Are Libraries The Same As Book Stores?

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported on the efforts of the Fairfax County public libraries to create shelf room for best sellers by culling out the classics that have received little attention. Research on the library computer system reported on titles that had not been loaned to readers in over two years, but among those titles are classics of literature and letters:

You can’t find “Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings” at the Pohick Regional Library anymore. Or “The Education of Henry Adams” at Sherwood Regional. Want Emily Dickinson’s “Final Harvest”? Don’t look to the Kingstowne branch.
It’s not that the books are checked out. They’re just gone. No one was reading them, so librarians took them off the shelves and dumped them.
Along with those classics, thousands of novels and nonfiction works have been eliminated from the Fairfax County collection after a new computer software program showed that no one had checked them out in at least 24 months.
Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region’s largest library system is taking turnover to a new level.
Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system’s return on its investment by each foot of space on the library shelves — and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone — even if they are classics.

This makes sense — for operating a bookstore. The mission of a retail business is to supply products that customers want to purchase for maximum profit. Market preferences and buyer trends make sense for Borders and Barnes & Noble, and a retailer would not last long without performing the same kinds of analyses.
However, is that the mission of a public library? It seems to me that a public library has a different mission than a retail book store, and that is to maintain a compendium of the literary legacy of our culture. Best-sellers could qualify, but favoring those books that have popularity at the moment by using them as a replacement for classic literature.
For instance, the Fairfax libraries have not had a reader borrow a copy of “For Whom The Bell Tolls” or “To Kill A Mockingbird” in over two years, which means they may wind up in the trash bin in the near future. Would anyone consider a library complete without either of those two titles? And would it make sense to replace them with the latest offering from Stephen King, whom I admire as a writer but who sells millions of copies of his new titles? If a book becomes a best seller, it means that lots of people have bought it — and that argues against the necessity of maintaining their presence in a library.
The retail model works perfectly for retail booksellers. Libraries have a different mission, or should. They serve to archive our history and our culture through our literature, and those titles considered classics have earned that position. It’s the difference between popularity and value. The two terms are not synonymous.
Addendum: This topic came to my attention partly through the satirical blogger, Jon Swift. He writes satire pieces mostly about conservatives, and I have been the target of his wit on more than one occasion. However, he’s too good of a writer to miss, and in this case he’s hilarious. Be sure to read the entire post. (And yes, I love getting e-mail from dead 18th-century Irish writers. Don’t you?)

One thought on “Are Libraries The Same As Book Stores?”

  1. Vanity of the Bonfires?

    # If the public taste governs, should museums stock more of The Painter of Light?
    # If the gummint encourages people not to smoke and not to eat trans fats, should it encourage people to read what’s good for them?
    # If classics are available on…

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