BELLWETHER, LIBRARY CULLING, AND SAVING THE BOOKS WE LOVE

In my short novel, BELLWETHER, my heroine Sandra made a practice of checking out her favorite books and the classics to keep them from being summarily discarded by the public library. I did that because I’d had a terrible experience with my own library, who I caught throwing out their entire set of Beany Malone books.

“What are you doing?” I said, horrified. “Those are by Lenora Mattingly Weber, one of Colorado’s best writers. A whole generation of girls grew up on the Beany Malone books. They’re classics.”

“Nobody checked them out,” the librarian explained. “If a book hasn’t been checked out in a year, it gets discarded and put in the library book sale.”

Where if it doesn’t sell, it gets taken to the landfill, she should have added. And it doesn’t matter if the book’s a bestseller or a classic of literature. (If you don’t believe me, go to your local library and try looking for MOBY DICK. Or Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN. Or THREE MEN IN A BOAT.

Or a copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE COMING OF THE FAIRIES, with the original photos taken of the Cottingley fairies (or some fairy paper dolls) by the little girls. My library got rid of that, too, even though it sells for upwards of eight hundred dollars on AbeBooks. “Nobody wanted to read it,” the librarian explained.

“And now nobody will ever get the chance to because IT’S NOT HERE,” I said and tried to explain that I frequently used books for research in the library, so just because they weren’t being checked out didn’t mean people weren’t reading them, but to no avail. So I started making sure I checked out books I wanted the library to keep and ranted about the problem in BELLWETHER, and over the years a lot of people (including librarians) have told me they did the same thing.

Librarians throwing out books is bad enough, but now apparently it’s reached a whole new level, and it’s not just librarians doing it, it’s computer algorithms that automatically select books to be discarded. And things have gotten so bad that one librarian (and possibly more) created a fake library card user to check out and protect books like John Steinbeck’s CANNERY ROW from automatic culling:

http://boingboing.net/…/02/automated-book-culling-softwar.h…

According to the ORLANDO SENTINEL, the librarian’s been placed on administrative leave and may lose his job over it. He’s called it “an overreaction to an action that had only one purpose, and that was to save items for potential patrons’ use.”

I say it’s a disgrace. Books aren’t cans of soup with expiration dates, and the decision to dump (and destroy) them should be made by human beings who use some other standard than how often they’re checked out. And don’t give me some nonsense about libraries having to “be responsive to patrons’ needs.” They’re also supposed to be archives of literature and history. When I was growing up, I owned no books and was completely dependent on my public library–if they didn’t have a book, I couldn’t read it. Luckily, they had LITTLE WOMEN and A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE and THREE MEN IN A BOAT and Frost’s and Sandburg’s and Sarah Teasdale’s poems, all of which would no doubt have been dumped by an algorithm.

The librarian who created the fake reader needs to be defended. And people need to complain to their local libraries and demand they use a reasonable standard for culling books. Plus, they need to go check out their favorite books to make sure they’re there for the next reader.

Connie Willis

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