Wake up, Polly Parrot.


Last Chance To Read
by Brian Plante

It's a sad fact that public libraries often have to cull the collection, removing older books that nobody has been checking out, to make room for the newer books. In my local public library, these withdrawn books are put on the "Library Sale" rack 50 for all hardcovers, 25 for paperbacks. Usually this rack is filled with Romance and Mystery novels. Even though they are books I probably wouldn't read, I'm sad to see them go. I'm sadder, though, when I see books I love on the trash heap. This week, apparently, was the week to clean house in the Science Fiction section.

On the sale rack, I saw works by Brian Aldiss, Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear, Lester Del Rey, Joe Haldeman, Harry Harrison, Frank Herbert, John Kessel, Nancy Kress, Keith Laumer, Ursula LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Frederick Pohl, Mike Resnick, Robert Silverberg, Clifford Simak, Norman Spinrad, Jack Vance, Kate Wilhelm, Jack Williamson, Gene Wolfe, and Roger Zelazny. Four of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat books. Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Mars. Maureen McHugh's Half The Day Is Night. Jerry Oltion's Abandon In Place. Nine by Keith Laumer (not the collection Nine By Laumer, but nine separate novels by him). There were lots more books by many familiar names, but those are just the ones I jotted down.

The Charlotte NC public library system is no small-town library. In addition to the main library (which is a convenient walk from my workplace) there are 23 other branches scattered about the county. The library boasts a collection of 1.4 million volumes, 1.1 non-book media holdings, 657 PCs, and 436 staff members, including 117 full-time librarians. The main library, where I browse, has 155,000 square feet of space, and they're currently building a new, dedicated children's library a block away to split this already-large collection. In 2003 (the year for all the above statistics), the library lent out 8.8 million items. I measured approximately 225 linear feet of shelf space in the SF section of the main library (not counting the books in the outer branches or short story anthologies which are shelved in a different section, and not counting the newly vacated 20 feet that gaped in the middle of the SF book collection). This is an impressive library system for a medium-sized city with a population of just under one million.

With a library of this size, I had hoped that the discarded books were ones that the library had multiple copies of, but when I checked out a bunch of the titles on the catalog search, they all showed up as "deleted," with no other copies remaining in the entire system. Poul Anderson's Ensign Flandry is no more. Norman Spinrad's Pictures At Eleven and Little Heroes are erased. All nine of the Keith Laumer novels I saw on the sale shelf were one-and-only copies, now all gone forever.

It surprises me to see so many books by masters of the SF field being discarded like this. Most of these books are long out of print, so the library is the only place a newly converted reader of SF might seek out and catch up with an author's back catalog. I know many of these titles can be bought from online used booksellers at places like abebooks and others, but readers like me prefer to pick up a book, look it over, and peruse a few paragraphs before deciding to take it home and invest the hours into reading it. No, these books are effectively lost to the readers in my area now.

I could have bought a shopping cart full of these old books, but I didn't. My wife would kill me. These were nearly all novels, and I have precious little space left on my bulging bookshelves for novels that I will read but a single time in a couple of hours. I mainly collect short story collections and anthologies, which are shelved differently from the novels at the library (Dewey Decimal number 808.3, which is the same classification as the "how-to" books on writing, as if short stories were only exercises for wannabee writers, but that's a rant for a different time). When they get around to cleaning out the old anthologies, I'm there. So, I onl y bought a single book this day: a hardcover copy of Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga. I checked the catalog and saw that the library retained but a single copy of this much-lauded award winner, in one of the suburban branches. One solitary copy of such an important book for a city this size seems totally inadequate, but I guess they have to make room for the next fat fantasy trilogy. I figure I got my 50 worth.

I have a solution to this "lost book" problem: archive everything digitally, so the library never loses anything. Like Google's new email system, Gmail you don't ever need to delete anything; you just archive it. Digital storage (unlike shelf space in the stacks) is practically unlimited. Just as the computer replaced the old card catalog for looking up the library's holdings, the computer can also replace the stacks, with older works retrievable and readable on-screen. Yes, there are copyright issues, the expense involved in scanning old texts that are not currently available in electronic formats, and the fact that most readers prefer paper to electronic versions, but these can be worked out.

I guess I just lament the impermanence of books in general. A new book may only stay in print a few months and then be gone from the bookstores. Some may live on in the public libraries, but many of these sale items were only five years old. A bunch of them lasted forty years or more on the library stacks before getting the boot, but once they're gone, they're practically irretrievable. Perhaps all science fiction, no, all fiction is just throwaway. The length of time something remains available for readers is a tribute to the author's worth. Of course, I write short fiction for magazines, so my work goes out of print only a month after it hits the newsstands. I guess I know where I stand.

Copyright © 2004 Brian Plante Count= 5428

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