While the stone tablet went out of vogue some time ago, printed matter retains an almost mystical sense of permanence for some people. Up until the last few years, people even saw books with the same reverence they have for the Internet: if it's in a book, it's got to be true.*
Writing a book carries a sense of accomplishment that people often describe with the language of giving birth - look what I did! That's a little part of me, unleashed upon the world! We even try to nurture in our young a sense of wonder and awe for printed matter so they won't grow up to be thick and illiterate - a kind of Reading Rainbow mythology. Books are wonderful! All kinds of books! Books hold wonderful, magical worlds of surprise and joy!
Of course, like everything else beautiful and innocent, this mythology gets deconstructed in the cold, hard world of the academy. Eventually all who walk these hallowed halls must learn the terrible truth: not all books are really Worth Something. That molding, discombobulated text about cancer treatments, published in 1913? It has no academic value to our institution, since we don't have any medical history doctoral programs. It's worthless as an antique, since it's falling apart and gross. We must dispose of it. Here's a hardcover thriller from 1995 somebody dropped off. We already have a copy in the stacks, and the 112 copies of it on offer at Half.com are listed at $1 each. We just need to get it out of the way.
Here's the problem: because of this strange reverence for the written word - any written word - getting rid of a useless book is like hiding the bodies in your backyard. If anybody sees you disposing of it, you're in deep trouble. The general reading (or non-reading) public is horrified that a librarian would destroy any book that retains 65% of its pages. "Hitler burned books," they are quick to accuse. It doesn't matter that Hitler burned important books by prominent Jewish scientists, and that I'm throwing away a dog-eared John Grisham paperback with water damage. Hitler burned books, I'm throwing books away: we're pretty much the same person.
Our library doesn't have as many volumes as we'd like. I imagine that this is true for any library with a book-buying budget, instead of say, a book maintenance budget, or a candy bowl budget. If people see me getting rid of a set of World Book Encyclopedias that contain the most up-to-date articles on trade between Rhodesia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, they will say, "We don't have enough books as it is, and they're just throwing them away!" It doesn't matter that it's a 1978 textbook on building circuits that happens to be written in Esperanto. What matters is that I'm "throwing away" books, as if all books were equally valuable. It's a really quick way to get called a Nazi, one way or another. Most academic libraries never accept donations in order to avoid the difficulty of disposing of books they can't use. Our institution gladly and gratefully accepts donations, in the case of items like the ones I've mentioned, it raises the problem of getting rid of the bodies. It has to happen under the cover of night, with no witnesses.
Heaven help you if you stumble upon a librarian in the woods with a shovel. I promise you that only one of you will walk back down the mountain.
*Whenever I want to convince our housecat of the veracity of my arguments, I tell him I read it in a book. He can't read, so he always believes me. Makes me feel a little bit like a jerk, though.
feeling the feelings…
10 months ago