Libraries and the need for selectivity, change – and shrinkage?

September 24, 2013 at 1:23 am (books, Library)

There’s been quite a bit in the news recently about the Fairfax County Virginia library system. It’s the kind of glaring media exposure that no organization wants. And as is so often the case, the situation arose from said organization’s combination of secretiveness, myopia, hubris, and just plain bad judgment.

Nestled up against the nation’s capital, Fairfax County is a prosperous, populous, and highly educated jurisdiction. So the citizens of same were not best pleased when it became known that the county library system was ridding itself of a large number of books. And not just ridding itself, but tossing said ‘detritus’ into dumpsters.

Just how many books are we talking about? Brace yourself: about 250,000.


Public libraries are required to periodically weed their collections to make room for new materials. With regard to this process, two important issues must be addressed: What are the criteria for removal of the items from the collection, and what is to be done with said items? It’s that second question that’s at the root of the Fairfax County flap. It seems that in past years, the system has done what many other libraries have done: made the items in question available  for purchase by local residents. In many cases, volunteers will handle these sales  events, thereby generating funds for the library and good will in the community.

Apparently, Fairfax County has gone this route in the past. But for some reason, they decided not to, this time. Was organizing a sale of materials deemed to be too much trouble? Who knows. At any rate, the deciders of Fairfax County opted for the quickest clear out possible of the unwanted volumes. Word of these draconian measures got out. Articles appeared in the Washington Post, including a piece by one of my favorite columnists, Petula Dvorak. Ms Dvorak does not suffer fools gladly (thus ensuring that she never runs out of subject matter), and she raked library officials over the coals for engaging in this egregious action. The controversy even made it onto the Post’s editorial page.

As usually happens when events of this kind are held up to the public gaze, the folks in charge began furiously backpedaling. The Fairfax Library Board of Trustees has announced their intention to suspend all further action “until the library board can get more input from library staff and customers.” Well, good for them. Would that  they had solicited that input in the first place.

I’ve thought for some time now that the statistics made available by computerized circulation systems represent a double edged sword. Sure, they provide useful information about a library’s collection, but they also reveal which items in that collection are lovely movers and which are shelf sitters. Obviously, among the latter are some lesser known gems which will not be flying out the door on a regular basis. At the very least, those works selected for discarding on the basis of low circulation numbers should first be looked at by knowledgeable staff and evaluated for their intrinsic worth.

Despite the incursion of e-books, physical books are still very much with us. We still love them; some of us prefer them as vehicles of content. Who among the legions of lifelong passionate book lovers and library users has not discovered one of those ‘lesser known gems’ while idly browsing the shelves? To my way of thinking, stewardship of the back list should be a vital concern for all libraries.


And while we are on the subject of strange library-related matters, I would draw your attention to the strange and unanticipated fate that has befallen the public library of Hanover, Pennsylvania. In 2006, in place of a small and unpretentious, though somewhat aged facility, a new  library opened in the borough of Hanover. There were now three floors to house an expanded collection. A large meeting room on the basement floor was fitted out with the latest in electronic accoutrements and other amenities. The new building incorporated elements of the old, most especially the lovely stained glass window. (Click here to read about the library’s history.)  Hanover2

Last month, I traveled to Hanover to deliver a lecture on Somerset Maugham and to lead a discussion of his novel The Painted Veil. The event took place in the library’s Hormel Reading Room, . (I’ve had the privilege of being part of this lecture/discussion series since its inception in the early 1990’s. I led two of those sessions that year; my topics were Sue Grafton and G Is for Gumshoe, and Judith Van Gieson and The Other Side of Death.)

My reception at Hanover was as warm and welcoming as ever. I held forth on Maugham in the Hormel Reading Room, home to the above mentioned window. As a venue for a lecturer, the space presented some challenges, but by and large, things went well. At the conclusion of my talk, I was entreated to come back next year. I accepted the invitation but intended to ask, at a later time, whether the venue might be changed.

I needn’t have worried….

Little did I know when I was there in August that the Hanover library was embroiled in controversy over a proposal to consolidate the library so that all the materials would reside on the main floor. This would make the second and third floors available for other uses, the first of these being a commercial enterprise aimed at repurposing the space for use in galas, weddings, and other such events. This meant among other things the wholesale relocation of the children’s and young adult collections.

Eyes, look your last: The Childrens department, before being dismantled and moved to the Hormel Reading Room

Eyes, look your last: The Children’s department, before being dismantled and moved to the Hormel Reading Room

By the reckoning of one prominent citizen of Hanover, the library will now possess less square footage than it did before the renovation.

Plenty of people in the borough of Hanover are feeling frustrated and betrayed. Like us here in Howard County and like the citizens of Fairfax County Virginia, they love their library. As for me, I feel just plain sad. The Hanover Library – actually the Guthrie Library now, after one of its major donors – has become a special place  for me and given me a chance to interact with some wonderful people who love books and reading as much as I do.


While Sue Grafton has gone on to greater fame and glory, Judith Van Gieson never achieved comparable recognition, though I believe that she’s currently an esteemed regional author. I will always have a special fondness for her Neil Hamel novels. Neil is a lawyer; like her creator, she lives in Albuquerque. These books helped inspire me to visit New Mexico, the aptly named Land of Enchantment.

The Other Side of Death opens with a memorable description of a place, and of a love affair:

   Spring moves north about as fast as a person on foot would— fifteen to twenty miles a day. It crosses the border at El Paso and enters New Mexico at Fort Bliss. Like a wetback following the twists of the Rio Grande, it wanders though Las Cruces and Radium Springs, brings chile back to Hatch. A few more days and it has entered Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte. The whooping cranes return to Bosque del Apache, relief comes to Socorro. Los Lunas, Peralta and Bosque Farms take a weekend maybe. By mid-March the season gets to those of us who live in the Duke City, Albuquerque. On 12th Street fruit trees blossom in ice cream colors. The pansies return with purple vigor to the concrete bins at Civic Plaza. The Lobos are eliminated from NCAA competition. The hookers on East Central hike up their skirts. The cholos in Roosevelt Park rip the sleeves off their black T-shirts, exposing the purple bruises of tattoos. The boys at UNM take their T-shirts off, exposing peach fuzz. Women at the Pyramid Holiday Inn pick up their pillows, pay three hundred dollars and go within for a Shirley MacLaine seminar. Guys in Crossroads Park take their camouflage jackets off and lay their bedrolls down for free, burned-out Vietnam vets in spirit or in fact. Tumbleweeds dance across Nine Mile Hill and get caught in a sign that says Dangerous Crosswinds. Between the snake garden and the mobile home community the Motel Nine offers a room for $ 12.95 with a video of Wild Thang.

At my place in La Vista Luxury Apartment Complex, the yellow shag carpet needed mowing; the Kid’s hair was getting a trim. His hair is thick, black and wound tight and the way to cut it is to pull out a curl and lop off an inch. The hair bounces back, the Kid’s head looks a little narrower, the floor gets littered with curls.

He sat, skinny and bare chested, in front of my bedroom mirror, and I took a hand mirror and moved it around behind him so he could see the effect of the trim. “Looks good, Chiquita,” he said. I vacuumed up the curls and helped him out of his jeans, then we got into bed.

The afternoon is the very best time: the window open to the sound of kids playing in the arroyo, motorcycles revving in the parking lot, boom box music but not too close, the polyester drapes not quite closed and sunlight playing across the wall and the Kid’s skin. Warm enough to be nice and sweaty, but not so hot as to stick together. And in the breeze the reckless, restless wanderer— spring.

“Oh, my God,” I said in a way I hadn’t all winter.

“Chiquita mia,” said the Kid.


  1. Thomas at My Porch said,

    Living in DC proper I have forgotten what a good public library looks like. Ours are so threadbare. The counter people are surly. The actual librarians always look so sad. I think it may be because their main function seems to have defaulted to monitoring the queue for the Internet. And the shelvers don’t seem to be on good terms with the alphabet.

    As someone who reads a lot of “shelf sitters” weeding always makes me nervous. I know libraries don’t have endless space and patrons are always clamoring for the latest book, but I love a library that hasn’t been weeded or doesn’t do it very often.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Thomas. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. As one who lives in Library Heaven, I offer my condolences re the sad situation in the District.

      Hearing from you reminded me that I hadn’t visited your site in quite some time. When I did – delightful treasures awaited me!

  2. Valkrye Brumby said,

    Hello, The subject you have raised and (so brilliantly illustrated with examples ) is one I am very passionate about~ I have watched the gradual erosion (in my opinion) of library systems in my city as well as in other places like the U.K. ~It is epidemic really . Although, at least here , the books culled are placed in the library’s own re-sale bookshop in the basement (where books can be bought for a song ) and periodic book sales held in various branch libraries~ This seems the only right and proper way to deal with what books are made redundant . It is a kind of heresy or sacrilege to simply throw away books! I can hardly believe this, . especially from a public library ~ they always are in need of funds and usually plenty of older volunteers to set up book-sales. I cannot think how the library could do such a thing. Even donating to hospitals , children’s day care or to less fortunate people who are unable to afford books ect ect would be far better than dumping them. I would love to know whose decision that was as I would have a real bone to pick with them! I understand the reasoning re: computers in libraries but hate the fact they are rarely delegated to a separate room . I always expect a cappuccino machine will be standing next to the computers next time I go in. Our libraries in their dubious wisdom have also decided a year ago to allow cell phone use in the library which I still find outrageous . I do fear for the future of what libraries for numerous reasons. I realized quite a few years ago when they began a major cull of so many books written in the 50’s 60’s and 70’s that the library as i had always known and loved was changing and not for the better. I have nothing against adding activities such as lectures, art related and cultural things but I do not feel it is the role of the library to entertain or be a day care center, and a host of other non-reading related activities which should be pursued at the local YMCA, or internet cafe ect. These days I just want to get in and out more often than not as it seems more like a community center with people socializing or simply there for the computers and dvd’s. If the community there is so displeased with the current situation, is there no one to whom they might have a dialogue with as a group to show their unhappiness over the way things are being run? At least I know I am not the only one who finds the changes in the libraries very sad and feels rather like the tolling of the death knell for what used to be such peaceful, book filled places where you could lose yourself in the stacks for hours.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Valkrye, Thank you so much for taking the time to craft this thoughtful comment. How well I understand your dismay!

      • Valkrye Brumby said,

        Dear Roberta, You are so welcome and was a sort of pleasure for me to not only read someone who shares my perspective on this issue , but to have a place in which to express freely how important I think this is and the need to address it if we hope to keep our libraries alive and well but also respected and serve the purpose they were intended for . I would like , if I may include a link here to another person equally passionate about libraries and their role~ It is by the author Jeanette Winterson ~ (someone whose work and ideas I like and respect ) So enjoy your posts!

  3. Bob Carter said,

    Roberta, You could substitute Howard County for Fairfax County in paragraphs one and four in your original blog above and there would be absolutely no difference in the rest of the words. But added to that would be the fact that the Howard County library was making more money selling books to the patrons than they got (and are still getting?) from their alternate source!
    Somebody noted that a book worth $64.00 (try and get it – certainly the Howard County library didn’t get it after it passed through the dealer) would have sold to some lucky patron for $2 to $5. Then they stuck their head in the sand and ignored the fact that thousands of other books in total were selling to the patrons for more than they were getting from the dealer.

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