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Why Libraries Are Destroying Books En Masse

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 17, 2011 11:45 AM

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Writing at the pop-culture websiteCracked, librarian S. Peter Davis offers "Six Reasons Why We're In Another 'Book-Burning' Period in History." Libraries, he explains, are deluged with new books, running out of money and space, and eager to install lucrative and fun coffeeshops and lounges. As a result, they're destroying books in huge quantities -- and they must do it in secret, to avoid massive protests from professors and the public.

Official seal of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, 1873.

Public libraries, university libraries, and even Borders bookstores have opted to destroy unused or unwanted books. They do it en masse, which means that, inevitably, some especially valuable books get destroyed along with the forgotten ones. It's not just "duplicates and old TV Guides," Davis writes; "Imagine holding a beautiful, dusty, illustrated volume of Shakespeare printed in the 1700s, a calligraphic message from its long-dead owner inscribed on the inside cover, and throwing it straight in the trash." Nobody checks these old books out; library "power users" are there primarily for the journal subscriptions.

Libraries, meanwhile, must do this work in secret to prevent bibliophilic interference:

Back in 2004, Victoria University in New Zealand decided that it was going to have to destroy around 130,000 books. But they had a crisis of conscience, and revealed their plans to the academics and the student body. The idea was that they would mark the condemned books with red tape, and if anyone wanted to rescue a book, they needed simply to strike the tape with a black felt pen. Predictably... a professor sent an email around the faculty calling the library "barbarians," and he led a campaign in which staff and students went through the library armed with felt pens, searching for red tape and marking every single book for retention.

"If you notice a ton of shelves in your library suddenly empty, and they tell you the books have been sent to a warehouse, chances are they're telling you the truth," Davis explains. "But what they're not mentioning is that a hundred thousand books already in the warehouse had to be destroyed to make room for them." Completely fascinating! Much, much more here.

Further reading: Nicholson Baker on the absurd disaster that was microfilm in The Guardian; "Six Insane Foreign Memes That Put Lolcats to Shame," by S. Peter Davis.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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