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Many residents of Urbana, Illinois are not too happy with their public library director at the moment. Tracy Nectoux of Smile Politely, an online local culture magazine, reported last Thursday that a large percentage of the library’s non-fiction collection was being removed in a hasty and ill-considered project driven by an awkward glitch in planning. Some temporary workers had been hired to insert RFID tags into the books and it seemed foolish not to remove outdated books from the collection first, particularly since the RFID tags had yet to arrive. So to make use of the workers who were already on the clock, that removal project was suddenly shifted into high gear, and soon the whole thing was smoking and the wheels fell off, but not before thousands of books were discarded.

Public libraries, more so than academic libraries, select books to be removed from the collection on a regular basis because they add them constantly and have only so much space. This process - oh, heck, let’s call it by its common-or-garden-variety name: weeding  - is generally done on the basis of a constellation of factors, but in this case apparently only one criterion was being used. Books more than ten years old were being purged en masse.

Since Nectoux’s post, the library administration has responded. Mistakes were made. Communication failed. Voices were passive. The director took responsibility, though managed while doing so to leave most of the blame elsewhere. Better World Books, the company to which the weeded books were sent, responded quickly, trying to return as many books as they could.  It’s going to make a doozy of a case study for beginning library school students.

Though the failures here were numerous and catastrophic, all libraries face a certain amount of conflict over weeding. But weeding is just one aspect of a broader struggle over books.  

The Medium is the Battlefront

The overlap of the cultural category “book” (which has all kinds of conflicting meanings) and the social institution “library” (almost equally full of variant definitions) is a place that’s both full of friction and slippery. In that space, a lot of questions arise. What are libraries for? Who gets to decide? What does the future hold? Or (as that question is often reframed in a more pugnacious way) what’s holding libraries back? Oddly enough, books symbolize both what many people love and treasure about libraries and what many librarians feel is an outdated and limiting vision of libraries.

This conflict shows up in newspaper headlines that use the phrase “more than just books!” These articles almost always include in the lede the words “dusty” or “musty.” Electronic resources and programs that are about things other than the promotion of reading are the man who bites the library dog of the story. The conflict shows up at library conferences where librarians are urged to create maker spaces and celebrate local and unique materials rather than commercial products, or when attendees are urged to open up learning spaces by reclaiming the stacks, rather like the Dutch bravely reclaiming farmland from the sea in feats of engineering. It shows up wherever "books" and "warehouse" occur in the same sentence. It shows up on the slides of consultants who get paid to help libraries wrestle with the changing nature of library work and library collections. (A consultant recently led the Urbana Free Library staff through strategic planning discussions that some staff members perceived as hostile to books.)

The struggle is most visceral among librarians. Books are used to represent either the establishment that lets libraries wither and die while stifling all attempts at innovation, or a truculent counter-insurgency, trying to reverse progress and defend pointless work and useless piles of stuff in a misguided and self-serving rear-guard action.

The Constant Gardener

The fact is a lot of people visit their public libraries because they want to borrow books. There’s no better place to do it, and a lot of people read more books than they can afford to buy. (I’m in that category.) They use libraries for other things, too, but if you asked the general public if libraries should make books a low priority, I'm guessing the response would likely be a swift and loud “no.” Reports from the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicate a wide belief that libraries are valued in spite of being associated in the public mind with books and reading. (In fact, some librarians have criticized Pew for asking questions too focused on books and reading and the privileged class that those things represent.) The fact that lower income Americans particularly value libraries, which are more numerous than Starbucks and far more evenly distributed, tells me that we shouldn’t be so hasty with assertions that libraries are teetering on the edge of irrelevance or that books are the deadweight that will tip us right over.

The fact is, books are still useful in academic libraries. Students actually check them out, contrary to rumor, though they check out fewer than they did in the days when it was easier to find a book than article and the Internet was a weird short story by Jorge Luis Borges.That said, most academic libraries don’t need so many of them on their shelves. The useful ones would be more likely discovered if they weren’t so thoroughly outnumbered by ones that, for good reason, have not been opened since they were put on the shelf in 1954 or 1962 or 1948.

The fact is, most scholars who insist they must browse to do their research don’t actually do much browsing. That’s understandable, given that so many of them are at institutions that don’t have research libraries like the ones they used when they earned their degrees and given the imprecision of the Library of Congress call number system, which scratches its head an sighs over novel and interdisciplinary research. It doesn't help that libraries have so drastically reduced their spending on books (because their budgets are eaten by ravenous journals and databases) meaning that browsing will largely miss the new stuff, no matter where you are. Our libraries are more piecemeal than ever, though we’re pretty good at getting you what you need if you can tell us what that is. Interlibrary loan is much easier and faster than it was twenty years ago. It's no substitute for browsing, but then browsing today is no substitute for the browsing of the past, when libraries competed to have the most books and blithely built additions when space grew tight.

I just wish that we could talk about books as if they are for use, not as symbols of enduring knowledge that must be preserved against  the ravages of digital barbarians or as emblems of obdurate and blinkered resistance to inevitable change.  

I wish we’d take better care of our books. That includes thoughtful and constant weeding.  

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