Monday, December 29, 2014

How Libraries Die

Back in the day when libraries were funded because books were thought to be important, here in Charleston we had a generous -- and sensible -- book purchase policy.  Eight copies -- one for each large and regional branch plus Main -- were purchased for pretty much anything that wasn't totally obscure.  Before our current director hit town, there was a copy at each branch.  Since he decided we had too many couriers carrying books back and forth, and for that matter, too many books, there is no longer an owning branch.  When you return a book, it stays wherever it was returned.  So there may be five copies of a book in tiny James Island, and none at St. Andrews Regional.

Since so many of us request books online these days, the tragedy does not so much begin with those older books, although it certainly ends there as they get discarded prematurely.  People that go into the library to borrow books encounter the New Books section first.  And many of us, even those who do most of their shopping online, browse those New Books.  That's where they see titles they would otherwise never know about.

Except that over the years our library has cut back on their purchases.  Especially for books that are not best-sellers.  You can always find copies of Bill O'Reilley's latest tome, but some books disappear before we ever see them.  Painful, awful decisions about what books not to order, and of what books to order only one copy.

For example, and this is enraging me as well as breaking my heart, is the book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt.  Even though there is a dearth of books about abortion rights, and the reviews of this book by this established author have been quite good, making the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014, Charleston County Public Library owns ONE copy.  There are only four holds on this book, so it is unlikely that more copies will be purchased.

And here's the thing.  With only one copy, far fewer patrons will know it exists.  When they browse those new books, they won't see it.  When those holds are exhausted (in two months), there will only be one copy of this book on the shelf at one branch.  People who browse the shelves won't know it exists.  People who are interested in abortion rights won't know it exists.  And if that one copy doesn't get lost or damaged in its short life as a New Book, it will go off into the non-fiction stacks to die.

Imagine this happening on way too many topics.  Not only do we not have the opportunity to learn about these important new books because we don't see them on the shelves.  We fail to see topics that might catch our eye, stir our interest.  We become smaller.

And that is what is happening as we downsize our libraries.

Here is what you can do:

1.  If you hear about books like Pollitt's Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, place a hold on it at the library.  A long waiting list gets the attention of the people who do the ordering and they are more likely to order more copies when the topic comes up again.  They may even order more copies of the current book if the waiting list is sufficiently long to prove an interest.

2.  If they don't order more copies, call, email, visit and ask them to order more copies.  Don't let them get away with making decisions about topics that affect our communities, and our lives.

As our library shrinks down to best-sellers and cookbooks, please join me in the fight.

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