Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Books as junk

While books remain fundamentally objects of art and communication to me, decades of library work have also put me in a constant, secondary relationship to them as things. They are wonderful, magical, interesting, thrilling, pointless, and infuriating expressions of thought, art, and design, but they are also mere coal, and I shovel it. They are bricks, and I stack them. They are recyclables, and I sort them, even if they can turn suddenly into birds in my hands.

In the first decade of my work here, and then some, these materials I worked with possessed a greater intrinsic value. I could still be rough with them. They could still be mere bricks to me at times. But they were also the whole game. A book was the only way to read a book. A CD or cassette or album was how one listened to music of one's own choice. Not only that, but our collection was a growing thing. The idea of my library having more books, or more videocassettes, was valued by us, was part of our identification. It was our goal and what made us an increasingly better, more interesting library.

Cut forward to the present and much has changed. Our stacks are maxed out, and it has been at least ten years since we had any interest, even through massive building remodels, expansions, and new construction, in creating any new space for any new materials. Our focus has shifted to services, classes, databases and the digital world. Underneath, as I have argued recently, we are still fundamentally brick and mortar, but the reality of space and cultural valuations of physical media has altered the preciousness of each item that comes through my hands. We are not looking for ways to preserve every element of our collection we can, rather we are actively looking for excuses and justifications to get rid of things we do have. Every marginal item we can weed is a still popular, or relevant item we aren't forced to weed for space.

Not much more than ten years ago there was a mini scandal involving a local library system. It turned out a local news team uncovered evidence that this library system was simply throwing weeded books away, like, in a dumpster! Ripples of horror sounded through the local book world. Careful reforms circulated into the metro area. Imagining the same event happening today one can easily imagine a phlegmatic response to anyone's concern. "Find someone who wants them and they can have them. And good luck to that."

So how does this effect me, down in the trenches, shoveling books, hoisting them like sacks of flour? I find I have to actively remind myself of these materials expendability. But once I do there is a kind of pleasure in it. One has a lot of aggression to work out spending so many hours laboring away in a library. What better place to unleash that but upon our Berenstain Bear books, or our Barbie Videos. And when they're all a bit battered up it can be quite cheering to weed them without compunction and toss them unceremoniously in the garbage.

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