeare's plays, "The Great Gatsby" and other venerable titles. And many of the books pulled from one Fairfax library can be found at another branch and delivered to a patron within a week.

But in the effort to stay relevant in an age in which reference materials and novels can be found on the Internet and Oprah's Book Club helps set standards of popularity, libraries are not the cultural repositories they once were.

"I think the days of libraries saying, 'We must have that, because it's good for people,' are beyond us," said Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association and director of Princeton Public Library. "There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire...."
Graphic from this source.
The article's inset, "Books on the Chopping Block in Fairfax," provides a list of some of books being culled at specific branches, including the following titles: The Works of Aristotle by Aristotle, The Great Philosophers by Karl Jaspers, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well by Maya Angelou, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Aeneid by Virgil, and The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. Many of these titles are being removed from the large regional libraries, which offer the most extensive reference desks and have on staff the top-knotch librarians, trusted by teachers and parents to provide reading guidelines for young people. Furthermore, many of the titles being culled are on the required-reading lists for both public and private schools.

Not all library systems are following the method which Fairfax County is using:

As Fairfax bets its future on a retail model, some librarians say that the public library may be straying too far from its traditional role as an archive of literature and history.

Arlington County's library director, Diane Kresh, said she's "paying a lot of attention to what our customers want." But if they aren't checking out Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," she's not only keeping it, she's promoting it through a new program that gives forgotten classics prominent display.

"Part of my philosophy is that you collect for the ages," 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.
Fairfax County readers searching for classics can, for now, request a culled title from another branch or ask for an inter-library loan from another library system. Typically there is at least a week's gap for obtaining material in those ways. And if Fairfax County's model catches on, those wanting to read or to reference certain classics will have to buy their own copies.

The recent article in the Washington Post and the resulting flap in various publications resulted in the posting of the following at the Fairfax County Public Library's web site:

There are classic texts that are widely regarded as some of the most important literature in western culture. These include works by Aristotle, Hemingway, Proust, Faulkner, Bronte, Fitzgerald, Angelou and many others. We are committed to offering classic texts by important writers like these in our library system.

Recent media reports have misled readers to believe that we’ve eliminated all copies of classic titles from our branches. This could not be further from the truth. Although we occasionally have to trim the number of copies we offer in a particular branch, we definitely keep multiple copies of these works in the Fairfax County Public Library. In some cases, we’re even able to offer the text in multiple formats: in large print, on CD, as an e-book, or in languages other than English.

Because there’s a growing demand for more and more books in more and more formats, we have to balance the need to offer classic literature, and satisfy public demand, with the physical limitations of our finite shelf space. We are physically unable to warehouse every book that every resident may want to read. Therefore we have to make difficult decisions about what items to keep in our collection....

In the meantime, as the director of the Fairfax County Public Library, I want to assure you that we take our stewardship of public property very seriously. We make every effort to manage the public’s investment in library materials in a prudent, reasonable and rational way....
By posting the above on the home page, ths public library will likely be able to stay on the good side of the taxpayers. In addition, the library's defense in the above has some validity in that, so far, copies of classics are not being completely removed from the system. Nevertheless, the trend appears to be that of satisfying public demand, tending toward current bestsellers which likely will have few readers once the fad wears off.

The following appeared at the conclusion of a commentary in the January 3, 2007 edition of WSJ's Opinion Journal:

Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn't merely describe the words of a language--it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends.

The particulars of this task will fall upon the shoulders of individual librarians, who should welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral, as librarians traditionally have done. They ought to regard themselves as not just experts in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System, but as teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.

The alternative is for them to morph into clerks who fill their shelves with whatever their "customers" want, much as stock boys at grocery stores do. Both libraries and the public, however, would be ill-served by such a Faustian bargain.

That's a reference, by the way, to one of literature's great antiheroes. Good luck finding Christopher Marlowe's play about him in a Fairfax County library: "Doctor Faustus" has survived for more than four centuries, but it apparently hasn't been checked out in the past 24 months.
Public libraries would do well to take as a model some of Jonathan Yardley's columns in the Washington Post. For example, recently Mr. Yardley wrote this piece about The Great Gatsby as part of
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
These columns, in effect, help to promote or help us to recall significant works. Perhaps the Fairfax County Public Library could, in special displays, actively promote the reading or rereading of classics in much the same way that the system promotes "Hot Picks."

[Hat-tip to Library Cloud: Libraries in the News for links in the latter part of this posting]

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posted by Always On Watch @ 1/09/2007 06:41:00 AM