If I were asked to list miracles of human achievement in my lifetime, three would quickly come to mind:
Humans set foot on the moon
The Berlin Wall was demolished
J.K. Rowling got 12-year-old boys to read books
The first two were one-and-done heroic acts that deserve to be memorialized and celebrated as long as people have the will to improve the human condition. The third was a small victory in the eternal struggle to help people fathom just what the human condition is.
I wonder how many of those 12-year-olds got their copies of the Harry Potter books from the local public library. Visits are down in the digital age, and libraries are struggling with redefining their roles in a time of technological upheaval.
The Allen County Public Library here in Fort Wayne may or may not be embarking on a “popular materials” policy in which tens of thousands of books are being discarded to make room for more copies of the best-sellers that the most people want to read.
According to a petition from “Concerned Library Patrons” with more than 1,000 signatures so far, that policy is under way, and there has even been an effort to keep the change from public scrutiny. ACPL Director Greta Southard, in an interview with the Journal Gazette, denied a change in the library system’s purpose.
Retired Director Jeffrey Krull, in the same story, seemed reluctant to get involved in the controversy but acknowledged never being wholeheartedly in favor of the popular-materials trend and said he was irked because “it doesn’t really seem necessary to weed so much stuff.”
In June of last year, the library board adopted a collections policy committing the library to providing “the most high-interest and high-demand materials to the community.” To make the space for that goal, the policy said, “less popular and out-of-date items must be reviewed and withdrawn on a regular basis.”
I don’t know. Even if the library isn’t going full-throttle on a new path, it certainly seems to be leaning in that direction. I could probably get more worked up about that, but I’ve seen it before.
Years ago, even before the e-book revolution, (full disclosure — I was a member of the Friends of the Library board at the time), ACPL responded to a perceived decline of interest in reading by offering a wide variety of materials to check out. Videos. Music CDs. Electronic game cartridges. I think you could even borrow a pretty pastoral water color print to hang over the couch.
It was, I felt, taking the library far from what its primary goals should be — to promote an interest in reading, to be a repository of information and resources, and to provide a gathering place for enriching community activities. The idea seemed to be just to get bodies in the door, to hike those circulation numbers up, no matter how it was done, just to satisfy members of the library board. The library existed merely to justify its own existence.
At least providing “high demand” items will encourage reading, even if it is only to give people what they already want to read. Perhaps the hope is that 12- year-olds will come in to check out Harry Potter and hang around long enough to read about the human need to explore that led to the moon landing or the yearning for freedom that led to the toppling of the Berlin Wall.
That’s sort of what happened to me.
I walked to the library as a 12-year-old to load my arms with young-adult science fiction novels. Eventually, I wandered into other stacks and found books on science fact — and history and biography and, heaven help you all, language and grammar (OK, I was a weird kid). I grew to love reading as a lifelong pursuit.
As a result, I have a house overflowing with books. They have long since outgrown my shelf space, so they are stacked on tables and counters and even up one side of the stairs to the second floor.
And they’re collecting dust. My Kindle collection of books (about 500 titles and growing) goes with me everywhere. I think it’s been at least two years since I cracked open a “real” book.
Ever see that “Twilight Zone” episode in which Burgess Meredith plays a guy who just wants to be left alone to read? He ends up being the last man on Earth after a nuclear war and has all the books in the world and all the time in the world to read them. But he breaks his eyeglasses and wails in grief, “It’s not fair, it’s just not fair.”
My version of that nightmare is that print disappears, I have a lifetime of e-books to read and an electromagnetic pulse war eliminates the world’s electricity.
That’s one of the many challenges facing today’s libraries. In 1948, 11,000 new book titles were published. In 2010, more than 300,000 were. That doesn’t even include the growing number of self-published e-books — more than 235,000 in 2012 alone. It’s getting tougher and tougher for libraries to decide which books to keep and recommend and what kind of materials to preserve for universal access.
I have my own ideas. Strengthen the community center role. Concentrate on local and state history for the permanent collection. Promote the loaning of e-books, which a lot of people don’t even know about.
But that’s just one person’s notions. There have always been disagreements about a library’s function, and its roles have always been evolving. The library is a local public institution, supported by tax dollars. So it should primarily strive to meet local needs, which can only be discovered through extensive conversations with the public.
That seems like simple common sense, but these days it might be considered a miracle of human achievement.