Libraries, leave those books alone, by Ali Bacon

A keeper
I’ve never been one of those who ‘can’t bear to throw away a book.’ At one time it did go against the grain, because in my childhood books were treasures per se. We had lots at home, none were ever discarded, and quite a few of them have graduated to family heirlooms. But these days I keep a new book for a while, then, unless I’ve formed a particular attachment to it (a not unusual occurrence!) or think I might reread it or recommend it to a friend, out it goes.

I think this pragmatic approach stems from my career in university and college libraries, where weeding outdated material was a vital part of making room for new stock and the sight of an eager student or parent arriving with an armful of donations they couldn’t bear to chuck out was rarely a matter for rejoicing. (I also had feverish teachers noticing books in the skip and bringing them back to me. And yes, we had looked at every possible option for passing them on elsewhere, but really who needs an out of date textbook?) So I’m unsentimental about books. But I’m a private citizen. My collection is governed by my own taste and resources. Anyway, if I need that book again, I can always get it from the library. Or can I?  

A couple of weeks ago, Birmingham announced a moratorium on book-buying, apparently because it has thrown too much money at its new Library of Birmingham building.  I’ve certainly experienced the occasional freeze on purchasing, but in one of our biggest library authorities? Surely something has gone badly wrong.

The new Library of Birmingham. (*see credit)
It’s not that I object to libraries being centres for other activities, so I’m happy that LoB (strapline ‘Rewriting the book’) can offer a Google Digital Garage and Afternoon Tea for two, especially if they rake in some income, but it would be good to think that these are add-ons, not replacements for offering kids and grown-ups who don’t have digital media (or the money to visit a bookshop) access to the yet-to-be-bettered technology of the physical book.  

Of course it’s not just Birmingham. From the noughties onwards libraries have been fighting to maintain their identity in new partnerships.some of which work better than others. South Glos libraries come under the umbrella brand of of Active Leisure. This has its advantages.  Bradley Stoke Library benefits from being next door to the leisure centre (that is swimming pool and sports halls, in case we’ve forgotten that bit of newspeak) and where I live the small branch library is an important community resource where all kinds of things go on including a Memory Café for dementia sufferers, craft groups and, yes, book clubs.

But I sometimes wonder as I browse the fiction section how limited the book stock is becoming.  Even books by mainstream authors have to be ordered up from elsewhere in the region, and as for classics, if you decide it’s time you got down to Dickens, Hardy or Trollope, you’ll be lucky to find much of a choice. And I’ve just been on a trip to Springfield Community Campus in Corsham (details of upcoming book salehere), which turns out to comprise, yes, library and leisure centre.  ‘Campus,’ if slightly misleading to my literal mind, at least buys into the idea of learning, and it’s all in a spanking new building. But as my companion remarked as we cast a wistful eye over the colourful displays of videos and magazines, ‘there aren’t actually that many books here, are there?’

And finally
Bristol Reference Library. Worth preserving.
After a bit of a rumpus, the historic Bristol Central Library has leased its basement floor to Bristol Cathedral School who are going to convert it into their primary department, thus ensuring this great old building will survive a while longer. But what about the cost in terms of books? The second-handbook sale is already under way. I admit to feeling a chill run along my spine. I’m sure I can trust the library professionals not to chuck out anything valuable. But something doesn’t feel quite right. Apart from anything else, quite a few of the library requests I've made this year (none of them particularly obscure) had the location ‘Bristol Central Store.’ How many of them will find their way to the new bookstore and how many deemed surplus to requirements? But never mind me. I can sort myself out. I'm more worried for those who can't. 

Library usage has certainly dropped off, but does that mean we don’t need libraries? I don’t think so, and I don’t just mean they should persist as online learning centres or the social spaces which many of them have become. The internet is a wonderful thing, but e-technology is a largely unknown quantity. For many people books are the preferred medium for reading and learning. So why should we persuade them out of their allegiance to something that has worked for centuries? And there will be people out there of all ages, tech-savvy or otherwise - who have still to discover how books can transform their lives. It’s not going to happen if these people are never exposed to the kind of library experience we used to take for granted.
Yes, I’m talking books.
Rewrite them by all means, but don’t throw them all away.  

*Picture credit. The Library of Birmingham by Peter Broster on Flickr. (Creative Commons License)


Wendy H. Jones said…
I knew library usage and fallen but I didn't realize to what extent.mthis is a worrying trend that libraries no longer see books as there care business
AliB said…
Hi Wendy
In a way it hasn't worried me up to now, I was always concerned that libraries should stay at the forefront of technology, bring in new customers etc, but now I am beginning to worry ...
I should also have included this link to the Birmingham story
Very thought provoking post. Sadly - and although one of my close friends is a librarian - neither of us trusts library professionals not to throw out anything valuable. I agree about elderly and battered textbooks of course. But I know one university campus that had a potentially valuable collection of 19th century books on local history including full sets of old statistical accounts for the county. Inexplicably, when the library was revamped, none of these was weeded out and sent to the local saleroom where they could have brought in much needed funds. There were antiquarian books, rare reference books. A quick google could have revealed which books were reasonably valuable and which weren't, but I assume nobody had the time. Volunteers could have been called in. I'd have helped! The books were left in a room where people on campus could help themselves. Some were rescued by people like me - our minister's garden fete had a very interesting book stall that year - but the rest were sent to landfill. And I've heard credible stories about another library where books that should have been instantly recognisable as valuable were let go for pennies and then sold on for hundreds and in a couple of cases thousands of pounds. The libraries of my childhood were genuinely serendipitous places. Much of my interest in local history has come from browsing them and finding interesting old books. Now, of course, it's much easier to do it all instantly, online. So I do find myself wondering sometimes - heretically, I know, and against all my own instincts - if we are Luddites and libraries are places that have had their day. I don't want to think so. And I think school libraries are very important indeed. But sometimes I can't help wondering!
Penny Dolan said…
I'm sure many "historical" books are discarded in this way. A collection of early children's literature was displayed at my local library. During the big refurbishment, these books were boxed up, sent to the county bookstore and are now untraceable.
Another problem is that the books there are general books. If you want to read a book that is at all academic in focus (eg.Prue Goodwin's book on reading, or Dr C. Butler on fantasy in literature) they are just "not purchased" any more. In addition, the inter-library lending system has broken down, so you can't even - as an ordinary person - request such titles. (I'm not sure if that's also because student libraries are becoming digital so they don't have the books either!) Right now, the effects of the library cuts do seem grievously damaging - especially in the libraries & leisure centres you've mentioned.
Unknown said…
Library use isn't quite down and out yet. This has been very popular on Twitter in the last few days:
Lydia Bennet said…
Most of the new partnerships running libraries is because the local authority has withdrawn all funding, in a case local to me, in the hope of flogging off the land they stand on to building companies - I was involved with the fight to save ten branches threatened with closure, and because of the publicity and all those involved, most of them are still libraries but run by either volunteers or these partnerships - far from ideal but at least they are still there and can be re-ignited at a future date, which would not be the case if they'd turned into flats. Libraries are still needed and still used but as branches close, it's harder for unaccompanied children and older or disabled adults to reach one.
Dennis Hamley said…
As Penny Dolan will well remember, twenty years ago we worked in a place which had a school library service which was second to none in the country and probably in the world. Where is it now? Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold. This thread has brought dismal musings to me as I realise that my 40-year career in Education has as much relevance now as if I were a a cooper or a fletcher.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Meet Author Virginia Watts, a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award, and Find Out How She Does What She Does

Last Chapter?

I Wish I May, I wish I Might... Understand What These Writers Are Saying says Griselda Heppel

As Time Goes By