Library collections adjust for 21st century users

I had posted the entry entitled “73% of books in libraries are never checked out” a few days ago citing this statistic found in a newspaper column (I was wondering about the source of the statistic).  Now,  I find this article dated Jan. 2, 2006 in the Washington Post:  “Hello Grisham, Good bye Hemingway?”  Since I have been thinking about indicators of how libraries are becoming obsolete, I was intrigued to read how the Fairfax County Library system in Fairfax, Virginia is making adjustments in their book collection to better reflect the community they serve. 

“We’re being very ruthless,” said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system since 1982. “A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that’s a cost.”

Makes sense to me.  Why should libraries store a bunch of books that no one ever reads?  Somewhere along the way, the general public got the idea that libraries (public, school or academic) should be a storehouse for all books and never throw a book away unless it was all tattered and torn. 

“That is the new reality for the Fairfax system and the future for other libraries. As books on tape, DVDs, computers and other electronic equipment crowd into branches, there is less room for plain old books…More computers and growing demand in branches for meeting space, story hours and other gatherings have left less room for books.” 

Sounds like this library system is responding to the changing culture in the world – to the needs of the 21st century library user.  It will be interesting to learn if there is any kind of response from the community.  For libraries to meet the needs of their local community, change needs to occur along these lines.  The president of the American Library Association is quoted in the article as saying:

“I think the days of libraries saying, ‘We must have that, because it’s good for people,’ are beyond us,” said Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association and director of Princeton Public Library. “There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire. Everybody’s got a favorite book they’re trying to promote.”

The direction of the Fairfax County Library System seems consistent with what Chris Anderson has written about libraries in his book, The Long Tail.  He writes about how the challenge of the 21st century library is to “make stacks of books fit into a search-engine culture.”  Anderson talks about how the Seattle Public Library was built to accommodate the “relative balance between computer and books” in a changing world.  The library stacks are arranged on rails in a spiral so they can expand or contract based on the demand (I’ve been there and it is a wonderful, inviting public library!).  Obviously, if local communities are not (or have not) checked out a book for a certain period of time, then they should be discarded.  After all, libraries are a business that have to survive in times when library budgets are shrinking.  The Arlington library system officials, again, consistent with what Anderson writes in his book, states:

“To do more with less, Fairfax library officials have started running like businesses. Clay bought state-of-the art software that spits out data on each of the 3.1 million books in the county system — including age, number of times checked out and when. There are also statistics on the percentages of shelf space taken up by mysteries, biographies and kids’ books.”

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