Librarians’ Choices

Librarians are the gatekeepers of civilization. Perhaps I should say “guardians.” “Gatekeepers” implies that librarians decide what to admit and what to keep out.

In a way, though, librarians do have to make choices about what books reside in their libraries. They must make decisions based on space, for example, although through interlibrary loans that are now available to patrons, a wider selection of books is available than can be stored in a single building. But interlibrary loans take a while to get to the ordering library. Patrons would prefer it if the book in question were available on the shelves of their nearest branch, and right away, with no queues for bestsellers.

Librarians must go through a selection process to determine what books (and CDs and DVDs and magazines and newspapers, etc.) they will stock on their shelves. Not even the Library of Congress has every book ever printed. (My two books, for example, are not in their collection.) In order to make room for new books, librarians will “weed” their collections, consult their computers to determine what books haven’t been checked out with any regularity, and then get rid of them, often by holding library book sales. That’s one part of the selection process. (Books about making fondue, for example, likely haven’t been checked out in decades and would have been weeded years ago. Besides, people can and do now share fondue recipes online. But I digress.)

At the rate that books are being published, no library can keep up. Librarians consult references like the Ingram Spark catalog, and reviewers like Kirkus and Booklist to find new books that fill a hole in their collection – both fiction and nonfiction. Of course, these new selections are limited by budget, a factor largely dependent on tax dollars and voters these days. Publishers don’t just send libraries free copies of newly published books. Libraries buy books from library “jobbers” or distributors for more than the price they’re sold for at bookstores. Libraries have to pay extra because of the special library binding.

You might think that authors don’t like having their books available in a public library, but you’d be wrong. Library sales can total even more than bookstore or online sales. And reading a library copy of an author’s book can inspire a reader to buy their own copy or seek out other works by the same author. And the author does receive royalties for sales to libraries.

Now, however, there is much talk of censorship and what ought to be included in a library. Librarians have always stood against censorship and kept numerous copies of “forbidden” books on their shelves. Not that they’ve always been successful at keeping them on the shelves. Patrons routinely steal books from libraries, and when the subject is controversial, they sometimes take the book in question into the bathroom and deface it.

Schools and other institutions have more stringent rules for what they select for their libraries. A K-6 school, for example, would not own copies of graduate-level tomes. Their selection process would favor topics that are covered in the school curriculum and books that are likely to be interesting or useful to the age group served by the school. Sometimes parents become involved, petitioning schools or school boards to remove controversial books from school libraries. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. But librarians tend to come down on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion, and have a differing opinion on what books might be interesting or useful or controversial. All of them are against book banning.

Then there are special-purpose libraries that have even more stringent selection criteria. A library in a correctional facility will have law books and even Shakespeare, but no books about gangs, Nazis, or drug use, for obvious reasons. (My husband once worked in a community-based correctional facility, which is how I know this. And no, that’s not where we met.) Prisons are also likely to include books at less-than-high-school reading levels, to take into account the population they serve. That is to say, they don’t discriminate against the minimally literate, but give them what they need and want.

It’s sad when a library closes, even if it’s just to merge with another one to offer more resources than either has individually. It still means that people who live in the catchment area of the smaller library have a harder time getting access to books and other media. But to bibliophiles and library-lovers, there was almost no historical event as tragic as the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the murder of library guru Hypatia in 415 BC. After all these years, that still hurts.

Librarians are often stereotyped as repressed spinsters who delight in shushing people who dare make noises louder than the faint rustle of pages within their domain. In reality, they are, like the libraries where they work, upholders of the tradition of free, public access to learning. I can’t imagine life without them.

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