The Nation's Pulse

Purging the Classics From the Local Library

Virginia's wealthy Fairfax Country welcomes in the Dark Ages.

By 1.3.07

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My mother never had the opportunity to attend college. Yet, on her nightstand, next to her bed, could always be found books by the likes of a Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis, or Robert Louis Stevenson. The product of parochial schools and an America that still treasured high-quality literature, my mother breathed the healthy air of culture not yet polluted by the corrosive effects of the radicalism of the 1960s, rampant egalitarianism, consumerism, or postmodernism.

My mother's literary tastes, an inheritance, really, of the society into which she was born and raised, came to mind as I read of the purging of the literary classics by the public libraries in one of America's wealthiest counties, Fairfax, Virginia.

Evidently, the librarians in Fairfax County have adopted some hard-nosed marketing practices to give the customers want they want -- or at least get rid of the titles they don't want.

"We're being very ruthless," said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system. "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."

Tulips? The list of potential casualties of this new approach appears to be a bit more shocking than obscure technical references. The Fairfax libraries are now using new computer software programs to identify titles that have not been checked out in 24 months. Victims, to date, include the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln, The Education of Henry Adams, poems of Emily Dickinson, and, according to the Washington Post's Lisa Rein, "thousands of novels and nonfiction works" that were swept up in the computer vacuuming.

Other books that have been "weeded" from the shelves of various branches of the Fairfax County Public Library system or haven't been checked out in 24 months and could be discarded include: The Works of Aristotle, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.

Other selections expunged from various branch libraries are Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and Virgil's The Aeneid.

Among the more contemporary authors excluded from some libraries are the likes of Kate Millett, Jack Kerouac, and Maya Angelou.

The top 25 books checked out in December, from Fairfax County libraries, were best-sellers by John Grisham, David Baldacci, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, Stephen King and Alice McDermott, among others. Most are entertaining, but only a few will be considered classics in 25 years.

For now, at least, library officials claim they will "always" stock Shakespeare's plays, The Great Gatsby and other venerable titles. Moreover, they claim that excluding one title from one branch still allows a prospective reader to get that title from another branch where it might still be on the shelves.

"As books on tape, DVDs, computers and other electronic equipment crowd into branches, there is less room for plain old books," says Rein. Moreover, the two-year threshold for book disposal was prompted by a $2 million cut to the library system's budget for books and materials as well as the demand for computers, meeting space and story hours that shortchanges, well, books.

Each branch librarian receives a data printout each month, including every title that has not circulated in the previous 24 months. The librarian has the discretion to either keep or dispose of the low-demand books as long as he or she meets certain targets. "What comes in is based on what goes out," says Julie Pringle collection manager for the Fairfax Public Library system.

This is all very appalling for bibliophiles. True, there are always financial realities that must be recognized. However, the Fairfax system is the largest in Virginia. Its FY 2006 budget was over $29 million with a cost per taxpayer of only $26.80.

Still, do we really want to sacrifice any kind of cultural or literary stewardship on the part of the librarians in order to give teenagers another place to surf the Internet or offer the latest John Grisham novel? Is it worth sacrificing cultivated judgments in these literary matters to a computer program? Maybe, it is all becoming a bit too democratic for our own good.

We have come a long way from those dedicated monks who tirelessly copied the great works of antiquity to save them from the barbarian hordes for the sake of future generations. Welcome to Fairfax County and the new Dark Age.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.