Friday, January 29, 2010

Libraries Dumping Books!

Some Real "Books and Biblios"

The final resting place for some of our theological library's collections came one fine mid-winter morning, in the shape of garbage containers and giant metal waste bins. Now I must admit from the start that this will be a difficult piece to write, because it is something that I am personally not in agreement with, philosophically. But it is part of my job, and that makes for fun biblio-dilemmas. One might accuse the author of being "too attached" to books in general, which may have some truth to it, but to amplify the destruction of books, or libricide as some scholars have called it, is a difficult thing to witness as a bibliophile. More difficult is the required participation in such an activity. But for some, it is all in a day's work. That's what we do as library professionals: we weed, we sell and distribute, and the rest, we throw out. I know this will irk some of you out there, as it does me to some extent. But we will explore this issue further in this blog. Of course, I had to begin with these four volumes of "Biblio" to accent the moniker of the blog: a shame, these "biblios" gone to the wasteland.

Well, most of this sort of book-tossing begins with the weeding process, which as some of you might know, is in full swing, and has been for a while. We are preparing for a sizable retro-con project in coming years, so we need to cut down the collection, to its elemental forms. This means that areas or disciplines, which may seemingly be out of the ken of theological education, are more likely to be targeted for the dumpsters. Such was the case with many of the areas of political science, sociology, and political philosophy. Though, some might make the argument that this should not be the case, because these three areas DO in fact have a great significance in the field of theology. It's all relative though. And when it comes down to space, resources, and finance, difficult decisions must be made regarding seemingly "good" books--but the "useful" question comes into play, and it is harder to make the case to save such "good" books.

The process usually involves a good portion of the staff--we de-select books and then consult one another. We do "second passes," to see if we are on target with our de-selections. Then the catalogers sweep through behind us, collecting the de-selected books. They go through the process of un-cataloging the books; crossing out the call numbers and marking the volumes with "WITHDRAWN" stamps, usually with the help of some industrious student workers. Depending on the books, shelf list cards are pulled--we still have a partial card catalog! Admittedly, I don't have much involvement in this part of the process, so I cannot speak to it in full accuracy or detail. But this is the general description of tasks that are undertaken. Before we get to the final "dumping" stage, as we see in the image above, there is a process where the library tries to sell or give away books to used book shops or other organizations, who re-distribute the books to groups, who might use the books--usually at seminaries or theological schools in other countries.

Hundreds, if not thousands of books are given away like this each year. But we cannot get rid of all of them, and they end up languishing on shelves, abandoned, orphaned books. There is a certain sadness about this, but not much can be done, even simply to give them away. Students, especially in Hyde Park, have too many books cluttering their overwrought shelves already. They have too much to read for classes and for papers. Even good books are hard to get rid of in this neighborhood, partly because everyone has them already. I think there is a general sense of what constitutes "the Hyde Park Bookshelf," meaning "that which every good Hyde Parker has, or ought to have!--especially if they are UC grads--and this usually covers everything from The Wealth of Nations to Plato's Dialogues or Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.

So, if you have so many "good books" floating around, imagine how hard it is to get rid of so many average or sub-par volumes! I'm not saying that we're getting rid of sub-par volumes, per se, but there are quite a few in there. As you can see, from some of these photos, there are signs reading "DUMPSTER." It is a hard fact to swallow for bibliophiles like me. I don't like seeing anything resembling a waste bucket near books. Books don't belong in garbage cans or in dumpsters, they belong on shelves, in people's homes, on tables (well, some tables), in libraries, everywhere else in society, but in dumpsters!? One of the things I kept thinking about as we were collecting these books from the shelves, throwing them into movable garbage bins with wheels, and pushing them out to the bigger dumpsters through a modest snow falling that morning was..."why couldn't we have given these to someone?" I think I've already answered this above, but it still is something that eats away at my idea of book responsibility. If you have something, which is of some value, why waste it?

Obviously, there are many obstacles to overcome this question: the "someone else" who might be able to use these materials might simply be too far away, in a new seminary in Ghana, for example. The costs may be prohibitive to transport. Otherwise, the materials are not relevant even to those seminaries or seminarians in another country. Some have argued "why give away our junk to someone else?"--presuming it's junk! But perhaps the more salient issue is "what is happening in other libraries?" One can be certain that books are being thrown out at sizable rates. Others might call these "alarming" rates, but the fact is that more books are being published each year, and room needs to be made for incoming volumes, new ideas, (or even, old re-hashed ideas!) Whatever the case may be, here we have just one "mass dumping" of books. Take it in as you may. As I've noted earlier, I didn't want to be part of this exercise, but was pulled into it by the eager staff, wanting to get the job done quickly. It felt rather odd, in some respects, like we were doing something unnatural, even hostile: librarians tossing out old books of theology, philosophy, sociology, and political economy?

With my own interests and research of the book as symbol in society, it was difficult for me to see such images: it only made me think that the books were being "deported." When someone considers books to be extensions of ourselves and society, the idea of ridding oneself of those extensions, book-bodies, and corporeality seems absurd. But both the absurd and real abound in our world: dumping books is still a question of one's perception of the circumstances, and sometimes needs to be done.

"The Happy Librarian Doing a Book Toss!"

"Seminary Stalinism!"

Even with books like these on out-of-date communism scholarship being thrown out, I felt like I'd committed some sort of "informational war crime," and should be hiding from the Librarians' Hague! Our director commented that one of the reasons there were so many books on communism, and more precisely, "anti-communism," was because one of the former faculty members, the Syriac scholar Arthur Voobus (pron. VOY-bus), was from the Baltics; he came to the US sometime after the Second World War, and had experienced the cruelties of the Soviet Regime over the Baltics. He was virulently anti-communist, and it is very likely that his tenure on the faculty prompted the school to purchase oodles of anti-communist literature, itself a valuable historiographic tool for the study of that literature at that time. But alas, these books are no longer. They've been sent to their own gulags, somewhere in the moist earth of an Illinois landfill.

Books which were headed to the dumpster included:

Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Machiavelli, The Prince (several copies)
Ch'ien Tuan-sheng, Government and Politics of China, 1912-1949
Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism
History of Chinese Civil War
French Historiography from Ancien Regime

and many more...

I must admit that I saved some of these (but not all!) from the dumpster, as I could not bring myself to toss such gems of the intellectual canon into the nothingness that they were being consigned to.

This work, "The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia," from around 1904 was among the larger and older books that were trashed. I took some photos of the book plates, imprints, and primary ownership mark. I don't know who Andrew Smith of Wilmington, N.C. was. I'm not sure we ever will. All we know is that he lived more than a century ago, and had some connection to the Lutheran Seminary in Chicago. His former books, as well as his finely penciled name are no more.

Below are images from inside of these massive volumes. As I had finished my morning's work, I couldn't help but notice the magnificent images between the pages of the giant Cyclopedia. So I went and took photos of the more interesting, the more curious ones...

By shelf space, somewhere around 1,000 books went to their ends that day. I looked over the massive dumpsters adjacent to the seminary's parking lot--they were filled to the brim, each one of them, with the remnants of old information. I will not say "lost information," because presumably our controls should have made sure that our library did not carry "the very last copy on the planet." But there is a sense of loss among the images of human creation, which held fast for at least a century in and on the old shelves of the seminary. I look at these lithograph cuts of the old miner, the Linsang, or the swift, and I wonder what value these had...or could have had for re-use, maybe for some art project. I now know what a Cerberus is (see below), only because I was dumping books too. And yet, I wonder if that knowledge is worth it?



    I am angry and saddened. WHY is this library doing this???????????

  2. The lithographs are truly extraordinary! They should NEVER, NEVER have been thrown out!

    I'll take them and care for them....

  3. Honestly, the sight of those dumpsters make me sick! What the heck is your library doing? Who gave these orders? This is outrageous.

  4. End libricide NOW!

  5. Hello,

    Please explain to the reader the protocol used in the culling process.

    Also, why is this taking place at this time?

    This is a sad commentary.

  6. Here is an idea:

    Create a BOOK ORPHANAGE.

    Adoptions will be considered to qualified persons only.

  7. Open a cafe with reading area. Serve up some home baked goodies, specialty teas and coffee and provide reading material culled from your library.

    Guaranteed success!

  8. All I can say is "one mans trash is another mans treasure."

    Wow, it is unbelievable! This would make one never want to donate to a library. What is safe anymore?