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The next thing I'm going to say is going to make 80 percent of you want to punch me in the face, so let's get it out of the way: For the past year or so, part of my job has been to walk through library warehouses and destroy tens of thousands of often old and irreplaceable books.

Book burning is something people usually associate with the Third Reich (the fact that this is the second time this year I've been compared with Nazis on this website probably speaks more about me than I would care to admit sober), a symbol of intolerance and a hatred of intellectualism. But that's not why we're doing it. So, let me take this chance to make a few things clear ...

6
A Library Near You Is Doing It Right Now

And I'm not just talking about the crappy local library in your nearest hick town where you assume nobody can read anyway.


"No need to repair the sign -- we have an audio version."

Industrial-scale book destruction is going on at the British Library, possibly the most prestigious library in the world (you can tell because it's British). Recent book-pulping scandals have hit the University of New South Wales in Australia, as well as several other institutions. Hell, when Borders bookstores went belly-up earlier this year, they decided to destroy all the unsold books instead of donate them.

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The hobos would have just traded them in for books about drugs anyway.

And no, I'm not just talking about duplicates and old TV Guides, either. Imagine holding a beautiful, dusty, illustrated volume of Shakespeare printed in the 1700s, a calligraphic message from its long-dead owner inscribed on the inside cover, and throwing it straight in the trash. I've been there, more than once. I could have kept it and maybe gotten a few hundred dollars for it on eBay, if my supervisor wasn't watching with specific orders to prevent me from doing that.

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"Look, this isn't the Dead Sea, and I'm not interested in its scrolls. Throw them away."

This isn't some secret Soviet plot driven by Obama's New World Order of CommuNazis, you understand. The reasons are much more mundane and infuriatingly bureaucratic. It just so happens that ...

5
It's Cheaper Than Giving Them Away

The first and most obvious objection is, why not give the books to the poor? They need stuff to read. Or to prisoners? Or to sick kids? Or to struggling independent booksellers? It doesn't cost a thing to give something away, right?

The problem is the situation for a library is more complicated than when you just take a bunch of old clothes and unwanted porn down to the Salvation Army. A library book is stamped and bugged and cataloged so that the library knows that it belongs to them. When a book is given away or sold, the library has to go through and remove all that crap, so whoever winds up with it can prove they didn't just steal it off the shelf. I'm not kidding about that, either -- some people who wind up with such books helpfully return them to the library.

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"Sir, for the last time, your friend is not a 'thieving douchebag.' We gave him those."

And we're talking about a lot of books here -- these libraries are having to cut down their stock in a hurry. Imagine you're the manager of a library, and some accountant tells you that you need to get rid of 100,000 books, and do it in a week. You really have two options. One, you can get a bunch of academics to scour your collection and painstakingly rate each book according to its value and importance. Then you can hire a bunch of people to take down the 100,000 least important books and painstakingly stamp and debug them, one by one. Your second option is to get the computer to spit out a list of the 100,000 least borrowed books, and hire a few people to walk down the aisles with their arms out, throwing those books in a shredding machine.

That second option is much quicker and much cheaper. Sometimes you can find a paper recycling centre that will pay you for the pulp, so destroying the books leads to a net profit. Nobody likes it, but for a librarian it's like your best friend just got bitten by a zombie and you're the only one with a gun.

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"Dude, I just ate spaghetti off of recycled Hamlet!"

Also, remember that the stuff worth saving is buried among a lot of other books that are basically garbage. Though everyone realizes that extremely valuable books are going to inevitably get caught in the same net, there's not much that can be done about it. Nobody is going to order a first-edition Moby-Dick from a library warehouse if the 2011 reprint is sitting right there on the shelf. A computer list that ranks books by popularity can't tell the difference.

Another downside to this option is that you have to ensure total destruction. You can't just throw the books in a Dumpster for some asshole to come along and grab later. If you go the Dumpster option, you have to tear out chapters so that people won't want them, or just fill the Dumpster with detergent. You don't want people to get in the habit of treating your Dumpster like the clearance rack -- it's dangerous and messy for everyone involved.

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"... and this is our horror and romance section."

And if a staff member does come across some forgotten 16th century treasure, the library can't allow it to be rescued -- that's encouraging employees to sort through the books rather than dispose of them. The order from the top is "no mercy." It's easier to throw books out if you don't know what they are, just as it was easier for the Son of Sam to shoot people if he didn't know their names.

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4
It Has to Be Done in Secret

If you didn't know any of this, it's because destroying books is a job that, by necessity, is done in secret. Ordinarily the first the public hears of it is when someone unwittingly finds a bunch of books in a Dumpster. Your library won't announce they're doing it, but you can find message boards with librarians discussing it in private.

Back in 2004, Victoria University in New Zealand decided that it was going to have to destroy around 130,000 books. But they had a crisis of conscience, and revealed their plans to the academics and the student body. The idea was that they would mark the condemned books with red tape, and if anyone wanted to rescue a book, they needed simply to strike the tape with a black felt pen.

Material World
"If they burn all these books, what will I use for rolling papers?"

Predictably, everyone went apeshit. A professor sent an email around the faculty calling the library "barbarians," and he led a campaign in which staff and students went through the library armed with felt pens, searching for red tape and marking every single book for retention.

Material World
Because successful activism is about feeling, not thinking.

In my case, the only people who were let in on the bookpocalypse were the people who were charged with carrying it out. By the time the general public heard about it, there was no chance to lead a rebellion -- the job was already done. And libraries will use tricky rhetoric to avoid people catching on. If you notice a ton of shelves in your library suddenly empty, and they tell you the books have been sent to a warehouse, chances are they're telling you the truth. But what they're not mentioning is that a hundred thousand books already in the warehouse had to be destroyed to make room for them.

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This room is the entire walkthrough for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Why? Because ...

3
The Economy Is Killing the Library

Proponents of book destruction warn against the mentality that sees the library's function as a "museum of the book." Their point is that while you may think of the library as shelf after shelf of beloved old works of literature, the most important function (and often biggest cost) of a library is maintaining active subscriptions to dozens or hundreds of journals that students and academics use for research.

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It's less about arts and entertainment and more about not flunking out of $30,000 worth of classes.

Think about how much your porn subscriptions cost you every week. The really nasty stuff that you have to import from Europe is particularly vulnerable to market fluctuations -- if your country's currency drops or rises, then the cost of a foreign subscription changes a little. Now imagine that, instead of a handful of foreign subscriptions, you hold about 100,000, and instead of ordinary market fluctuations, you get hit by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

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Back then, people ate books to survive.

When the median cost of library subscriptions is tens of millions of dollars, we're talking about the price of a Lear jet disappearing from your budget overnight. If you can't afford a Lear jet, then you have a problem here. It may seem like the only rational response is to throw these subscriptions out the window like they are made of flaming bees, but this is the stuff that the library's power users -- academics and students -- actually need to have access to every day. What they don't need is a hand-illustrated copy of the Necronomicon.

Via Wikimedia Commons
It can scream for hours, but it never burns.

And you can't give that old stuff away to some other library, because they're all facing the exact same problem. It doesn't matter how irreplaceable it is, there's just no room for it anywhere. Because ...

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2
Libraries Can't Grow Fast Enough

Sure, it's one thing that libraries are forced to shred their collections because of an implosion in the economy. That's depressing, but understandable. But what about when thousands of turn-of-the-last-century books and newspapers become landfill because the library wants to install a coffee shop? Also understandable, if the head librarian is Mr. Burns.

But that's what's happening at the University of New South Wales in Australia, where books and newspapers dating back to the 1850s have been pulped to make room for more social space, seating room and computers, which Professor Peter Slezak describes as turning the library "into a kind of Starbucks."

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"And with your late fee, that comes to $6.72."

But look at it from the library's point of view. Students and library patrons are demanding this stuff. It's not enough to house a bunch of books, they also need to provide space for people to, well, actually use the books.

And remember that publishers are still cranking out new books by the million. So the library is assaulted on both ends -- by the demand that they grow to accommodate all the new books, and also to provide a space for everyone to order a cappuccino and put their feet up.

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Wi-Fi and caffeine do more for the average grad student than a dozen racks of fire hazards.

So why not just build a new floor? Well, the problem is that nobody wants to fund that. As this report on the subject reveals, the institutions in charge of providing funding to libraries are incredibly hesitant to cough up money. A library, after all, doesn't exactly rake in a profit. When was the last time you went into a library and paid for something? Even the late fees are laughable. So when the library says, "We need money to expand," the funding bodies adjust their monocles and reply, "Find another way."

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"The school can't afford to expand the library, but we are willing to throw down for matches and liquor."

For most libraries, there is another way to make room (that doesn't involve setting fire to the building to collect the insurance money) ...

1
The Books Are Going Digital

Let's face it, books are going out of vogue anyway. In the last three months of 2010, e-books began to outsell paper books on Amazon. E-books don't take up any space; you can fit an approximate infinity of them on a decent hard drive. When your entire local library can be replaced by a USB drive the size of your fingernail, the only thing keeping those books out of an industrial-size furnace is people who have some innate fondness for books. And there isn't much room in this economy for innate fondness.

This process actually goes back about three decades -- in the 1980s, it wasn't actual digitization that was solving libraries' space issues, but a hip new technology called microfilm. By scanning books and newspapers onto microfilm, an entire library full of books could fit into a filing cabinet.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The same could not be said for the ridiculous machine required to read them.

Nicholson Baker wrote a scathing historical account of the microfilming fad, in which the British Library, the Library of Congress and other super-prestigious libraries tore through their oldest and most valuable holdings, scanning and destroying them by the thousands. The account broke the hearts of book lovers worldwide, but librarians angrily hit back, holding up their microfilms and insisting "We haven't destroyed shit! Look, it's all right here!"

Today, the struggle to condense books has only surged forward with the introduction of the Internet. Some institutions use a simple method to decide what gets pulped -- whether or not Google Books has a copy of it.


"Check."

Of course, that doesn't always address the concerns of book lovers, who see some books as having an intrinsic value beyond just the words printed inside them. The people who complained about a British library pulping the private library of a beloved prime minister probably weren't encouraged by the fact there are probably other copies of those books out there.

But that's the real world for you -- it runs on a train made of money, on tracks made of paperwork and fueled by bureaucracy. And I'm sure that, when we finally get around to knocking down the pyramids, it'll be based on sound, pragmatic economic advice.

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We are running out of places to put our sand and giant rocks.

S Peter Davis explains complicated things in not very many words over at Three Minute Philosophy.

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