Magazine article American Libraries

The Boors Strike Back

Magazine article American Libraries

The Boors Strike Back

Article excerpt

IT WAS WITH GREAT INTEREST AND A SOUR stomach that I read J. Wesley Miller's essay "Throwing Out Belles Lettres with the Bathwater" (AL, June, p. 384 -- 85). The library profession is once more embroiled in the battle of the Bores vs. the Boors. The Bores are the hoarders, who wish to lay up treasures on this earth. The Boors, like myself, would like to toss out all that old junk and get something new in a gaudy dust jacket that will circulate. Proffessor Miller has thrown the glove; I'd like to reply.

Miller appears to have gotten a good stiff dose of reality shock when he ventured out of his Ivory Tower and collided with the 20th century at his local public library. Three cheers for the public libraries of the state of Vermont. I can't think of a bigger waste of the taxpayers' money than establishing Miller's collection of unwanted books. Public libraries are run for the educational benefit and reading enjoyment of their users. Librarians buy and retain books that people want to read based on public demand, not on the size of the library. The medieval mystique of the library as a warehouse for aging codices went out with the turn of the century. Let me quote that arch-Boor, John Cotton Dana, on the subject:

In general, remember always 1) that the public owns its public library, and 2) that no useless lumber is more useless than unused books. People will use a library, not because, in others' opinions, they ought to, but because they like to.

Public librarians have a moral obligation and a public duty to provide what their users want to read. We don't have a duty to clutter up the shelves with outdated esoterica. Shelf space is not free. It costs the taxpayers of Ohio County, West Virginia, for example, about $11.50 per square foot per year. Professor Miller probably hasn't priced library shelving recently; I have, and I'd rather spend the money on books that will be read than on storage racks for books that won't. Better read than dead

If a book's not read, it's worthless. Learning is a process that actively involves the mind of the learner; it's not an object that's passively stored on the shelf. Any library that loses sight of that distinction is a failure. The purpose of the library is to promote reading, not to store books. Miller's statement that "Thackeray is a green binding with gold stamping and beveled boards" is the most bizarre epistemological aberration I have ever encountered. Thackeray is nothing unless someone opens the covers and reads what he has to say. And librarians know from our circulation records that the reading public is many times more likely to do that if the covers are encased in a modern dust jacket with a plastic cover.

The greatest service a librarian can do the cause of literature is to buy a paperback edition of a classic with a four-color cover and put it out on the new book shelf. Doing so tripled our library's circulation of Anna Karenina and Resurrection last year. It's the reading and thinking that count, not the binding. To pretend that learning is being advanced by warehousing worthless bundles of paper is economic folly and intellectual fraud. Cool on Cooper

Old books go to the book sale because they're no longer read, not because of their age. …

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