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Public Libraries, Market Preferences, and Great Books

January 8, 2007

Last week the Washington Post‘s Lisa Rein reported that D.C.-area public libraries were dumping great books based on their lack of popularity among recent readers. Branches of the Fairfax County public library system, following the example of Borders and Barnes and Noble booksellers, are now “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.” Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system since 1982, said, “We’re being very ruthless. … 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.”

If “books on tulips” were the only reading material in question, however, there would be no problem. Here’s a list of books on the chopping block (from the Post story, per Fairfax’s regional branch):

The Works of Aristotle Aristotle (Centreville)
Sexual Politics Kate Millett (Centreville)
The Great Philosophers Karl Jaspers (Centreville)
Carry Me Home Diane McWhorter (Centreville)
The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner (George Mason Regional)
The Mayor of Casterbridge Thomas Hardy (George Mason Regional)
For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway (George Mason Regional)
Desolation Angels Jack Kerouac (George Mason Regional)
Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak (George Mason Regional)
Remembrance of Things Past Marcel Proust (George Mason Regional)
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well Maya Angelou (Chantilly Regional)
The Glass Menagerie Tennessee Williams (Chantilly Regional)
Writings Gertrude Stein (Chantilly Regional)
Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte (Chantilly Regional)
Doctor Faustus Christopher Marlowe (Chantilly Regional)
Great Issues in American History Richard Hofstadter (Chantilly Regional)
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Gertrude Stein (Chantilly Regional)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Pohick Regional)
Babylon Revisited: And other stories F. Scott Fitzgerald (Reston Regional)
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee (Reston Regional)
The Aeneid Virgil (Sherwood Regional)
The Mill on the Floss George Eliot (Fairfax City Regional)

Apparently each book’s popularity is determined by a “new computer software program [that] showed that no one had checked them out in at least 24 months.” What’s news to me is that no recent philosophical ideologies – such as multiculturalism or cultural literacy – seem to be behind the cuts.

Here are some other excerpts from the story:

– “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. Everybody’s got a favorite book they’re trying to promote.'”
– “There are no national standards on weeding public library collections.”
– “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.”

An intriguing point, derived in part from Kresh’s statement above and in other passages of the story, is that public library directors now have to ask themselves some of the same questions that Britannica editors did in choosing the Great Books of the Western World: What’s going to be of lasting value to the set/library? What are the authors and books that should everyone read? What should editors/librarians promote?

Perhaps this trend toward less space for public libraries will result in specialty libraries in branch systems? Perhaps librarians, such as Kresh above, will construct holding philosophies – as opposed to the pseudo-‘democratic’ one based on popularity and advocated by Clay. What disturbs me about Clay’s system is the appearance of simply defaulting on the public library’s educational function. What is the role, the responsibility, of a public library in educating the public? Aren’t libraries the prime means of adult education in this country? Wasn’t that one of the original motivations of Andrew Carnegie in building libraries in towns across the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century? – TL

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2 Comments
  1. Your concerns are valid and I think you are correct that market forces and popularity are poor guides to determine value to society. What appears in print has always been influenced by market forces (one reason why blogs and the internet have more diversity of expression is that market forces are not right now primary in predicting what appears online – eventhough some want to change that). In a society so ruled by market forces is it any wonder why libraries too are feeling the pinch and allowing popularity to dictate collection decisions.

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  2. Mr. Storhm: Thanks for the comment. I don't mind some degree of popular concern in our public libraries: they need those materials to draw in patrons. What bothers me most about the Fairfax situation is the abdication, by some of their branches and I'm sure of others around the nation, of the library's teaching function. Part of the librarian's role is to be able to raise our capacities in learning and literary appreciation. A hierarchy of literature does exist, and librarians know this more than anyone else. If this hierarchy didn't exist, we'd all still be reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, comic books, and Anne of Green Gables. As we grow in our capacity as readers, we want to be challenged, and that challenge exists in the best books of all time. The vetting going on in Fairfax's libraries is as much a sad commentary on our lessened desire to learn as it is a capitulation to market forces. Librarians should be on the forefront of restoring our desire for challenging books, not conceding to fads, to our times. – TL

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