Thursday, January 04, 2007

Check it out before it's shipped out

If you're among those who still gets your books from the library, rather than shelling out money at a local bookstore, this article from Tuesday's Washington Post might break your heart.

In Virginia's Fairfax County, the public library system is clearing out a bunch of books - some of them classics - to make room for more popular titles.

So if people aren't checking certain books out - even if they were written by Faulker, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, or Angelou - they're in danger of losing their shelf space. Not only to books that suit "market preferences," but to other forms of education and entertainment, such as audio books, DVDs, and computers.

Here's the mind-set:

"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."

It's sad, but I suppose not completely surprising. After all, libraries have to do what they can to stay open, right? We'd like to believe they're here solely to provide a public service, stocking the books that everyone believes a library should hold, but if people want more copies of the latest "Harry Potter" book, what's a public library to do? We're talking about business.

I haven't worked in a bookstore in five years now, but to this day, one of the things that stays with me is the realization that people don't use libraries enough. You wouldn't believe how many people go to Barnes & Noble or Borders to research a paper, for example. Or maybe you would, and I'm the naive one.

But I will never forget a teenager looking for books on the Sioux Indians, and the exasperation from her and her mother when I said we really didn't have anything that would help. On one hand, I was a bit flattered that this girl thought I would know so much about Native American tribes off the top of my head. On the other, I was working at Barnes & Noble. Would you like a cappucino with that or are you interested in joining our members club? Kid, seriously - go to a library.

But maybe it's already too late. I don't know about you, but my soul kind of hurts right now.