I Can’t Believe You’re Throwing Out Books!

I am a librarian but no longer a bibliophile.

Throwing out thousands of books in three libraries over the past nine years has cured me of bibliophilia, though nothing on this side of mortality can ever release me from my thralldom to stories, to the written word,  to the English language in all its bastardized brilliance.

What I’m done with is the fetishization of the codex, with books for books’ sake.  I see no point in stockpiling stories that no longer speak to anyone, scientific knowledge decades out of date, speculations about the future that never came to pass, information shaped blithely by the racism and sexism of its time.  But more than anything else, I’m finished with the idea that books just by virtue of their existence are precious things that can never outlive their usefulness.

The visceral response some of us have against a threat to books is rooted deep within us.  When I was a child, if my mother saw me writing in a book or treating it carelessly, she would scold, “Never do that to a book!  Books are our friends!”  Jewish custom dictates that if a prayer book falls to the floor, that the book be picked up and kissed, and I have seen even not-particularly-observant Jews follow this tradition.   Our schools and libraries are full of signs and posters trumpeting the value of books.  Even people who never read decorate their homes with books.  The less they like to read, the likelier that the books will be handsome leather-bound sets.  (This seems as silly to me as if I were to decorate my house with expensive golf clubs, but then again, how could I?  The place is too full of books.)  Books, even if we don’t read them, deserve respect, love, even.  Only an ignorant thug would destroy a book, and throughout history, many dangerous, violent people have destroyed many books before moving on to human targets.  But it does not follow that there is never a good reason to get rid of a book.

People who protest to me and other librarians about the abomination of libraries throwing out books imagine themselves as heroes in a story about book burning, maybe Fahrenheit 451, or the destruction of the library of Alexandria.  Maybe they are the monks saving civilization from the barbarian hordes, and I the Visigoth throwing out a third copy of The Thorn Birds.  Whenever teachers or students in my current school library see the withdrawn volumes filling up a few recycling bins, some of them ask me, in tones of outrage, what they believe is a rhetorical question: How can you, a librarian, possibly throw out books?  It takes a long argument to explain that it is precisely because  I am a librarian that I throw out books.  A librarian throws out books because no one else dares to do it.  And it must be done.

Realizing that people object so strongly to throwing out books, I began to save a few of the most egregious examples to show people who got upset.   The library owned a book entitled Careers for Women that included secretary, piano teacher and flight attendant, but strangely enough, not public school teacher, let alone financial analyst specializing in mergers and acquisitions.  An anthropology book  called The Races of Man explained, scientifically of course, why some races were more evolved than others.  A book originally published in the 19th century and gamely reprinted in the 1920s, defended the early European settlers of North America, downplaying their casual brutality towards the Indians by recasting their actions in light of their Christian intentions.  Most of the discards were old, but some weren’t:  I’d put aside two books from the late 1990s elucidating the scourge of satanic ritual abuse and how students could protect themselves and their communities against it.  These were the thin hardcovers you probably remember from your own middle-school library, the ones designed for student reports, with lots of pictures and quotations from experts.  While well-researched and decently written, these books had the rather serious drawback of shedding light on a crime that has since been proven not to exist, although not before a number of innocent people were thrown into prison for committing it.

I lay a few of these out on the circulation desk for the incensed to examine. I know that I have to defend my destruction of school property, but I never expected to have the same argument, almost verbatim, every time I weeded.  “Do you think these books should be on the shelf in a school library?”  Long silences ensue, while the bibliophiles rethink their arguments.  Clearly, these books don’t belong on the shelves, but still, still you can’t throw out books!

“These books have historical value, then,” is the next argument.  “We should keep the books, but flag them somehow so that kids know that these books are just there to demonstrate certain ideas from the past.”

“We don’t teach historiography in our curriculum,” I reply.  “No high school does.”  Besides, how could I ever make it clear to students that this book about African tribes is valid, well-researched and up-to-date, while this one, by the wife of a missionary who painted portraits of the interesting natives in their fascinating, though indecent, native costumes, is condescending, dated and inaccurate?   Am I supposed to put a warning sticker on it?

Student bibliophiles have lost interest and given up by this point, but teachers persist.  “You shouldn’t throw them out, though!  There are schools that don’t have any books in their libraries!  Libraries whose budgets have been cut!  Can’t you donate them to Paterson?”  Poor Paterson.   This argument, to me, smacks of a patronizing classism, though kindly meant.  We’ve already established that these books could do more harm than good and do not merit inclusion in the collection of our very well-off school’s library.  But give them to those poor Paterson kids, for whom the books would be that much worse for not having anything more recent on the shelf to compare them to.

“Trust me, “ I tell them, “No one wants these books.”

The parting plea is invariably that I should sell them on eBay and get money for the school to buy new books.  I wonder how much of a market people think there is for a book that we’ve already agreed cannot even be given away as a charitable gesture, though I was forced to reconsider when I saw both students and adults picking these absolutely worthless books out of the recycling and taking them home.

“What are you going to do with those?”  I asked a boy who I know for a fact never reads under any circumstances.

“You’re throwing them out, right?”


“So it doesn’t matter what I’m going to do with them, does it?”  He looked nervous.  He didn’t want to get in trouble.

“Not really.  I’m just curious.”

“I’m going to burn them.”

Well, that made sense.  Many teenage boys are pyromaniacs, and burning books probably adds the wild anarchic thrill of the forbidden.  But I could make no sense of what the middle-aged former lawyer who substitute teaches at my school intended to do with the dozens he rescued from the bin.

“What are you going to do with those?”  I asked him.  I thought he’d probably outgrown his pyromaniac phase.

“I’m going to add them to my shelves in the basement!” he responded happily.

“What is your wife going to say when she sees you carrying two dozen books that no one in their right mind would want into the house?”

He winked.  “She’ll never know.  She refuses to go down there.”

My sympathies were entirely with Mrs. Former-Lawyer-Substitute-Teacher.

So who loves books more–the substitute teacher or me?  To me, what matters about a book is the contents.  To him, what matters is the book. He thinks I’m committing a sacrilege against civilization by discarding inaccurate, outdated books.  I think he’s committing an act of monumental inconsideration to his heirs, who will someday have to go through all those basement books that no one ever sees. What is it about a book that makes it a sacred object and not just an information-delivery system?

Every librarian has had frustrating phone calls from community members cleaning out their attics or basements and generously offering the library their mildewed, water-damaged, dusty or disintegrating books, often vast mass-market paperback collections from the 60s and 70s, long-forgotten titles printed on the cheapest kind of paper.  Or 85 years of National Geographic.  They want to know where to drop off books and magazines to donate them to the library.  Many are shocked and offended to learn that both public and school libraries generally do not accept donations of books that are more than two or three years old.  Don’t we want their grandmother’s perfectly good collection of 40-year-old beach reads?  What do I expect them to do with these books–throw them out? If they haven’t given up yet, they ask me if anyone in Paterson wants them.  Poor Paterson.  To get someone off the phone, I will suggest a hospital or a nursing home, but I’m sure there’s someone answering those phones whose job it is to tell them to call the library.  It’s an odd sort of charitable impulse that leads a person to a sense of outrage that no one wants something that has been sitting, unwanted, in their parents’ basement for decades. Libraries are Dickensian orphans, apparently, and should be grateful for any little sip of gruel offered out of the goodness of a stranger’s heart, and books are valuable because they are books, not because of anything in them, or of any alchemy that happens when the mind of a gifted writer touches the mind of an engaged reader.

The indignant bibliophiles value books not too much, but too little.  By lumping all books together as sacred objects that can never outlive their usefulness, no matter how useless, they denigrate the power of books that can ignite a firestorm in a reader’s intellect, or tear a reader’s soul with pathos or romance.  If your mom’s disintegrating mass-market copy of Valley of the Dolls is worthy of real-estate on the shelves of the public library forever just because it was once printed on paper and bound into a codex, then how can The Origin of Species or Anna Karenina claim any special merit?  Those are books, too.

Civilization is in a fraught historical moment in our relationship with our books.   As reading declines in each successive generation, and as content moves increasingly into digital form, we venerate the object of the book more.  A guaranteed formula for a best-selling book in almost any genre, and this has been true since the first e-readers began to appear, is a book about a special, magical, ancient or secret manuscript or scroll discovered and deciphered by a modern character who alone knows its true value.  As we value and need books less for what they really are, we fetishize their form even more.

Perhaps you have even heard of a fairly new craft technique called altered books, in which the artist takes an old hardcover book, and through the use of cutting, tearing, painting, gluing and other mixed-media techniques, changes  it to make something else:  a purse, a hidden box, a greeting card, a picture frame.  You know, something useful.

I have to acknowledge, though, that my irritation at the bibliophiles, like most resentments, stems from consciousness of an identical shortcoming. My husband and I and our two children own several thousand books, the collateral damage of the five combined masters degrees my husband and I possess, the beautiful collection of children’s books for our tween and teen, who have now outgrown the gorgeous picture books lovingly selected for them by friends and relatives and their adoring parents, my old tendency to buy at garage sales any book whose title or author I had heard of, and, well, our love of books.  Having weeded three libraries, I turn now to our own, where I can cheerfully chuck books that are falling apart, dated or irrelevant to our current interests, but where I can never decide which of the four copies of Hamlet  to toss, since each of them has either his notes or mine in them (why four?  Undergrad and graduate, naturally.  You don’t think we thought the same things about Hamlet  each time we read it, do you?).  Books commandeer every room, every surface.  Yes, the kitchen.  Yes, the bathrooms.  Yes, the laundry room. Sometimes, I wish I could hire a librarian to come over here and weed this house.  She’d know exactly what to do.

Julie Goldberg, 2011

Update: To hear a radio interview with Julie about weeding, check out this postTo read more Perfect Whole posts about books and libraries, click here.  Thanks for stopping by!

Update, 2/15/2013

Now that over 17,000 people have read this essay, and a hundred or so have commented, I feel the need to clarify something for the sake of those who argue that “we” need to keep books  with dated attitudes and information as part of the historical record. Who is “we”? Every library?

It’s true that scholars need certain libraries to keep archives of old books for historical research, but those scholars are not going to show up in my high school library because they are not my patrons: high school students and teachers are. My discards are not the last available copies of these titles, nor is this high school library the place where scholars research the attitudes and beliefs of the past.

Naturally, SOME libraries, the ones whose mission it is, need to preserve archives containing ideas, beliefs, and attitudes of the past for historical purposes. But school and most public libraries are not obligated to do so, especially since no one uses our collections for these purposes. Libraries that are not archives need to weed old books.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at perfectwhole@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
This entry was posted in Books & Libraries, Education and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

174 Responses to I Can’t Believe You’re Throwing Out Books!

  1. Donna Miele says:

    If you come across anything about Hawaii, teleportation, surfing, or Upstate New York/Catskills/Lake Placid region, save it for me? Seriously.

  2. Poor Paterson.

    Great essay, Julie.

    • Cindy says:

      Speaking as the Public Library Director from Paterson – please don’t send them here! Thank you for classifying it as patronizing classism, because it is. My beloved patrons deserve better than someone else’s dreck and I think these same people would be surprised at how much WE weed. No one wants an outdated book and no one wants a yellowed, beatup book either. Our patrons deserve the best and we work to try to get it for them.
      That is not to say that I have not seen some horribly outdated “libraries” here in Paterson. I visited one afterschool program; they proudly showed me their classroom where the children can work on their homework assignments and the encyclopedia on the shelf was from 1989 (I’m not kidding). So, as soon as we weeded our 2 year old encyclopedia, I sent it over. At least that will be of some use to these kids.

      • Oh, I’m so glad you weighed in! Now it’s straight from the source.

        People have emailed me saying that their patrons have asked, “Can’t you send these books to some third world country?” How is that a good idea? They don’t have enough outdated information in developing countries? Even if you 1) Had the address of a library in a poor country and 2) Could afford to pay the shipping costs, why would they want a book with bad information?

        Dorothy Day wrote that “nothing is too good for the poor.” Sadly, many have not absorbed that message.

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  4. This amazing essay sheds light on what is really sacred about books – what’s inside and what explodes in our minds when we connect with it.

    Julie – you give me courage to face my own moldy masses of books, lined up waiting to be scrutinized, evaluated and perhaps – after weeding out their lesser peers – truly valued!

  5. Anne deFuria says:

    Good post. It’s true people venerate books regardless of the content. I posted my frustrations on our library blog here http://bhplnjbookgroup.blogspot.com/2007/02/disposing-of-old-books.html
    My colleague and I came up with the idea of A Great Big Book Annex where all the old books go, kind of like that farm your parents sent your old dog to. Just tell people that’s where the books go that can’t be sold, don’t circulate and take up valuable shelf space.

  6. Pingback: In Which Our Naive Heroine Reconsiders the Definition of the Word “Publish” | Perfect Whole

  7. Eve says:

    “speculations about the future that never came to pass” make for fascinating reading, something even high school students would get a kick out of. I have a small collection of kids books from the late 50s and 60s, about things like “your first trip to the moon” and what it will be like to live on a space station.

  8. Heidi Estrin says:

    This is SO TRUE! I always figure that as a librarian I’m performing a public service when I take someone’s donation and then throw it out for them. They never know what happened to it, so they’re content.

  9. PC Bob says:

    As a sometimes seller of used books, this hits me close to home. One thing I have learned is that all books are not created equal. The ones staring back at me from shelves right now are probably less than equal, since they haven’t sold. Yet. But in reality they will probably all sell, eventually, some time. In the meantime, I do not expect to get rich selling old (and a few new) books. Tell your callers to take them to the Salvation Army or other thrift stores, and donate them. They can even take a tax write-off for them if they want to. That’s where I get most of mine.

  10. Joyce Levine says:

    So well developed and wonderfully worded! You have captured what all librarians feel when we’re caught weeding. Reminds me of the outrage expressed by my kids when I pulled dandelions fr0m the garden (after all, they’re flowers too!). And students at my school who would barely glance at a book on the shelf will rush to claim it when it’s threatened with annihilation by garbage can.

  11. Jim says:

    “I see no point in stockpiling stories that no longer speak to anyone, scientific knowledge decades out of date, speculations about the future that never came to pass, information shaped blithely by the racism and sexism of its time. ”

    Who the hell are YOU to be the one deciding this? What arrogance.

    • Dear Jim,

      Who the hell I “am to be the one deciding this” is quite simple: I am the librarian for this library. A library’s space is not infinite, and if I want to keep making room for new books for my students, I have to get rid of old books.

      Discarding a book is no more an act of arrogance than choosing New Book X over New Book Z when you only have money for one book. The reason you need a masters degree to be a librarian is that making those collection development decisions, both on the front end of purchasing and the back end of weeding, is complex.

      I am not deciding whether a book is valuable for all times, places and readers, but whether it is suitable for this collection at this time. That is my responsibility as the librarian for this library. It is not arrogance. It is my job.

      • KarlaSBlue says:

        Weeding is selection in reverse.

      • Lisa says:

        Well said.

      • Laura says:


      • PaulH says:

        Spot on response! I’ve thrown out trolley-loads of books and periodicals in my time using my professional judgement as to what was no longer valid to keep. I’m not saying my judgement was perfect, but it was my job to make that decision. When people questioned throwing out old books, I either let them take them home with them or else said we were making space for new books. Not surprisingly, few continued to object.

      • Virginia Borase says:

        Here Here!!! What a wonderful response to a rudely worded and less than intelligent question.

      • Betty Snyder says:

        love it!

    • rupafitz says:

      What an arrogant remark Jim. Julie seems like a perfect person to be making these decisions. I’m glad it’s not me. I am still struggling with irrational bibliophilia !

  12. PC Bob says:

    The library here in my little rown has a section off to the side, with about 4 bookcases, where you can buy the culled books for $1 a bag. They are mostly old educational things, or old encyclopedias, etc. They DO sell a lot of them, however. It beats tossing them into the landfill, which is rapidly filling up already. There is also some value as recyclable paper. Our society is way too quick to throw stuff away. We (Americans) are the most wasteful people on earth. That mindset needs to change. There is value in everything we have and make. Let’s not waste it.

  13. Jessica says:

    What a great essay! I cam over here from today’s NPR article about librarians destroying books (*gasp*), and I just want to cheer! Then, I read your calm and well-reasoned and absolutely correct response to commenter Jim a few steps up and wanted to cheer again.

    “The indignant bibliophiles value books not too much, but too little. By lumping all books together as sacred objects that can never outlive their usefulness, no matter how useless, they denigrate the power of books that can ignite a firestorm in a reader’s intellect, or tear a reader’s soul with pathos or romance.”

    I could not agree more. There are a few books of little intellectual value in my personal collection that I save because the items themselves are a valuable part of my past, but the unreasoning love for books as books alone that I see in some people is reckless and more indicative to me of an impending episode of “Hoarders” being shot in their house, than of their wisdom and intellect. Curation is an important part of keeping a collection relevant to the community (or company, or individual, or family) it serves.

    Like the last commenter, I’ve seen many libraries in the last few cities where I’ve lived hold periodic book sales of weeded books. These are always huge draws for the community, and it’s nice to seethis kind of recycling happen. Of course, I always see a few people at library book sales leaving with boxes and boxes of books (what are they going to DO with all of those?!), but at least the library earns a bit of money in return.

  14. Sarah J. says:

    I think that it would be a good idea to digitize the types of information that change rapidly. The how to guides, encyclopedias, history books, text books, magazines and most things that we end up using as current resources. They should have a set price and then an additional much smaller fee when you want access to the updates. They should be easily printable by the buyer though after purchase (the self publishing model of book making comes to mind). Current trends don’t quite make me willing to agree to them even when my book shelves complain.

    Fiction should still be sold in print however because that would keep the pressure on authors to keep up quality. Self publishing sites mean that almost anything can be published but respected publishers at least have editors and can afford mass printings. While I am more likely to toss an out of date encyclopedia I find that some of the novels I have sit on my shelves long past the time when I should have thrown them out (I found bookworms in a Jane Austen once if that is any indicator).

    All this being said I think one way to encourage the general public to (gasp) recycle their out of date, misinforming doorstops would be to say, “If you recycle this set of encyclopedias we can make them into *insert new popular novel here* and give you a discount on it.” Americans may waste far more than we should but we are always willing to jump on the bandwagon if the price is cheap enough. Greed is a two way street after all.

  15. Debi B. says:

    This is a very late response, but I must share our experience with Better World Books. (B-logistics has a similar service, and there are probably others.). BWB has a prescreening process we use to know which books they’ll take. Then we ship them to BWB on their dime–they even send us shipping boxes. What’s great is BWB sorts out what should go to third world countries, and part of the proceeds of our book sales through them goes to buying new books for different charities. When people (very rarely) complain about us getting rid of books, we tell them about BWB and that seems to placate them.

    Note: whatever BWB doesn’t want goes on our library’s free book shelf. Books that linger there too long go to a local book publisher who is kind enough to recycle the remainders for us.

    • Mary says:

      BWB is wonderful. My library system used to sell books in a store front. However, once BWB came in to the picture, we went from raising maybe $1000, to twenty times that amount.

      Our customers expressed frustration that they did not have the first option to purchase deselected titles. Our solution is to post a “garage sale” link on our site where BWB will hold titles from our system for a short time before putting them out to the general public. I doubt we sell much that way, but it was one of the ways we had to give in.

  16. Wow! Julie another great post! You said everything I believe and have wanted to say and more! Thanks!

  17. Larry Seiler says:

    I throw out books that I think NO ONE should have, and I’m glad to read that you do, too. As for the rest… there are often alternatives to throwing out books.

    1) My town library accepts donations of books, CDs, DVDs, and even old magazines in the spring each year. They are sold during our town’s Memorial Day celebration. Those that don’t sell get offered to local used book dealers, I expect on a basis of “make us an offer”.

    2) My High School library would occasionally give away books that were no longer needed. I have a nice collection of Mark Twain stories and a book of Soviet Science Fiction stories that I got that way. I didn’t understand at the time why they’d do that, but I get it now.

    3) The Salvation Army really does take old books and magazines, at least in Sioux Falls SD, where my parents live. I threw out my collection of 1960’s Model Railroading magazines before I discovered this, but I brought them my parents’ National Geographics.

    I kept my parents’ collection of Scientific Americans — lots of pleasant memories of reading Mathematical Games when I was young. And somehow a CD isn’t the same. So I guess I also reverence the book itself to some extent — but only because of how I feel about the content.

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  19. Barbara Donovan says:

    Fantastic piece. As a librarian I have never had a problem discarding books. But I work with people who definitely do. I have had to take home boxes of books to put in my own home trash so that they are not seen by school personnel and questioned!

  20. Another criteria for discard is years of no circulation. If a book has been on the shelf for years and no one has chosen it, although many must have looked at it and rejected taking it home, then it is taking up space. Studies have shown that when old, unwanted and books in poor condition are removed from the shelves circulation increases. This is the public speaking without realizing what they are doing. Just imagine not weeding subjects like sewing or knitting and having books with garments that have huge shoulder pads in the designs. Weeding is essential and the public weeds by rejecting books for circulation.

    • Lisa says:

      I weeded 1000 books out of my library the summer before starting as the library media specialist. In the fall, kids came in and said, “WOW! Look at all the new books!” I call it “addition by subtraction.”

  21. Bob S. says:

    Your essay surfaced in my inbox as today’s Library Link of the Day, a great read and an interesting contrast to the post about book-burning from two days ago.

    I’ve been retired for two years after 40 years as a high school librarian, and I am reminded of the time in 1995 when my (under-weeded) library was the “beneficiary” one-third of the contents of the library of another old high school that my big-city school district had decided to close. Unweeded, unsorted, unselected, the books were boxed up and trucked off to three lucky schools, mine included. The books were delivered to me without any cataloging information, 4,000 volumes all at once. Many of the books were ESEA and NDEA purchases from the 60’s & 70’s that I was informed could not legally be resold or even given away, and no option to recycle anything.

    Something had to be done with them–4,000 books take up a lot of space. Of course I did give away all that anybody wanted under the table, and I added what I could to my library, but there were still thousands left for “discrete disposal.” Not wanting to see the newspaper stories that would certainly result if anyone noticed dumpsters full of “perfectly good library books,” I tucked the books secretly into the bottom of the trash a few at a time over a period of months, and only after damaging each item enough to justify its disposal on that basis alone, if necessary. There was plenty of time for second thoughts as the books trickled slowly out.

    Well, that was not what I became a school librarian hoping to do, and it is still one of my most uncomfortable memories. In fact, this is the first time I have shared this story in a public forum (& I’m still not using my full name!) But I’m not sure how I could have done better, and my colleagues in the other two “beneficiary” schools did more or less the same.

    • Bob, what a nightmare! It shows how little political decision-makers understand about libraries, books, schools and culture. It sounds like you did the best you could for your patrons under the circumstances.

  22. Jackie says:

    At our library we’ll take all donations as long as they’re not waterlogged. Our staff will gleefully chuck them in the recycle bin to keep our customers from having to do it. It’s much easier and less time consuming than telling them that “No. Your decades-old collection of National Geographic is not the treasure you think it to be. Yes. Really.” The remaining books are sent to our Friends sale. They support our library programming.
    After heavily — and I mean in a very ruthless manner — weeding our Reference collection, we called the local penitentiary to see if they could use any of the sets in their library. They were thrilled as their inmates in GED classes can’t access the Internet, natch. After reading your essay, I feel a little guilty about sending them. The good news is that they weren’t horribly out of date and I assured the prison librarian, he could toss them without guilt if he didn’t need them.

  23. The only use for them..other than going to the landfill…is to let your art teachers have a crack at them. Our art teacher uses them for kids to create art objects. It’s actually become an emerging art form. “Careers for Women” could be turned into a piece of feminist art!

    • Mary says:

      Yes! I have a gorgeous lamp made from old books. One of the books is a manner’s guide for young ladies. It has such advice as “take care not to frown or personality problems could develop”. That book is much better off as a lamp.

  24. Stephanie says:

    Whenever I have a class visit at my library, I include a little talk about weeding. I explain to the kids that the library is a garden, and the books that people want and that are useful to them are the flowers and fruit. Part of my job, I tell them, is to get rid of the “weeds”–the damaged, outdated, and ones that nobody checks out anymore. I show them plenty of examples, which I keep in my office just for this purpose. I then explain that I do this because they deserve only the very best books to take home–not the weeds! The kids totally get this, and I hope the adults in attendance do too.
    You’re doing your kids a fantastic service, Julie. Keep it up!

  25. Pam says:

    What is it with the National Geographics? I must take a phone call like that at least once a week!! When people are shocked that our library throws out books, I just tell them that it is a simple matter of physics…. I certainly enjoyed this article.

  26. Peg says:

    Your wonderful commentary reminds me of a picture book/16mm movie I shared at story hours 30+ years ago. It was about a goose who found a book and carried it around very proudly. She believed the book made her smart. So it should come as no surprise that she mistook a box of dynamite for candies. Her barnyard friends tried the candies and mayhem resulted. Only then, when the book fell open, did she discover that it was what was inside the book that mattered.

    Some of these same biblio-savers also mourn the loss of the card catalog.

    Just because I read it / used it / experienced it when I was younger does not make the item in question valuable. While I like slate and chalk, I do not wish to have them back again except at an antiques store.

    Well-written! Thanks!

  27. Stan Lee says:

    Excellent article! Yes, the old National Geographics/obselete encyclopedias question seems to come up for all of us in libraries. Once in a while, you actually get reasonably new items donated. Everything else goes to the $1 sale table… then to recycling.

  28. Brilliant Julie….you have a way with words.

  29. Phil Miller says:

    I am a retired librarian (director, actually), and I had my ups and downs with the president of the College where I worked. One day someone dropped off (unsolicited) a dozen cartons of books that a demolition crew would in a basement. Sad to say, there was mildew – and copious rodent turds. So I left the boxes in the area where garbage was amassed before going out onto the street. Later that day, the president of the College came to my door, anger clearly on his face, his arms laden with books. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? CIVILIZED PEOPLE DO NOT THROW BOOK IN THE GARBAGE! I HOPE YOU HAVE NA EXPLANATION OF THIS OUTRAGE! “Yes, sir,” I replied, “These were an unsolicited donated found abandoned in a basement, and covered in rodent droppings.” OH? [never mind] as he mumbled as he hurried away …

    • “Civilized people do not throw books in the garbage!” Exactly the problem! It’s one of those sentiments that is true in certain contexts. Uncivilized, brutal, violent people have often destroyed books, but it doesn’t follow that everyone who discards a book is one of them. A slight, but crucial nuance.

  30. 3dotsforme says:

    Ah yes, the silence that greets you when you suggest that they can save taxpayers’ dollars by using their own recycle bin rather than ours makes me want to chuckle every time. Now the poor souls are bringing us their VS tapes, the ones that they taped of the TV themselves. Apparently they’ve never heard of copyright!

  31. Patrick Let says:

    While libraries should not keep badly out of date books in general circulation, I’m for the preservation of all texts even awful ones, because those often horrible books are important documentation of the past. Historians need to read the bad books, because they are important primary sources. The greatest fear I have about a digitized world is forthright fear that do much will be lost to the historians of future eras.

    • Emma says:

      I’m in favour of that too (I’ve used old books as a primary source myself) … but it depends on the library in question. The British Library? Should keep everything. A university library? Arguably should keep a lot of old books. The Liverpool Medical Institute is a specific history of medicine collection, obviously they’re going to keep the “bad” books along with the rest. But a school library or a small local public library? Get rid of them.

      After all, only a certain amount of copies need to survive for the book to remain a part of the historical record.

  32. Deven Black says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am a first year librarian, the son of a writer and avid reader father and an equally avid reading mother. When my parents went through their particularly nasty divorce many of the arguments were about who would get custody of, not we four children, but the several hundred books. Almost all my pleasant childhood memories involve books.

    When I was appointed librarian of a middle school I took over from a woman who had been librarian since 1956. She did not believe in weeding anything other than encyclopedias. Fortunately, middle school students are known to lose, steal or otherwise dispose of books so I did not inherit every volume purchased over the past 55 years. But there were books piled everywhere: on top of shelves, on the floor, on chairs and on windowsills. I boxed approximately 3000 books for disposal, including several dozen from the first order of books to stock the then-new shelves. Of course, I am not allowed to actually dispose of them so they are stacked in a large closet.

    I love books, or so I thought. What I came to realize is that I love ideas, stories, information and illustrations, not necessarily the containers they come in. I will gladly give any or all of those 3000+ books to anyone who wants them, though I have to say that when I offered them to the teachers and students of the school only five were taken. Now I can’t want until I find a way to dispose of those unwanted volumes so I can stop worrying that they will somehow spontaneously combust and burn down the school.

  33. Great post! I too keep a pile of books that were “gems” of weeding. I have dubbed it the box of shame. It can be used as evidence as to why I’ve dropped my collection below the state standard for a high school 🙂

  34. JulietsButterfly says:

    Not a librarian, but I understand the quandary. I have many books that I should get rid of, but I can’t bring myself to part with them. I do agree that horribly out of date books should be removed. There’s really no need to have books that have misguided and inaccurate information in them.
    At our library they have a big book sale that has a lot of donated old books and deselected books. We’ve picked up a few, but I’m pretty careful to make sure it’s something we’ll actually want. People can go overboard though. My own father will bring home more books than he has room for on his shelves and they simply sit in stacks around the house, waiting to fall over on someone’s foot.
    The best thing for old magazines (besides recycling them and using them for crafts) is the free magazine bin at the entrance of our library. You can take whatever magazines you like and drop off whatever you want. Someone obviously goes through and picks them up and takes them home. Some might have been dropped off more than once. I take a few cooking magazines, scour them for recipes, write them into my recipe book and then send them back.

  35. dj says:

    Excellent post and comments thread. At one of my workplaces we had to lock the skips that we got rid of weeded material in, as people were diving in there to retrieve material.

    We could have probably created a substantial history of conspiracy theories collection from the unsolicited items that we threw out each year.

  36. Jen says:

    So well put! The thing people have to understand is that yes, there’s a value in saving ephemera like “Careers for Women” circa 1964, but not at every type of library. I’m at a public library in a town where important historical events took place, and we save every pamphlet and scrap of paper having to do with the history of our town. That’s appropriate for us! The Center for Children’s Books in Illinois has a great collection of outdated sex ed books for children, which is great for scholars of the history of children’s books and sex ed. They’re fascinating, but they belong there–not on the shelves of your average school library. An outdated book can be a fun teaching tool, but a whole shelf of them in a school library just makes it harder for kids to find the current materials they need, and creates frustration–discouraging a love of books and research!

    • Right! Or as my boss at the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, NY used to say, “We’re not the Last Copy Center, you know!” when she felt the staff was insufficiently aggressive in our weeding. Did our system have a Last Copy Center? Was there even really such a place? I had no idea, but she wanted to see our weeding stats every month.

      Of course, old, dated books should be kept for historical value, but not by school libraries or most local public library branches.

  37. Sarah Davies says:

    Thank you for writing this. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  38. K. Malatesta says:

    Thank you for this! I am a middle school library media specialist and have run into every roadblock you mentioned. However, our latest issue has run us into a problem. Due to townsfolk combing the dumpsters for ‘evidence’ of wasteful discards of all types, we now have to stockpile these books. I’m hoping that cooler heads will prevail before we end up on an episode of Hoarders.

  39. Lorry C says:

    I sometimes wonder if the end of the world will come when the crust of the earth can no longer support the weight of all those old National Geographics piled in attics, basements, and landfills … 🙂

    Thanks for this well-written article!

  40. Laura says:

    When I began working part-time at a public library in 2001, I brought the reverence for all books reactions you describe including the there-must-be-a-home, they’re-almost-like-puppies kinds of feelings. However, more than a decade of experience and an MLIS later (and now managing my own special library), I have developed a more critical eye when it comes to books, both those I manage professionally and my own crazy collection, both of which are leaner and easier to use.
    A very well written essay indeed, but having said that, I just cannot imagine that I would have ever really understood the evolution of resources as well without the direct experience.

  41. Tony Clark says:

    Very interesting essay indeed. My resume covers many different areas of life, as does my collection of books. I have also spent 10 years of my life working for OCLC and supporting librarians across the world. Real estate is always the problem. I am a member of the Aldus Society which reveres the written format, extending to all forms of ephermera. I am retired military – served in Vietnam. I am the website creator and manager for a contemporary author. I have made a career of understanding the alluring digitization of data for ease of access, via my electronic background.
    I too am going through the process of purging of a life of bibliophia. Making tough decisions of what to do with jeweled finds of my past has been sometimes very emotional. I have come to similiar conclusions about my collections and here are some of my basic concepts:
    1. Real Estate – many surfaces are covered in my home, I have visited large repositories who experience the same predictiment, do you build another addition to house the books? Do you cull? Whatever you decide, always think of not only your real estate but who would recieve your collective mass in the future. Ask your kids how many of the books would they like, that is reality.

    2. Historical significance – well thumbed copies of Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, are meaningless, toss (see next step for suggestions). Any incanabulum might be worth keeping, such as an original Nuremberg Chronicle.
    3. Where O’ Where to send the selected – I like the idea of sending books to our men and women deployed in foreign countries. Having some old book, that doesn’t matter if you lose it or not, does have a certain fulfillment destiny. I purposely went online and purchased several used books for a deployed soldier and had them shipped to his unit in Afghanistan. There are internet organizations that are tracking books, you read a book, make some notes as to where to logon to find out about where the book has traveled, make your own entry and then leave the book in a public place for the next person to discover. Many used book store owners will frequent library sales to increase their inventory. They have become the experts at saving what is valuable and what is not.
    4. Maybe we should lobby to have expiration dates on books in the library to help the process of keeping current and important content available. I know there are already many publishers that put out library versions only, so why not extend the process to some method of freshness of material.
    5.Mission statement of vaious libraries must be considered as to what should be retained. Considering all of the various types of libraries, i.e. public, academic, presidential, and many small, independent or private libraries as having certain functions would be important as retention criteria. Many colleges and universities have a Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Certainly a speciality area, but if you have a James Thurber collection then some of what may be considered for removal in a public library could be an important piece for the special libraries, just saying.

    I admire your work and your profession, one that I would have an extremely difficult time doing myself.



  42. jesspryde says:

    I read this as I stared out at my still-too-full library shelves. When I came on board last school year, I weeded hundreds of books–and sent over fifty boxes to BWB at the end of the year. Even though I’ve gone through the shelves four or five times, there are some books–even in fiction–that I can’t bear to pull down. Outdated and useless are gone, but I continue to keep many that I probably shouldn’t. As a semi-packrat myself, I keep having the fear that once I toss something, it will be the perfect book for someone to use–the next day.

    • Marianna Masterson says:

      why don’t you put them in one of the library carts and offer them for free or at a nominal fee to library patrons and if nobody buys them within a certain amount of time then think about giving them away. I think it is criminal not to give the people an opportunity to buy the books. It is their books after all. So many times I have went to the library to take out a much loved book and they have given it away. Many of the books have been relatively new and in great condition. It is infuriating. And am not happy to find they were given to a for profit and not a charity organization, “better world books” What a scam.

  43. T. Galvan says:

    Moldy, water- or otherwise damaged items are different, but meanwhile….
    Half Price Books Stats:
    3-year growth:37%
    2008 Revenue:$194.5 million
    2005 Revenue:$141.9 million
    “Half Price Books hiring laid-off Borders staffers” (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2011/08/half-price-books-hiring-laid-off-borders-staffers.html)

  44. Lisa Newton says:

    What a wonderful post! I wish I could print copies of it and hand it out to people who bring their National Geographics to my library. Having weeded 2 school libraries, I’ve developed a standard response that works pretty well. I used to accept donations and then tell people that they may or may not make it into the collection. 90% of the time, I’d end up throwing them out. That stopped when I started receiving too many books to easily throw away myself. Now when people bring donations I don’t want (and I can usually tell at first glance), I’ll smile and say “Thanks so much for thinking of us, but we don’t currently have room for donated items. All of our space is reserved for items we’ve selected ourselves.” Sometimes they’re annoyed at having to carry the items back out, but it usually works.

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  47. Thanks for that:) I’m known for shouting “BURN IT!” when a colleague asks what we should do with any books they’re thinking of withdrawing. Books are priceless, a book is a bunch of paper and card.

  48. I am a librarian in RI. We, like many who have already posted, will take all donations. We sort them as (a) add to the collections, (b) can the Friends sell them (and put the money back into the library) or (c) ewww! (to paraphrase). We are fortunate to have an excellent and active Friends group who run a bookstore right here in the library so it works well for everyone. And, patrons don’t have to know what goes into the “ewww” pile. We do have a gift policy that explicitly states “The library administration reserves the right to determine their [donated books] retention, location, cataloging treatment and other considerations related to their use or disposition.”

  49. great post! I took a break while weeding our Reference collection. We have a plan for “stealthily” discarding them once we pull them off the shelf. I face resistance from the patrons as well as some of the long time employees of the library who seem really dislike the changes.

    We accept donations and tend to sort them ourselves, Like Beth commented above we sort them into groups of stuff we want to add/replace in our collection, stuff the Friends will sell and stuff we’re are just going to toss.

  50. Jane says:

    Having worked in publishing I always laughed when people said books were “sacred.” Clearly they had never visited their company’s warehouse where they saw nausea-inducing masses of unsold books on their way to the pulping machines.

    Plenty of useless books are published, and plenty of useful books become no longer useful. It’s funny how we librarians have to resort to things like disposing of weeded books after the building has closed so teachers don’t see, and calling each other for physical support when weeding.

    Books are just things–commercial objects–but some are transcendent, some get lost, some found again.

  51. Richard says:

    i remember having to move ALL the books in the MIT Rare Book Room (they needed to be at least a foot off the floor, for insurance purposes). I was covered with 15th adn 16th century grunge and actually found a copy of Galileo’s Notes of 1610.

  52. Steve says:

    I work for an urban public library system and last year I took a phone call from a woman who wanted to donate her collectoin of VHS tapes to us. After I told her that the library no longer purchases or circulates VHS, she asked me who would want them.

    Her quote: “What about somewhere in the third world, you know, like Appalachia, they still have VCRs there, right?”

    True story.

  53. lunamoth says:

    Interesting and I agree, except for THIS: “Most of the discards were old, but some weren’t: I’d put aside two books from the late 1990s elucidating the scourge of satanic ritual abuse and how students could protect themselves and their communities against it….” and she goes on to give other examples of politically incorrect books that she discarded, including books that didn’t recognize women as practitioners of almost any jobs except the most domestic ones.

    But, taking the first example given above, the trouble is that the “Satanic rituals sacrificing kids” fad was an example of the bouts of Puritan hysteria our society is prone to engage in from time to time. If kids never learn about the nonsense we used to believe, they won’t be armed against the next time it comes around…as it surely will, given human nature.
    And if all books evidencing the long reach of Western history during which women were relegated to narrow roles are removed by librarians everywhere, will anyone young really believe all that bad denial of opportunity once was routine and unquestioned? I sense in this latter bit of book-discarding by the essayist-librarian a zeal to recast the past in the shape of the nicer present.

    “We don’t need historiography in high school!” you say, Ms Blogger. I submit that it is there that it’s needed most. How about a shelf in the high school library labeled “Things We Used to Believe” for the above types of offending books, and for the most egregious pre-political correctness violations of political correctness, instead of discarding them?

    • Sarah says:

      She actually said we don’t teach historiography, which is not surprising as more and more time is taken up preparing for standardized tests and/or courses are cut due to budget constraints. And what do you do when that shelf is filled up (it wouldn’t take long to do so I assure you)?

    • Lunamoth,

      I would argue that yours is a good case for adding books to the collection analyzing the history of mass hysteria in the U.S. or the history of sexism (both of which we have in this library, incidentally), but not necessarily for preserving the artifacts of mass hysteria we happen to possess. If kids see the satanic ritual abuse books on the shelf, they would be inclined to believe them. If they read a historical or sociological account of how the satanic ritual abuse hysteria began, resulted in the imprisonment of innocent people, and was ultimately discredited, they will know that it is false and also understand how to recognize this kind of thing next time it comes around.

      Ms. Blogger

  54. PamA says:

    From a elementary school librarian who has to sneak out in the dead of night to deposit “valuable books” in the recycle bin, great essay!!

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  56. An excellent essay, indeed. You have said it all. After a huge weed last spring (an estimated 25% of the collection) in preparation for a complete rearrangement of my library, my principal had his heart set on getting some good PR by sending the discards to a third world country despite my attempt to persuade him that (1) the books are mostly outdated information, therefore misleading and (2) no one will want them for just that reason. I had to store a room full of boxes for months before he finally gave up and personally sent them to the landfill! We still have lockers full of outdated textbooks, which he is unwilling to part with, but I’m trying to get an art class to take care of them with altered book projects as you mentioned. Again, thank you for an wonderful read.

  57. Julie,
    Your essay inspired and saved me from bringing more books home; what I need to do is weed my six shelves (thank God that’s all so far…) that are full and I’m starting to pile them on the floor! I work in a college bookstore and am just about to complete my MLIS in May and I’m currently doing fieldwork at a joint-use library at the college where I work in the bookstore. The library is an academic and public library. I’ve been ‘smuggling’ books into my house for the last couple of years, because my husband had to move the boxes and boxes of them when we had to find a new home and I was in the hospital…his constant refrain is, “When are you going to read them all?”, to which I answer, “when I’m done with my Masters work”, knowing that I probably won’t. Initially my collection started with tons of paperbacks which are now yellowed with age (just like you mentioned).

    I found a printed out copy of this post at our Reference desk…perhaps it was required reading since we are going through an EXTENSIVE and long needed weeding in the academic library in order to make room for more computers and electrical outlets for laptops. I’m sure the librarians have pangs as we weed our HUGE shelves of literature books. Who can throw out Shakespeare? Well, we are…or we’re putting them on carts for patrons/students to take.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for your thought provoking and enlightening blog! The truth has set me free from the collection of books for books sake! Now, if I can just remember this so I can weed my collection in May after I graduate!

    • Glad to help! I’m still not great about weeding my home collection, but I am getting better, and I have long since stopped buying or taking books just because they are there. I still have weird proclivities, though: if I borrow a book from the library and absolutely love it, I am strongly tempted to buy my own copy to have on my home shelves. I fight it, but sometimes I lose. If I love a book that much, I want to look up from my sofa and see it on my shelf. Good luck with your Masters! (“Required reading”…I like the sound of that!”)

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  59. annec says:

    Excellent post, full of wisdom. As a public librarian, I get that call all the time from people who want to donate a “brand new” encyclopedia from the 1960s. I guess by “brand new” they mean “no one ever used it, even though it is fifty years old. And of course, when I say no thank you, they want to know whether a public school or developing country might want their old encyclopedia.

    I have started telling people that encyclopedias are like canned goods. After a certain amount of time has passed, really, no-one wants to take a chance that it *might* be okay inside.

  60. vanessa says:

    How about going the next step and working on the books in your home? I am finally reading those books I’ve had forever that I’ve been ‘meaning to read’ and once I’m done, I write down the important facts and then give them away, in good condition of course.
    It gives you a break from TV, your computer and feels really light.
    What some of you have said is so true, a book is just an object, and things are energy too!
    Let them go and free yourself (:

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  64. penelopeswan says:

    Brilliant – and I speak as one who has been called ‘some sort of book burning Nazi’ by an English teacher at the school where I am Librarian. (huh – she should see my house, then she’d know better – if I weed yours, will you weed mine?)

  65. Sally Hardman says:

    Excellent article which succinctly sums up the dilemma of a weeding librarian. I, too, live surrounded by books and cannot bear to throw away any “in case the kids want to read them – they’re brillaint reads” but at work take a hard-hearted approach to binning old, dog-eared copies of out of date volumes of both fiction and non-fiction. We also get offered everyone else’s cast-offs which sometimes contain a jewel, but usually replicate what we already have in stock (popular reads) or are so old that no one would want to take them off the shelves. We do pass on the best of the gifts to those who want them – but WE ASK FIRST! When Oxfam rejects our weeded gems then we know we were right to get rid…

  66. Karnam Lodi says:

    I enjoy keeping up with your articles. It just helps me get through the afternoon.

  67. Liz Cember says:

    If you like Hamlet enough for the notes to be worth keeping, then it’ll be worth the time to get an electronic copy and annotate it. And, plus side, it’d give you guys a chance to add two more commentaries to the work. =D

    I cleared out most of my fiction when I realized that I enjoyed spotting old friends at the library and taking them home for a visit, which I couldn’t do with their clones sitting at home. After using seven library systems in my life, I have a really good idea of which books are available in libraries.

  68. So when did you decree yourself the expert on what people should and should not read? That’s the message you’re giving out, whether you like to hear it or not. An “outdated” book, even a book offensively sexist or racist which was a product of its time (think of Nancy Drew in 1930) still should stand as a reminder to people how things used to be and unfortunately sometimes still are — haven’t you heard of the saying “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” ? It serves as education to read about what was culturally accepted years ago and yet is reprehensible today.

    You are the same sort of censoring librarian who forbade Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, Peyton Place, and other “banned” books, whether trashy, classic literature, or just common fiction, to circulate for the public to read.

    It’s all about power and control in public library systems. I’ve run into this over and over again. Once a librarian loses the capacity to oversee the circulation of books marked for discard, into the garbage it goes, rather than having someone else take it out of a freebie bin outside of the building or pay a few cents for it at a rummage sale.

    I agree that exessively grimy, irrepairably musty, mildewed, dilapidated books which are torn to shreds or have the pages falling out should be thrown away; I’ve thrown out such books myself. But my husband and I have seen perfectly acceptable, fully bound copies of 100+ year old antique books being hurled into library dumpsters (we rescued them) because “they are taking up room and no one reads them anymore.” So apparently librarians don’t find novels and biographies printed in the 1880’s, their pages intact and their covers not at all grubby, interesting, declare that they are unreadable, and therefore no one else should have them. Between the lines it reads: we librarians think those books ought to be thrown away before the common rabble out there can get their hands on them.

    An “outdated” book or any book with outdated ideas is a matter of opinion. We can’t change the past but we can educate ourselves to have a more tolerant society. Being the arbitrator of what people should and should not read is baldly stating a lust for power. You’re not kissing even a beloved favorite book, let alone a volume accidently dropped on the floor. You can’t wait to burn the books which will be out of your hands as discards, because someone not coming to your library just might read them. Shame on you for your arrogant snobbery.

    • Thanks for responding.

      Briefly, it is a librarian’s responsibility to present the best collection possible to the public, or, in my case, the school. Librarians are neither self-appointed nor self-trained in collection management. This is not snobbery, arrogance, or a lust for power, but our professional responsibility as librarians, for which we are trained, hired, and paid. Library users expect to find accurate, current information on the shelves, and that is what they deserve to find.

      An antique book may have a great deal of value to collectors or historians. No one is advocating destroying them simply because they are old. That is not the question. The question is what merits inclusion in the collection of a particular library.

      • Larry Seiler says:

        My town library has been trying to get an expansion for years so that they DON’T have to get rid of so many books. Until that happens, making room for new books means getting rid of old ones, and the librarians are indeed the people who are trained & paid to make those decisions. Our library is NOT a museum — I want there to be new books.

        FWIW, I don’t think they discard books they don’t have room for. I think they are sold (along with donated books) at the annual town book sale, with the leftovers sold to a used book store. No doubt the used book stores throw out books they can’t sell, as all businesses do with goods that can’t be sold or given away. I can’t say I’m happy that books or other goods get discarded, but what’s the alternative?

        Here’s an idea: people who don’t want books thrown out could volunteer to take the books that libraries don’t have room for. And then go around to the used book stores & do the same. Oh, they can’t because they don’t have room to store those books? Funny thing…

    • Dave S. says:

      Please direct me to the post to which you are responding. It is not on this site.

    • Anya says:

      Bravo Laura! (Thousands of volumes currently being tossed at our university library, as we prepare for the recreation of our library into (TA-DA!)…A LEARNING COMMONS! With priority given to spaces for bums in chairs, and lots of sockets for charging their gadgets! Ah, brave new world. And what are we learning and how?

  69. Here’s what I don’t understand about the library system:
    My husband, friends, and I have asked to have the unwanted books being thrown away by libraries. When we demanded, “Why? You’re just throwing them away,” we were still told no, it was “policy.” When we’d even offer to pay for books, I kid you not, we were told, “These are discards and not for sale!”

    Hey, as taxpayers, don’t WE own those books, technically? And if people are forced to believe that bureaucratic lie that books are “owned by the state”, don’t people STILL have a right to dumpster-dive if it has to descend to that, or at least catch those books before they go to the garbage and eventual polluting land-fill or incinerator?

    Well, aside from the janitor sneaking us those 1880’s original editions on the Johnstown flood, and fine copies of Maurice Matterlinck and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (which he probably would have been fired for if the librarian had found out) we’d have to risk probably the police being called on us if we lurked near a library dumpster. Indeed, in Davenport, Iowa, they PADLOCKED the dumpster after they found patrons helping themselves to books in perfectly good condition. They weren’t making a mess or causing a nuisance. The Davenport Library didn’t want those people to have those books. I can’t even begin to hazard the reason why aside from the usual terse retorts of “policy” “the system” “the way we do things” “the rules” “those books will just end up back here at the library somehow.” Come on, how often does THAT really happen?

    It used to be that when books were to be weeded out and gotten rid off, “Discard” was stamped on the book, so there was no chance of anyone out there stupidly returning book they had believed to be stolen from a library. Now I know it’s more expensive (read time-consuming, as well) to get rid of the computer bar-codes and so forth in formerly circulated books, but I still purchase library book discards frequently off of Amazion, used book stores, Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul and so forth. Gently used library books do have another life if they are permitted

    Nope, I stand by my guns. Put someone in charge of the books, and they’re going to be controlled.

    • I agree with you that discards should be available to the public, either for free or for a small price as a fundraiser for the library. Many libraries in New Jersey do this, if they have a cadre of library volunteers who are willing to run the sales, and if they have the space to set up the books to sell. I think that solution, when feasible, makes everyone feel better about discards.

      When I discarded hundreds of books from the school library that did not belong on the shelves, I set the ones that weren’t too physically damaged out on the tables for three days and sent around emails letting teachers and students know they were available. Some people took a few books, but the majority ended up in the trash. In a way, it was good public relations, because people got to see for themselves why the books didn’t belong on the shelves, and when after three days, nobody had claimed them, they understood that the books were truly unwanted.

  70. Kathleen F. Lamantia says:

    I too am a librarian, and I understand why weeding must be done. But I have a thought about your examples, the career book for women with no teachers’ jobs, and the racist tome. They do have value as cultural artifacts of a past time when things were so not as they are now that books were published, and bought and loaned by libraries, which espoused these idea and cultureal morés.

  71. Moritz says:

    Thanks for the article. Evidently it is up to the librarian to decide which books to acquire and which to discard. What I have to disagree with is the underlying assumption that the contents of all or any books become terminally outdated after a certain time. You believe – like me and the current majority – that women should work in the same range of jobs as men. This was not believed in the 19th century and it may turn out not be believed in the 22nd century – who knows. And even if it were true that certain assumptions are overcome forever, even such books may contain a lot of other useful content. I would also deny that we need to protect our children from sexist or racist content as if it was contagious and needed to be put in quarantine. On the contrary, they should be exposed to all sorts of reasonable and unreasonable beliefs in order to teach them to think for themselves. If books are culled on the ground that they do not correspond to current beliefs, we risk to arrive at a Soviet style censorship. After all, it is due to quite similar attitudes that e.g. much of ancient literature was lost, because librarians considered it outdated and contrary to Christian doctrine, which was assumed to be universally and eternally valid. So while I think you are perfectly right to replace less interesting with more interesting books due to limited shelf space, the motive should not be whether we take offense at their content

    • As I may have noted before (and I don’t expect anyone to go through all hundred comments before responding), my library is a high school library, where students and teachers expect to find current materials reflecting the curriculum and the current state of knowledge.

      Removing dated material from the shelves is not, in this case, an exercise in Soviet-style censorship, nor the equivalent of the burning of the Library of Alexandria. My students are between the ages of 14 and 19, and few have the background yet to judge whether a book is on the shelf as a historical artifact or as a reliable, current source. It has nothing to do with whether they would be offended by it, or I would.

      In any case, their curriculum does not require them to do original research into dated ideas as represented in high school library books.

      These are not the last available copies of these titles, nor is this high school library the place where scholars research the attitudes and beliefs of the past, but even academic libraries need to weed. Naturally, I agree that SOME libraries (not EVERY library) should hold on to the archives containing ideas, beliefs, and attitudes of the past, for historical purposes. But high school and most public libraries are not obligated to do so, especially since no one uses our collections for these purposes.

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  73. 1. I’m a reference book horder. I can’t seem to part with the bricks. Everything is, basically, on the the old Interweb.

    2. The one Crime I see in our public libraries is the preponderance of self-help books and
    books on gardening. We need books more books on technology–period.

    3. I will repeat–we need more books on technology.

    4. The books on all firms of technology and science should take up at least 1/2 of the library.

    5. I believe if the library buying habits radically change people will start using the library again.

  74. bluesage63 says:

    Yesterday I wrote a piece on this subject. My piece spoke of brand new books being thrown in the Local Dump because the School had closed their Occupational Center Library to make room for an administrative office that was moving there. There were many books that could have been donated to the local schools and local town libraries (of which there are few). I live in a depressed area of New York State where access to computers in very limited as well as web access in general. Also there are very limited budgets in the schools. I’m curious how you feel about this case?

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  76. Thank you for sharing something inspirational. It is really a great idea.

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  79. >>>>An anthropology book called The Races of Man explained, scientifically of course, why some races were more evolved than others. A book originally published in the 19th century and gamely reprinted in the 1920s, defended the early European settlers of North America, downplaying their casual brutality towards the Indians by recasting their actions in light of their Christian intentions.<<<

    So, the author throws out the books that do not suit her for ideological reasons? It's disgusting, I think.

  80. Larry Seiler says:

    Um… or she could be throwing out books that no one is interested in reading anymore. Did you notice that your thesis depends on beliving that “casual brutality towards the Indians” is a matter of ideology? What a fascinating revelation!

    BTW, if you bothered to read the whole thread, you’d fine that she keeps books that she very likely disagrees with ideologically on the grounds that the students are interested in them. Which is what a librarian ought to do.

  81. Joseph Battaglia says:

    Joe Battle: I have hundreds of books, classics mostly, that have become mildewed, although they are otherwise perfectly readable. But if I cannot enjoy them without wearing goggles, why should I shift them off on someone else? Yet I wonder why slick periodicals and newspapers can be recycled for the better good, while not basement and garage-kept books? Next stop is the dumpster. Any other options? JB

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  83. Janene Shannon says:

    I have just recently donated my “private home library” to goodwill. I am surrounded by books everyday at work, never looking at my home collection, what was the point? Hope someone else makes good use of my donation.

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  86. Davide says:

    So a book from decades ago is no longer valuable because society’s values and prejudices have changed. Your policy of tossing books you disagree with actually does make you one of the “book-burning thugs” you mention.

  87. Larry says:

    She doesn’t throw out books she disagrees with: she removes books that nobody reads, to make room for books that people will read. All libraries do this except research libraries — and they also do it (or have it done to them) if funding runs short. Would anyone other than a researcher ever read “a book entitled Careers for Women that included secretary, piano teacher and flight attendant, but strangely enough, not public school teacher”?

    Of course, if you would care to donate to your local library so that it has enough money to store books nobody looks at, you’d be welcome. But they’d rather spend that money to buy books that people want to read. In the meantime, doing more reading of your own, including reading past the first two paragraphs before you decide that you understand what an author is saying, would help avoid leaping to foolish assumptions.

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  89. Akka Fakka says:

    While I agree with the sentiment (“books are not magical objects, and thus like any other object once they have outlived their usefulness they should be disposed of”) … I find statements like this disturbing:

    “Books with dated attitudes and information”

    What makes a book one of “dated attitudes”?

    Does anybody recall the scandal when school systems wanted to ban Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn because – shock! – they were about white boys consorting with black people. How dare you ban books! You’re banning learning!

    But … it’s okay to get rid of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn because of their ‘dated attitudes’ towards racial categorization and relations?

    Here’s the thing: I look at the picture of the author and I can guess, to a probably 99% accuracy, exactly what types of information she would consider ‘dated’. I really don’t want the squishy, self-hating product of 60 years of liberal-arts ‘education’ ruining our society making decisions about what books should be publicly available.

    • If I were a fan of censorship, I probably wouldn’t have approved your comment.

      You know, it’s one thing to look at my picture and presume that I’m self-hating, but I hope you’re not implying that I look sixty.

      • Larry says:

        Julie, it amazes me how eager some people are to display their ignorance and prejudice. He didn’t even read your actual criteria for selecting books to discard before sounding off. Aside from completely missing that you are neither banning books nor deciding what “the public” should see. Ah, but who needs facts when you have preconceptions?

      • Akka Fakka would be relieved to learn that our copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, as well as Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange, and many other commonly banned books, remain on our shelves. We’ve got Edmund Burke, Ayn Rand, and the Federalist Papers, too, lest anyone suspect that our shelves have been poisoned by sixty years of liberal education.
        We don’t throw books out for being controversial.
        Thanks, Larry.

    • St. Chris says:

      Ooh! Ooh! Look ay MY picture now! What can you guess about ME?

  90. Ray Wells says:

    Don’t do it! The library of alexandria contained many out of date and contradictory volumes, before it was destroyed…setting mankind back nearly a thousand years. Imagine what would happen if you could no longer get an i-pad or kindle…do you have a kaypro computer handy to read this book I have? What? never heard of it?
    I hope that makes my point clear. We are doomed if we allow too much information to be stored in one location..and I do mean digitally as ONE location, especially when corporations are currently pushing people to accept “updates” that remove unused or “out of date” volumes they have purchased from every unit at once. Yikes! it’s Alexandria all over again!

    As for old versions of books, they are often the only record that remains of previous political leanings and influences for an era. Erasing this historical evidence too often could result in a greatly variable “version” of history, even more subject to the sands of time and politics than before.

    As for your opinion of what is an “egregious” example…those are HISTORY, and should be shown to people as an example of the barbarities we have overcome, not buried from the public eye..to be eventually forgotten and repeated.

  91. Larry says:

    Your attitude is commendable when applied to a research library. I live near a research library that has examples of a large fraction of all colonial-era printed documents. You can bet they aren’t ever going to throw anything away.

    What you didn’t notice is that Julie runs a High School library. The purpose of the library is to provide books to High School students, not researchers. And every book she keeps that the students wouldn’t ever read prevents some other book from being on the shelves that they would.

    • Also, if her secondary-school library were anything like mine, there are probably still interesting educational volumes from generations past for her students to peruse: I remember as a high-school student finding books from the 1950s that still had relevant material about metallic and crystalline structures and about how certain machines worked, and today her library likely has useful material in a similar vein from the early 1970s.

      For those of us complaining about censorship on her part (as she has also addressed in the comments), the “inaccurate, outdated books” she refers to are not books of literary importance but books once used for reference or education, like old encyclopedias, textbooks, and career or self-help books; it’s doubtful that Huckleberry Finn will be regularly discarded within the lifetime of anyone currently living, but resources like Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, or the 13th Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (or even the last printing, now 4 years old), while useful for reflecting on the state of knowledge at the time (for example, in legal interpretation, Webster’s Second is excellent for looking up the ordinary meanings of words in the 1930s), are not useful for today’s high-school students.

      That reminds me: Are any English-language encyclopedias still in print, other than World Book? I learned a few months ago that in a decade and a half, the other major ones all went out of print (Funk & Wagnalls 1997, Collier’s 1998, Americana 2006, Compton’s 2009, Britannica 2010). Then again, with the availability of less-expensive and more-timely online versions, like from World Book and Britannica, there’s little demand for print encyclopedias in libraries, and with the rise of Wikipedia there’s little demand in homes.

  92. This is the worst article about libraries that I have ever read. I hope you will consider leaving the profession of librarian and instead go into teaching computer science or technology. Anyone who doesn’t love the feel of a book should not be allowed to call themselves a librarian. As a science teacher, I collect old out of date science books because I love seeing what is presented as fact and is now wrong. It’s great. My favorite books are my collection of tiny, leather bound classic pocket books from the 20’s. I also love my giant Barlett Book of Familiar Quotations. I have quite a number of them, since each edition is different. They are a true reflection of the culture of the time it was printed. I love my books. I write in my books, illustrate them, write questions to the author in the margins, make lists in the back of favorite quotes, they are a joy. None of these pleasures can be found in an electronic book. None. I have sermon books my grandfather used for inspiration with underlined phrases and sermon outlines written on chapter heads. Where would that occur in an electronic book? Shall I scan these books and then throw them away? There is nothing like the EXPERIENCE of holding a book in your hand, of greedily reading the pages, of knowing that this ancient art of writing still exists, and you are a part of reading someone else’s soul. No electricity required.

  93. And, since my comment is awaiting moderation, meaning it will never show on the page, I’m sharing my comment with all my Facebook friends, many of whom are authors, teachers, and librarians. Real librarians, still in love with books, authors who still write real text and sign books and give copies. I love them and appreciate them all so much. We will keep books alive.

    • I hope you have also provided them a link to the blog post so that they can read it themselves and see if they agree with your interpretation of what you read here.

      I approve all comments that are not spam or abusive.

  94. Larry says:

    Will you post an apology to your FB feed now that your comments have appeared in the blog? If you’d bothered to READ this blog, you’d know that she has posted far more hostile rants than yours & would have spared yourself this embarrassment.

    As for your main point, more power to you in your personal hobby of collecting out of date books. I also love & collect physical books, for many of the reasons you state. But I love my books too much to write in them, though you certainly have a right to treat your own books that way.

    Now ask your school to fund that hobby. Ask them to pay for extra shelves in your classroom & pay for a bigger classroom once your room is full of these books that YOU love but that your students ignore — and should ignore in the case of out-of-date science books. Let us know how that works out for you. Or if you recognize the absurdity, then you owe another apology to a working librarian who has to meet the needs of her students with a fixed size space to which new books are always being added.

  95. Helen says:

    A splendid read! I found it very amusing as well as thought-provoking😊.

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  97. Devin says:

    I am an artist living and working in Brooklyn and am trying to procure a large sum of books for some projects I have in mind. How do you think I could convince local libraries here to donate to the cause? I’ve tried calling and writing and letting them in on my ideas but they have always told me to come to the book sale “next July” or whatever… Maybe it’s just a NYC thing?

    • Did you try a Goodwill store? I think they are still getting more book donations than they can handle and may be willing to sell a large number of them to you for very little. You never heard it from me, but check the Dumpster behind the libraries or the Goodwill (or other thrift stores that sell books but don’t have much shelf space). I know used book stores get all kinds of books they can’t possibly sell, so maybe see if you can make friends with a used book dealer?

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  99. Lisa says:

    I came across your blog because I am interested in doing a mixed media art project, but having a hard time with the idea of tearing pages out of books. I have some books from the 1800’s that I still don’t think I could do that to, but now, perhaps, going through some old boxes of books from the 50s and 60s might yield some material. It’s a hard hump to overcome, however. Those ideas are so ingrained. Thanks for the great post.

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  101. Paul says:

    Thank you, Julie, for the liberating permission. I’ve been lugging around my science text books from college and med school for decades, partly as trophies and partly as a bibliophile. Time to shed finally. Outdated science is of no use to anyone. Maybe they’ll be reincarnated as paper bags or some such. Full disclosure: I had to keep a few “for historical purposes” and pride. My heirs will just have to drag them to the gutter when they clean out my belongings, I guess.

  102. Ken Harrell says:

    I can understand weeding out damaged books from library shelves, but to discard perfectly good books (often to become landfill garbage) to make room for more recently published books is an interesting concept that turns librarians into little book gods, deciding the fates of books sitting on their shelves. You’re wrong to do so. Books are things to be protected and cherished, not garbage for landfills.

    • Huck says:

      So how much shelf space do you have personally? Can they count on you to take the remaining 300 books after the next book sale?

  103. Ken harrell says:

    Weeding out library shelves for the sake of making room for new books is only beneficial to those of us who still use the public library system if the new books are worthy of shelf space. I’ve seen great books removed from the library shelves to make room for popular books that will have very little value as literature at all. We owe it to literature to keep good books shelved, even at the risk of having no space left for badly written pulp novels. But of course, we all know that libraries won’t get federal funding unless there’s a need for new books. So, literature goes to landfills and pulp fiction gets shelf space in our libraries. It’s all about money, not the beauty of the written word.

    • Larry says:

      My impression is that books are not discarded by libraries for being old, but for not being checked out. It does no good to have books on the shelves that aren’t being read, and libraries can’t make people read books. So the collection must reflect what the patrons are interested in reading.

      A research library has different rules. E.g., there is a research library in Worcester MA devoted to early American printing. They are trying to collect an example of every item printed in the colonies before a specified date. They don’t cull works for being unread — but their patrons are researchers, not the general public.

    • Kathleen Lamantia says:

      Well said, Ken

    • Merf56 says:

      Ken, with all due respect have you never been in a small community library? If books were never culled you couldn’t get in the door. The same for school libraries. They are finite spaces.
      Another point you are discounting is a community library should be housing the books that the community wants to read. If they are not reading the crumbling copy of Montaigne’s essays, no matter how intellectually stimulating they may be to people like us, and are ASKING for a popular mystery series to be carried , or a series of gardening books that are popular, who are YOU to force them to read the Montaigne?? Who died and left you literature tsar!! Librarians make hard choices just like we all do in life. They do it from a broader perspective than you and I might not understand fully. Questioning it is fine but you attitude and tone are inappropriate.

  104. Larry says:

    Here’s a fascinating article about cataloging books so that patrons can find books that interest them — and a politician who is inserting himself into the job of updating how books are cataloged. It also contains a great summary of the basic principles of librarianship:


    As a profession our concerns are rooted ultimately in the principles of librarianship laid down by the great early 20th century librarian Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, known to all librarians as “The Five Laws”:

    Books are for use.
    Every reader his / her book.
    Every book its reader.
    Save the time of the reader.
    The library is a growing organism.

    Libraries are not static collections of dusty tomes, reserved for the intellectual elite. They are, as Ranganathan affirms, living organisms that must constantly change and adapt to their environment. And their ultimate purpose is not simply to be a storehouse of books, but to make those books useful to patrons.

  105. Devin Kain says:

    Send me all the books!

    No seriously. I am an artist and trying to recycle books into other art forms (as recycling them into paper plates at your next BBQ) and am always contacting schools and libraries for their throw-outs.

    • Larry says:

      How do you recycle books into sanitary paper plates?

      Shipping books isn’t economically viable, but I have a lovely Encyclopedia Britannica set that you are welcome to pick up for an art project, if you are ever in central Massachusetts.We’d love to keep it, but we have boxes full of books that we’d like to unpack. The Britannica takes 6 linear feet of shelving, and we’re out of walls we can put bookcases against.

      Our shelves, like those in a working library, are limited & must be used for the books we most want to access.We haven’t yet thrown them out, because we do love books, but really there’s no choice if we can’t find someone to take them. Our house is not a museum.

      • Devin Kain says:

        I meant to say “as oppose to recycling…” (;

        Thanks so much for the offer. Next time I’m up in Massachusetts I will make sure to contact you!

  106. Yes I’m naive. Just discovered May 2016, weeding is taking place every week at my local public library. The librarian who runs my mum’s book club confirmed, they use a computer program that let’s staff know that X book has not been taken out for X amount of years–so it gets dumped. Maybe some books are outdated, or racist/or sexist, and I understand weeding then as necessary, but I wonder who is making these substantive decisions? Because it seems like they are relying on the computer in my town. For example: books I’ve recently rescued include a few history books one about Elizabeth I, Grant takes command by Civil War Historian Bruce Catton, as well as Sylvia Beach’s excellent memoir about Shakespeare & Co./her publishing James Joyce. Oh and I found two (2) first editions (so far), both worth money via quick online searches. All were in the dumpster, not recycle, not their in-house thrift store, not put aside for a free at our upcoming open/farmer’s market–where one summer I bought books at the library table to give them a donation, and subsequently returned a book by post to a nearby high school library & got a thank you note back. Also no one called Good Will, the Salvation Army, the Vietnam Vets NP — that all pick up and resell/recycle books or called the Super Used Bookstore chain. Yes naive. I could never afford to buy all books I wanted, but always supported my public library through several threats of closing. The books they discard will be sent to the troops in care packages, and to a volunteer setting up free libraries at his local VA & its clinics in Ohio. Others will go to local Little Free Libraries or moved along via Bookcrossing.com. Naive as I am I will continue to rescue as many as possible.

    • The process should never be dome solely by algorithm. Weeding should involve critical thinking. I should write another essay sometime about the old books I’ve kept in the collection because they were timeless or simply beautiful, regardless of how often they’d circulated.

      • Sadly this is not the process my local library is using. I’ve found books by Lillian Hellman and Bruce Catton, as well as 3 first editions of other books, that are sought after collectibles. So I’ll be continuing to visit and rescue and also folding it into the narrative of my short story/blog.

      • Jess says:

        I’ve heard of renegade librarians who when mandated to weed books based on some algorithm rather than critical thinking will create dummy accounts to check out books at haven’t been checked out in ages and protect them from being weeded unnecessarily

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  108. Judy Houbre says:

    Thank you for this essay. I make book art from books that people are discarding. Some people are outraged and many are thankful and amazed. I will be referring people to this link to educate themselves.


    • Kathleen Lamantia says:

      “Book art” is the destruction of books, no matter how creatively it might be done. I weep when I see it.

  109. Kitty says:

    I appreciate this article. I have been holding on to hundreds, if not thousands of books as I move from a classroom teacher, to and intervention teacher and back. This year I will once again be an intervention teacher and I was finally able to let my books go. I realized that some of those books had been with me for 15 years and that they had serviced my students and I well. However, with a critical eye I realized that spines were cracked, pages were yellow and brittle, and covers were sticky. They had many stickers with my name, genre, and book leveling system of the day. Many people told me “give them to schools in need.” Instead, I picked out the few favorites in good shape and recycled the rest! What about the needy schools? My plan is to donate the money I would normally spend on my classroom and class library to those very schools so they can buy brand-new, shiny books!

  110. I have the same opinion as Cleopatra:
    “How DARE you and the rest of your barbarians set fire to my library! Play conqueror all you want, Mighty Caesar! Rape, murder, pillage thousands, even millions of human beings! But neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!”
    In other words, if we do not save and study the records from the past, how people thought, their views, their mistakes, we are doomed to repeat their mistakes. Old dusty books have a lot more to say than brand-new, shiny books full of today’s views, and trendy thoughts.

    • That’s why we have archives. There are Last Copy Centers in large public and university library systems to ensure that the last copy of any book is carefully preserved and never discarded. But it does not follow that every school and neighborhood library is an archive or a Last Copy Center. People who protest the weeding of their local libraries don’t understand their community institution’s mission and purpose. It’s like being mad at your family practitioner for not performing brain surgery. That service is provided to those who need it, but not in this place, and not by these particular people.

      • We have become such an in the moment, trendy, throwaway society. It is horrible, and very sad to see great books, and collections go into dumpsters. Or what is the catchphrase today “recycled” … I would have less of an issue with this pruning trend as long as the books are sent to “Better World Books”, thrift bookstores, or given to caring individuals that will cherish, protect and respect the gift of knowledge they receive … I am deeply concerned about libraries that secretly dispose of thousands of volumes of books without trying to place these books with booksellers, or even have a community sale. Also with the threat of a nuclear war always on the horizon, and the very real possibility that the “internet clouds” could be wiped out forever, is it wise to empty our regional and community libraries of their real “hard copy” collections that took over a century of hard work to build. Can we not save the survivors of a holocaust many well stocked community, and regional libraries to rebuild their world? This would be such a blessing of wisdom should their community survive the aftermath of a global catastrophe. Or do we want them go endure a thousand year dark age …

  111. Larry says:

    “Emptying their collections?” Have you read ANYTHING in this thread? Libraries buy new books that their clients want to read. They have to find room for them. I encourage you to go to your local school library and offer to take any books that they don’t have room for and can’t find another destination for.

  112. What a horrible, and tragic age we live in, what does it remind me of?
    Ah, yes a book that is probably no longer available in your public libraries … Fahrenheit 451
    “Guy Montag: Well, it’s a job just like any other. Good work with lots of variety. Monday, we burn Miller; Tuesday, Tolstoy; Wednesday, Walt Whitman; Friday, Faulkner; and Saturday and Sunday, Schopenhauer and Sartre. We burn them to ashes and then burn the ashes. That’s our official motto.” Fahrenheit 451
    “Cousin Claudette: Today’s figures for operations in the urban area alone account for the elimination of a total of 2,750 pounds of conventional editions, 836 pounds of first editions, and 17 pounds of manuscripts were also destroyed. Twenty-three anti-social elements were detained, pending re-education.” Fahrenheit 451

    • I think you’re just ranting now, and I don’t get the impression you know a lot about how public or school libraries function.
      Check your local library catalog. If it’s a large enough system, you can get Fahrenheit 451 in regular print, large print, audio CD, e-book, and downloadable audio. You can get it in Braille or Talking Book format, if need be. There’s even a graphic novel edition.
      Our age may be horrible and tragic for a variety of reasons, but not because librarians are weeding.

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