NPR: Do Libraries Really Destroy Books?

Fascinating article from NPR (“Hard Choices: Do Libraries Really Destroy Books?”), that falls under the category of: “Things we may occasionally wonder about, but don’t really want to think about.”

As a self-professed book pack rat, I can sympathize with the hard task of choosing what books should be kept, and what should be discarded forever. Since libraries are constantly tasked with separating the wheat from the chaff in the face of an ever-increasing number of new books, and the demands of space, someone has to do it.

“It’s not about the destruction of books based on content or community objections; it’s about the destruction of books because libraries (and sometimes bookstores) don’t know what to do with them, or don’t know what to do with them that makes economic sense.”

Certainly, not every library can afford storage expansion projects like Oxford’s Bodleian Library (The Telegraph: “Bodleian Library expansion: so many books, so little space”) but, could digital storage eventually obviate the need for those kind of hard choices? Eventually, maybe. But for now, book digitization still costs both time and money, both of which are limited resources for libraries. Moreover, there is the point to be made that not every book is worth saving. That too is part of the function of the library — deciding upon which books should be preserved, and which shouldn’t.

Here’s a link to the surprisingly interesting article which inspired that NPR question about libraries in the first place: “6 Reasons We’re in Another Book-Burning Period in History”. Reason Number One? “The Books Are Going Digital.”

I appreciated the historical aside of the microfilm movement in the 1980s, if for no other reason than reminding us that what seems like the best new storage technology ever changes quite a bit in just a couple of decades —

“This process actually goes back about three decades — in the 1980s, it wasn’t actual digitization that was solving libraries’ space issues, but a hip new technology called microfilm. By scanning books and newspapers onto microfilm, an entire library full of books could fit into a filing cabinet.”

Reason #5 (“It’s Cheaper Than Giving Them Away”) addresses something I’ve thought about at one time or another. Donating books certainly sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice also costs both time and money. Explanation, along with with helpful zombie analogy below:

“And we’re talking about a lot of books here — these libraries are having to cut down their stock in a hurry. Imagine you’re the manager of a library, and some accountant tells you that you need to get rid of 100,000 books, and do it in a week. You really have two options. One, you can get a bunch of academics to scour your collection and painstakingly rate each book according to its value and importance. Then you can hire a bunch of people to take down the 100,000 least important books and painstakingly stamp and debug them, one by one. Your second option is to get the computer to spit out a list of the 100,000 least borrowed books, and hire a few people to walk down the aisles with their arms out, throwing those books in a shredding machine.

That second option is much quicker and much cheaper. Sometimes you can find a paper recycling centre that will pay you for the pulp, so destroying the books leads to a net profit. Nobody likes it, but for a librarian it’s like your best friend just got bitten by a zombie and you’re the only one with a gun.”

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I don’t even remember hearing about this incident regarding the previous closing of the Waldenbooks locations and the left over book inventory. Sure, it makes sense from the dollars and cents perspective, but one wonders if there’s also an element of if-nobody-wants-to-buy-them-then-nobody-can-have them. — Huffington Post: “Why Won’t Borders Donate Books Their Soon-to-be-Trashed Books?


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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