The Sacking and Looting of Modern Libraries

I routinely order from ABE Books, an online database of used book dealers owned by Amazon.  More and more, the used books I get in the mail are former library books.   Recently I ordered 11 books on 19th century Boston and several of them have been culled from libraries around the country.  This is tremendously sad, much like the burning of the library at Alexandria in classical times.


Now I’m not saying people are stealing library books and selling them, although this does happen.  No, librarians are going through their collections and pulling titles that seldom get checked out and selling them.  They are thinning their shelves to make room for newer books.  Many of these ex-library books have the official word DISCARDED stamped on the inside.

Today I got a book The Legacy of Josiah Johnson Hawes: 19th Century Photographs of Boston edited by Rachel Johnston Homer.  It’s a discard from the Los Angels County Public Library that was first published in 1972, and has 5 returned date stamps:  Jul 10, 74, May 28, 1976, Oct 27, 1981, Jul 26, 1989, Aug 8, 1989.  There’s no telling when it was actually discarded, but that possibly means it’s been 23 years since someone has wanted this book.  It never was a popular book, but is that any reason to remove it from the library?  It has photographs of old Boston that few people will ever see, making it a treasure.

Libraries should be repositories of knowledge.  People complain that the Internet is no substitute for libraries, but have libraries given up?  Has the Internet replaced libraries?  I used to work in the Periodicals Department of a university library back in the 1980s and it had a staff of about 15 people.  There was also a Microforms Department that had a slightly smaller staff.  Both departments were always swamped with students doing their assignments which required looking up articles in bound and loose periodicals, newspapers, or from microfilm.  Today both of those departments are without staff, and are self-service with a little help from Reference because there’s no demand.  Students do their research online.

I’ve always been proud of Memphis Public Library’s collection of science fiction at the main branch.  It has several ranges of hardback science fiction, but the other day I went to their Friends of the Library book sale, and found several of those books pulled from the collection and for sale.  I bought The Humanoids by Jack Williamson and The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee.  (Is this anti-robot sentiment?)

I always thought the Memphis Public Library SF collection was preserving a historical record of science fiction for future generations.  I guess not.

If libraries aren’t storehouses of knowledge, then where does the task go?  What if civilization collapses?

I can do a fair amount of research on the Internet, but copyright and paywalls keep me from seeing most serious content.  It used to be if you wanted to know something you went to the library.  What if what you want to know is no longer there?

JWH – 6/2/12


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