6 Reasons We're In Another 'Book-Burning' Period in History

#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 ...

#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.

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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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