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The Great Kindle Fire

Why are America’s libraries tossing their collections?

By From the September 2013 issue

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THE AMERICAN LIBRARY Association is, as its name suggests, a professional organization for librarians and, increasingly, for the computer network administrators, social media gurus, and all-around efficiency mavens who bolster the staffs of American public and academic libraries. It is the largest and oldest group of its type, and is, to all appearances, a thoroughgoingly ordinary assembly. Members receive copies of a monthly magazine called American Libraries and are invited to purchase discounted auto and homeowners’ insurance from Geico, partake of discounted shipping rates from FedEx and discounted office supplies from OfficeMax, and rent cars at discounted rates from Avis. There is even an American Library Association Visa® Platinum Rewards Card, newly available from UMB. (The ALA credit card comes with what sound like standard Visa® Platinum benefits but across the top reads either “ALA” or “The Library Card: Get It. Use It,” whichever the cardholder prefers.) The one thing that an ALA membership does not secure for its members is a free spot at the Association’s annual conference. To receive that, one must, like yours truly, be an accredited member of the national press.

ALA 2013 took place from June 28 to July 2 at Chicago’s McCormick Place, “America’s premier convention facility” according to its website. “Facility” seems like a fudge here, a bit of smug understatement, especially to someone from the rural Midwest, where “facility” is usually employed as a genteelism for “bathroom.” The Place is more like a territorial division. If all the apartments, indeed all the apartment complexes I have ever lived in, were lined up next to one another in the McCormick’s main exhibit hall, there would probably still be room to hold an NCAA football game, a decathlon championship, and a NASCAR Sprint Cup race or two in there without any of the tenants being unduly inconvenienced. It’s the sort of chic ghetto intentionally built miles away from any reasonably inexpensive dining options, the kind of place where, having prematurely sworn myself to thrift, I always seem to end up giving in to hunger and purchasing $5 ice cream sandwiches from vending machines.

If it sounds silly to go into detail about all of this, I apologize. Dozens if not hundreds of conferences are held at McCormick Place every year, to be sure. The difference is that this one is about libraries. That, I think, is the single most striking thing about ALA: the sublime physical scale of the venue versus the sheer ordinariness of the proceedings. This, I remember saying to myself, is not ComicCon or SXSW; it’s not even the Shakespeare Association of America or the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC 2011 in Atlanta was one of the oddest weekends of my life). It’s just a bunch of markedly normal and (basically) decent people from the relatively complementary worlds of libraries and book and magazine publishing getting together; the latter convincing the former to purchase their products, the former sheepishly trying to make away with some of the world’s nerdiest swag (JSTOR bumper stickers, anyone?). Not an insignificant amount of time at ALA is given over to what, based on my visit to the Value of Academic Libraries Committee Meeting (Saturday, 8:30 a.m.), are very dull procedural affairs that remind me of attending my junior high school student council or reading in the Congressional Record the doings of the Senate Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, Poultry, Marketing and Agricultural Security.

I soon got the sense that for most of the people here, the exhibits, where booths were set up by the major trade and academic publishers, the companies that sell access to online databases, are the real draw. Walking back and forth between the exhibitors’ area and the various collections of rooms where sessions, panels, presentations, and so on were being held confirmed this suspicion. Gathered outside the doors for the official panels were mostly what looked like ALA bigwigs would look like if there were ALA bigwigs, which is to say, mostly women over 50 years of age. But the real ALA rank-and-file, the Morlocks to the panel-goers’ Eloi—graduate students wearing sun dresses or polos and khakis who looked pleased not to be working their inevitable summer jobs, chain-smoking blue-haired children’s book authoresses (one of these kindly gave me a whole book of matches), chubby bearded men in t-shirts who “do social media”—are definitely here for the exhibits. And why not? People, for reasons that not even neuroscience will ever be able furnish us with, like getting things for free. Here representatives of virtually every reputable publisher in the United States were parting with buttons, stickers, pens, tote bags, and, given the right visitor, even books.

WHICH REMINDS ME: At this gathering of a few thousand librarians, teachers, writers, publishing types, I saw surprisingly little evidence of reading taking place. With two or three exceptions—elderly women whose badges told me that they are librarians from Indiana—the only printed text I saw anyone interact with was the 308-page full-color conference guide. This also brings me to why I was there. I was trying, am in fact still trying, to understand why, with little or no visible resistance or even comment from patrons, library friends’ societies (local charities that raise funds for libraries and organize things like book signings and reading groups), school boards, members of university faculties, elected officials at the local, state, and federal government level—to say nothing of the national press—thousands of public and academic libraries across the country are all but throwing away millions of books, many of them rare, expensive, or both. Three years ago the Engineering Library at Stanford University was home to more than 80,000 volumes; it now houses fewer than 10,000. About this time last year, the South Carolina State Library unceremoniously dropped scores of thousands of books into a large dumpster-like container, graciously allowing individuals to take them out of the receptacle so long as they did not actually enter it. In a bookstore near the hotel where I stayed during the conference, I stumbled upon a large number of discards from the University of Chicago Library, among them a nearly pristine copy of the hard to track down 1967 Gollancz edition of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s Masters and Pastors, a volume I was only too happy to pocket, but which, I think, ought to have remained on the university stacks. Public and academic libraries across the country are getting rid of multi-volume reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary and the old 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia (a work as catholic in scope as it is Catholic in content) and replacing them, if at all, with digital versions in which specific entries can be looked up, but which are, in my experience anyway, hardly conducive to the sort of pleasant browsing that makes these books more than mere repositories of information. More than 11,000 public libraries now offer Kindle books to their patrons, a good example of space-saving and cost-cutting disguised as an attempt to appeal to public wishes.

I should point out before I proceed that the scope and extent of this issue did not, until very recently, become clear to me. When I was in high school, I worked at a public library where I saw a lot of what, in the professions, is sometimes called “decommissioning,” a word that suggests ancient battleships or police cruisers rather than clothbound novels missing their dust jackets and trade paperbacks with cracked spines. What it really means is giving away or tossing books that have not been checked out for a certain number of years, usually 10. Decommissioning is, of course, unavoidable in public libraries, where space is often severely limited. But under the tenure of the librarian who preceded my own supervisor, some embarrassing decommissions were said to have taken place. While I was there we purchased replacement copies of the Koran, Ulysses, Lolita, and A Clockwork Orange. In a rural Michigan town of some 3,000 people, the tossing of certain titles might be attributed to their prurient subject matter, but a stroll through the Adult Fiction, with its Grishams and Browns and Higgins Clarks, suggests otherwise.

Managing a library collection, however small, requires a sense of what matters and what does not, a perspective willing to give quarter only so often to public taste. But there is an unfortunate alliance at work in the world of libraries, a close cousin to one that exists in education, between the egalitarian left and the philistine right. These unlikely bedfellows pursue the same goals, albeit for very different reasons. To certain dogmatic free-marketers, public libraries, if we are going to have them at all—and probably, they think, we shouldn’t—ought at the very least to cater to the broadest possible audience (“More Trollope!” means Joanna not Anthony) rather than to the whims of fuddy-duddy elitist liberals like my high school librarian—a very sweet lady and, I think, a Green Party voter, with whom I had my first conversation about Dostoevsky. Meanwhile many of those same fuddy-duddy elitist liberals, though they privately enjoy their dog-eared Henry James paperbacks, are convinced that serious reading is a habit of which they ought to be ashamed, and thus, if members of the library profession, they spend much of their time combing through Publishers Weekly in search of so-called “young adult” fiction and graphic novels (picture books for grown-ups) in order to entice adolescents. None of them seem to realize that the long-established trajectory for the teenage consumer of bad genre fiction—today’s graphic novel fan—is that of the speaker in Philip Larkin’s poem “A Study of Reading Habits,” who, after idling away the hours with horror novels and low-rent mysteries (including some distinctly smutty-sounding stuff), eventually concludes that “Books are a load of crap” and more or less gives up on the written word. All of this should be borne in mind before one credulously accepts the results of various widely trumpeted surveys purporting to tell us how much teenagers are reading: Ask these kids the same questions again in 10 or 15 years, and their answers are likely to be only slightly less disheartening than the “Get stewed” of Larkin’s reader emeritus.

NEEDLESS TO SAY, libraries are changing. Many are no longer calling themselves libraries at all but rather things like “centers of digital inclusivity,” a cant phrase that means “places where people use computers free of charge, often to fill out forms necessary for acquiring various forms of public assistance.” Others, with all those boring old books out of the way, are filling their newfound space with video games. At the library of the University of California, Santa Cruz, patrons can check out titles for the following devices as well as the devices themselves: Atari, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Nintendo GameCube, Nintendo Gameboy Dual-Screen, Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 1, 2, and 3 (a Japanese version of the PlayStation 2 is also available for the benefit of multilingual video gamers), Sega Genesis, Xbox, and Xbox 360. I’m trying to imagine what valuable research—into sociology perhaps?—is being conducted thanks to this impressive collection, but for whatever reason I have a hard time envisioning anything happening save what usually happens when twenty-somethings sit around playing video games: nothing. Even where The Legend of Zelda is not replacing biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald, academic library shelves at, for example, Northern Michigan University, my alma mater, are being emptied and hauled out to make room for “study space,” which in practice usually means places where students eat, drink, fiddle with their smartphones, and do everything but “study.” (What, one wonders, are they supposed to be studying anyway, with all those books gone?)

To some extent, changes like those I’ve just described in the world of libraries are taking place alongside similar, which is to say, similarly disconcerting, changes in education. As you read this, hundreds of students enrolled in freshman composition are sitting not in lecture halls but in their dormitories or apartments interacting with their instructors and classmates via the popular online fantasy game World of Warcraft. I have been solemnly assured by more than one teacher of college writing that making YouTube videos is a form of “composition” as surely as is crafting personal or literary essays. One woman of my acquaintance showed her students episodes of reality television programs, which she lauded for their “rhetorical” value. When 18-year-olds are being taught how best to avoid dangling modifiers while pretending to be elves and goblins, and Keeping Up With the Kardashians is an acceptable substitute for the essays of Addison and Swift, what hope is there that all three volumes of Harold Nicolson’s Diaries and Letters will remain on the shelves anywhere?

I ASKED SOME of the librarians—the ordinary, decent types mentioned earlier—whom I met at the conference for more information about the criteria they used to determine which books stayed and which ones went. I was told that, in addition to the time element mentioned earlier, books are often given away if multiple libraries in the state have copies of them. This struck me as very odd, for, taken to its logical conclusion, it would lead to libraries pitching Dickens. Every library has a copy of Oliver Twist, so perhaps no library should have one. Anyone who wants to can read it for free on Project Gutenberg or onlineliterature.com or download from Amazon one of several free Kindle versions, a point that was made to me more than once when I mentioned the potential consequences of their line of reasoning. I also asked whether there was not something amusing if not perhaps even hypocritical about the fact that the same people who assure us that the library collections with which they’ve been entrusted need no longer contain print editions of, say, The Cambridge History of English and American Literature receiving print copies of a conference guide that will be totally useless except as a tawdry souvenir in only a few days’ time. To this my auditors tended to respond with a shrug.

The other main reason that libraries get rid of old books is, as one might expect, in order to make room for new ones. Here facts must be faced. Over 300,000 books were published last year in the United States, a figure into which life was breathed as I visited the booths of the various publishers, the same publishers who send me five or so of these books at home every week and many, many more at my office. It is simply not possible for a library—in fact most libraries—to purchase all of the worthwhile ones without exhausting its annual budget, much less its available shelf space. Protestations about space were made to me by public and academic librarians alike. Reasonable enough, were it not for the fact that around 80 percent of new books are rubbish: popular children’s, self-help, and celebrity and political (not to repeat myself) memoir titles, textbooks in marketing and sociology, and pseudo-academic works in such non-fields as queer theory and post-colonial studies should not be displacing printed dictionaries and encyclopedias.

My fieldwork was not concentrated solely upon librarians. I also spoke informally with a man, whom, for his own sake, I shall call “Tim,” employed by Better World Books, a for-profit corporation—not, as even many librarians seem to think, a 501(c)(3) charity—that pays the shipping costs for libraries engaged in what he called “weeding”; the “weeded” titles go to his company, which in turn sells them through online retailers such as Amazon and on its own website. A percentage of the profits from Better World Books’ sales go to charity; hardly, in the history of corporate America, a unique arrangement, but one that seems to have captured the hearts and minds of thousands of American librarians, who now see the company as an integral part of their operation, on par with book distributors and the firms that sell 3M™ Tattle-Tape. By no means an unsympathetic character, Tim nevertheless seemed quite lost when I attempted to explain some of my concerns to him. I asked him whether Better World Books caused or merely facilitated decommissioning:

“No, we are not the impetus, if that’s what you mean,” he said.

Rephrasing my question slightly, I asked him whether he thought that libraries who worked with Better World Books disposed of more books than those that got rid of discarded volumes exclusively via sales organized by their friends organizations.

“Well, we help to facilitate the process, so someone might say to herself, ‘Yeah, we could do a bit more weeding.’”

When he used the word “weeding” for the second time, I could not help thinking that it was an odd, if, for someone in his position, understandably obscure way of referring to the process of giving away valuable books purchased with taxpayer or donor funds to a corporation that sells them at the kind of prices usually associated with mafiosos unloading cigarettes from hijacked trucks. Its connotations are, I think, a bit nasty, almost suggesting that old Compton-Burnett novels are unsightly green things edging out Participatory Activist Research in the Globalised World: Social Change Through the Cultural Professions in the primordial competition for light and water.

More reasonable even than Tim was Rodrigue Gauvin, a former ProQuest employee with whom, on my last day at the conference, I discussed the digitalization of periodicals. I had missed my commuter train and, having decided to take a cab instead, found myself standing next to a man wearing a conference badge. He also had not made it in time and asked me whether I would like to share a ride with him. I agreed, and no sooner had we sat down than he began to ask me what had brought me to ALA. I told him about my project and, when I learned what he did for a living, felt like a bit of a jerk for having explained my feelings in somewhat harsh terms. But Rodrigue was a straight shooter. He talked to me about the process of microfilming the New York Times, from the first issue up to the then-present. Now ProQuest is of course better known for its web databases. Gauvin expressed certain regrets about the loss of vintage advertisements in plain text versions of newspaper articles. These ads, he said, were an important part of American culture. I agreed with him, but said that I was more concerned about books being dumped outright. Just before we stepped out of the cab he said, “It is a shame, isn’t it?”

Perhaps I am the wrong person to comment on all of this. Three years ago a Kindle was purchased for me as a present. I tried to read one novel on it, Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog, in PDF form. (I found the PDF online because I have never and, I think, will never be persuaded that paying money for a few megabytes of data, whether that data is meant to be played out of my tinny Mac speakers or read on a portable screen, is anything but bonkers.) I didn’t get on with it, and to this day I find myself wondering whether Amis’s 10th novel was really the stinker that Tibor Fischer and others declared it, or whether, perhaps, it was just the Kindle itself that made slogging through 352 digi-pages such a tedious affair. It’s no use claiming that I was simply using a now outdated device, that if I’d been using a Kindle Thunderstorm 7.5 as opposed to a Kindle Raincloud 1.0, I’d have been much happier. I must say I’m amazed that more people do not seem to have caught on to the fact that printing and binding books is expensive, whereas turning them into digital files is not; that e-books do nothing but increase the bottom line of publishers; and that when you buy Pale Fire (only $11.99!) in Kindle format, you’re really just paying Vintage to deprive you of the pleasure of handling books.

Maybe this is really just a question of upbringing, of my own peculiar sensibilities. The first books that I remember reading, mostly mass market paperbacks, had originally been my mother’s when she was a girl. These were not picture books; neither were they, with a few exceptions, quite serious literature: Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, selections from Beverly Cleary’s Quimby cycle, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Some of these I still own; most I do not. I am lucky to have any of them, given their mediocre quality as physical objects. Mawkish or not, I intend for my daughters and sons to read my books someday. All of which is a long way of saying that a world in which a visit to the local library involves staring at an endless line of little rectangular screens rather than pulling volume after volume down from the rows of shelves will be, for me anyway, a rather sadder one than that which I currently inhabit. I don’t want to hunch over .mobi files. I don’t want to handle touch-screens. (Lord knows it’s bad enough having to write on a computer.) Let’s hope I’m not forced to. 

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About the Author

Matthew Walther is assistant editor of The American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator (London), National Review, the American Conservative, the Daily Beast, the Salisbury Review (where he writes the quarterly "Letter From America" column), First ThingsTouchstoneProspect, Quadrant, the Millions, the Washington Times, and other publications.