Sixty-two copies and nothing on the shelf: Library policy reduces choice

02/13/2014

I’m a regular and extremely grateful patron of the Marin Free Library’s branches in Bolinas, Stinson Beach and Point Reyes. The staffs of all three are stellar, and I feel lucky to live in a community with such a vibrant library system and such committed local librarians. Yet I’d like to register my disappointment over a policy implemented by library director Sara Jones concerning the removal of so-called “dead stock.”

According to a Feb. 6 story in the Light, the library recently jettisoned 7,500 volumes “of mostly fiction” under a policy that requires that books that aren’t checked out or used in-house for two or more years be tagged for removal, with exceptions possible for books of local importance. Sacrifices must be made to keep our libraries current and vital; however, I find this new policy to be shortsighted and potentially dangerous. Two years not checked out and a book is gone? Since when has the popularity of books been determinative when it comes to the books that stock our shelves?

Shelf space is a serious issue for small libraries. Yet to enforce a blanket policy that discards books simply because they have not been checked out runs counter to the core mission of any library, which is to be a place of discovery. I’ve found many of the most important books in my life by browsing the shelves of my local libraries. Many of these haven’t been checked out in 10 years, much less two. And I know that there are many other readers out here like me, because I encounter them nearly every day at the
library.

“New things do really matter and it’s important to keep it fresh,” says Ms. Jones. It is also important—far more important, in my view—for libraries to supply us with a wide-ranging choice. The Light reports that our system has 62 copies of Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel. On one level, it makes sense. If people want Sue Monk Kidd and they don’t want to wait, its fine to have multiple copies. (But hold on, I thought shelf space was a problem.) 

What 62 copies of Sue Monk Kidd says about the priorities of the people purchasing books for the library system, I’ll leave for another day. My question here is how many books did the system throw away to make room for an entire shelf’s worth of a single (and widely available) popular novel? 

I’d like to give just one example of how this policy might affect our reading. Among the most essential fiction writers now working in the United States is a man named John Edgar Wideman, who has written more than 20 novels and works of non-fiction over the course of a decades-long career. Though far from a household name, Wideman is a pivotal American voice. His work is difficult, innovative and consistently encourages readers to face wrenching contemporary issues. The New York Times has compared him to William Faulkner. Wideman also happens to be African American, a group not often (enough) represented on bestseller lists.

The other day I did a quick search of our library system because I wanted a copy of a Wideman novel. I was surprised to see that the only place in our entire system I could find any of his fiction was at the Mill Valley Library, a city library, and not subject to the policy.

I don’t know if any books by this particular writer were thrown out. As far as I know, the titles and exact amount of books that were purged haven’t been released to the public. (It would, of course, be nice to have this information, as library books are, in effect, communal property.) But out of the 7,500 discarded volumes, it is safe to say that crucial—and different—voices have been lost from our shelves for good.

For me it is less about those writers, like Wideman, that I happen to know and admire, and more about the ones I don’t know, the writers I would only find by wandering the stacks.

West Marin is well known for its antipathy for homogenization. Let’s not allow one of our most treasured resources, our libraries, to fall victim to popular trends.  We’ll end up having considerably less choice in the future. 

The function of a library is not merely to provide multiple copies of bestsellers, but to make sure that unpopular books remain as available as possible. Books aren’t stock, and they don’t die just because someone hasn’t read them in awhile. There must be other ways to cull books from our shelves than a popularity contest that smells more of Facebook “likes” than library science. Our democracy is built in large measure on the freedom of our libraries. This new policy threatens a proud, and local, tradition.

 

Peter Orner is a novelist and author of four books, including his recent Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, a New York Times Editor’s Choice Book. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and Best American Stories. He lives in Bolinas and teaches at San Francisco State.