Where are all the books?

Is destroying books really the solution to space concerns and other issues in our libraries? wikimedia.org/photos

Have you ever wondered where all the books in your local library that disappear to make way for new books go?


Well, if you’re one of those who think that destroying a book—yes, any book, for any reason—is absolutely, inherently, even morally wrong… read on. You will certainly be shocked at what you learn, but then again, you may find a new cause to believe in.

You may have heard the rumours from the recent book-pulping scandals that have hit universities in Australia and elsewhere: libraries are throwing out books rather than donating or selling them.


Could it be true? Are books being destroyed? Why is it happening?


It seems that rather than selling or donating books—and not just any books, but good books in good condition—libraries everywhere are opting to throw them out because it is simply much cheaper than giving them away.


New books come out by the millions each year—indeed, each week. So what are libraries and bookstores supposed to do with the old books that don’t circulate at all, that collect dust on bookshelves, taking up space that new, perhaps more popular, books need?


According to Betsy Simpson, the president of the ALA’s Association for Library Collections and Technical Services, there is a huge space concern. Library users require that libraries provide space to interact and contemplate. The issue is: why should libraries fill up that space with more shelves to hold new books when old books are taking up all the space that is needed for people to sit down and actually read the books that are available? Worse, even if they did use that space, eventually more new books would come in and the problem would still exist. The solution they’ve found seems to be: Why not just get rid of the old books?


Libraries don’t want to spend their money farming out books that need to be de-catalogued, de-stamped, and de-bugged in order to be taken out of the system; that is economically unfeasible, they say.


Another basic reason for the so-called “book-burning era” is that books are simply out of fashion now. University students nowadays prefer to do their research online. Last March, the University of North South Wales came under massive criticism for “weeding out” centuries-old journal collections, newspapers, and books because they needed to clear space to create lounges for students to study.


Peter Slezak, an associate professor in the school of history and philosophy at the university, says this is part of a new university policy that is turning the library into “a kind of Starbucks”.


Recently, when Borders went out of business, they rapidly decreased the prices of their books by intervals until they were going for next to nothing—and yet by the end some books still remained unsold. Could it be that some books are just unneeded, unwanted, and, therefore, unsalvageable?


Perhaps this is part of a bigger issue: are books going out of business? Books are out, e-books are in, and libraries are going digital. With Amazon announcing the Kindle Fire, an android-based touch-screen device, last September, there was speculation about whether anyone even needs to go down to the public library to look for a movie or a book when everything is just a click away, along with easy access to thousands of cheap or free applications. The possibility of a completely digital library is not so bizarre, it seems.


So what do you think? Are libraries meant to archive old and precious literature, or are they more like video stores, in which anything that has not been taken out for more than five years is culled, discarded, deemed unsalvageable? Should print copies of journals be discarded when online archival access to the same journals is available to students and academics?


Many people think that a library is not meant to be some sort of museum of old books, but a place where students and academics can subscribe to the most up-to-date journals and literature for research.


But as David Miller, a professor at the University of North South Wales, said: “There’s something profoundly wrong and symbolically wrong about a university destroying books. Universities are in the business of passing on knowledge— and books, no matter how the use of books is shrinking, still remain a very important symbol of knowledge.”