Checked Out

JOHN J. MILLER

A Washington-area library tosses out the classics.


For Whom the Bell Tolls may be one of Ernest Hemingway's best-known books, but it isn't exactly flying off the shelves in northern Virginia these days. Precisely nobody has checked out a copy from the Fairfax County Public Library system in the past two years, according to a front-page story in yesterday's Washington Post.

And now the bell may toll for Hemingway. A software program developed by SirsiDynix, an Alabama-based library-technology company, informs librarians of which books are circulating and which ones aren't. If titles remain untouched for two years, they may be discarded — permanently. "We're being very ruthless," boasts library director Sam Clay.

As it happens, the ruthlessness may not ultimately extend to Hemingway's classic. For Whom the Bell Tolls could win a special reprieve, and, in the future, copies might remain available at certain branches. Yet lots of other volumes may not fare as well. Books by Charlotte Brontë, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have recently been pulled.

Library officials explain, not unreasonably, that their shelf space is limited and that they want to satisfy the demands of the public. Every unpopular book that's removed from circulation, after all, creates room for a new page-turner by John Grisham, David Baldacci, or James Patterson — the authors of the three most checked-out books in Fairfax County last month.

But this raises a fundamental question: What are libraries for? Are they cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been thought and said? Or are they more like actual stores, responding to whatever fickle taste or Mitch Albom tearjerker is all the rage at this very moment?

If the answer is the latter, then why must we have government-run libraries at all? There's a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the recreational habits of bookworms.

Fairfax County may think that condemning a few dusty old tomes allows it to keep up with the times. But perhaps it's inadvertently highlighting the fact that libraries themselves are becoming outmoded.


But this raises a fundamental question: What are libraries for? Are they cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been thought and said? Or are they more like actual stores, responding to whatever fickle taste or Mitch Albom tearjerker is all the rage at this very moment?


There was a time when virtually every library was a cultural repository holding priceless volumes. Imagine how much richer our historical and literary record would be if a single library full of unique volumes — the fabled Royal Library of Alexandria, in Egypt — had survived to the present day.

As recently as a century ago, when Andrew Carnegie was opening thousands of libraries throughout the English-speaking world, books were considerably more expensive and harder to obtain than they are right now. Carnegie always credited his success in business to the fact that he could borrow books from private libraries while he was growing up. His philanthropy meant to provide similar opportunities to later generations.

Today, however, large bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders bombard readers with an enormous range of inexpensive choices. An even greater selection is available online: Before it started selling mouthwash and power tools, Amazon.com used to advertise itself as "the world's biggest bookstore." It still probably deserves the label, even though there are now a wide variety of competing retailers. (Full disclosure: Years ago, I was a paid reviewer for Amazon.com.)

The reality is that readers have never enjoyed a bigger market for books. Shoppers can buy everything from hot-off-the-press titles in mint condition to out-of-print rarities from secondhand dealers. They can even download audiobooks to their MP3 players and listen to them while jogging or driving to work. Companies such as Google and Microsoft are promising to make enormous amounts of out-of-copyright material available to anyone with a computer and a browser.

The bottom line is that it has never been easier or cheaper to read a book, and the costs of reading probably will do nothing but drop further.

If public libraries attempt to compete in this environment, they will increasingly be seen for what Fairfax County apparently envisions them to be: welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille's newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Wal-Mart.


Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn't merely describe the words of a language — it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends.

The particulars of this task will fall upon the shoulders of individual librarians, who should welcome the opportunity to discriminate between the good and the bad, the timeless and the ephemeral, as librarians traditionally have done. They ought to regard themselves as not just experts in the arcane ways of the Dewey Decimal System, but as teachers, advisers and guardians of an intellectual inheritance.

The alternative is for them to morph into clerks who fill their shelves with whatever their "customers" want, much as stock boys at grocery stores do. Both libraries and the public, however, would be ill-served by such a Faustian bargain.

That's a reference, by the way, to one of literature's great antiheroes. Good luck finding Christopher Marlowe's play about him in a Fairfax County library: Doctor Faustus has survived for more than four centuries, but it apparently hasn't been checked out in the past 24 months.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

John J. Miller. "Checked Out." Wall Street Journal (January 3, 2007).

This article is reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal © 2007 Dow Jones & Company and from the author, John J. Miller. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

John J. Miller is National Review magazine’s National Political Reporter, based in Washington, D.C. Miller is the author of three books: A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America, Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France (co-authored by Mark Molesky), and The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined the Assimilation Ethic. In addition to National Review, he writes frequently for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The New Republic, Boston Globe, New York Post, and the New Criterion. He is a contributing editor to Philanthropy and the author of a Philanthropy Roundtable monograph, Strategic Investment in Ideas: How Two Foundations Reshaped America.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal


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