Friday, January 05, 2007

On Libraries & The Classics

This is excerpted from an email I sent my friend Lisa, who asked my opinion about a recent Wall Street Journal article on collection development in public libraries. The article is from 1/3/07, titled "In the Fray: Should Libraries' Target Audience Be Cheapskates With Mass-Market Tastes?" I would link to the article, but WSJ is chintzy about putting their archives online.

Regarding the article:

My first reaction is, "this guy obviously hasn't spent much time in his local library." His overgeneralization and "the sky is falling" panicked attitude was based on the actions of one library. His complete lack of detail in the article leads me to believe that he truly does not understand what that specific library (and public libraries as a whole) is actually doing. No public collection development librarian worth her salt would pull every copy of Hemingway or Shakespeare, even if they haven't been checked out in 2 years. Perhaps she would reduce the number of copies, because lack of space is truly an issue at many libraries. I believe his theory about libraries pulling all of the classics simply because they haven't circulated is completely invalid.

He seemed out of touch with library systems - since the dawn of libraries, librarians have kept count of how many times a book has circulated. It's not as if this is a new-fangled thing with online library catalogs. That alone diminishes his credibility.

I had a discussion about this article with one of the law librarians at work. She took the side of the author, saying that taxpayers' money shouldn't pay for the entertainment of the middle class. First, the middle class aren't the only ones who take advantage of the local library. A public library is there for the community, period - rich, middle, poor. If rich people have elsewhere to spend their money than buying books off of Amazon, then good for them - they are welcome to use the library. The disadvantaged use the library as a refuge and a place of improvement - I saw many poor or immigrant people searching for jobs via internet or newspaper when they couldn't afford a computer or the 10+ copies of the Sunday newspapers. The library exists to serve all.

Just because books are more accessible than they have been throughout history doesn't mean that the average reader wants to purchase $2,400 worth of books each year. I go through 2 hardback books, at least, per week, and that's how much it would cost me. Economically speaking, libraries benefit the taxpayers because of the collective pool of money that can be used for the greater (and personal!) good. In other words, I would rather pay $300 per year in taxes as opposed to $2,400 for books.

He completely ignored that libraries are present in communities for reasons in addition to reading. Libraries are cultural hubs for concerts, presentations, and lectures. Libraries provide top-quality research through reference collections and databases. To say that they should be closed simply because they are going towards popular collections is omitting 2/3 of the services that libraries provide.

I'm so firing off a letter to the WSJ editor.