Library clears bookshelves for coffee, couches, a culture of comfort

Coming to a library near you. If it hasn’t already happened, your library will be next. Increasingly library news is about offering students couches, coffee and a culture of comfort.

The trend is towards letting e-books do the heavy lifting, since librarians seemed to have developed a disdain for hard copy books. When the language librarians use to describe physical books contains the words ‘dusty’ and ‘lugging around heavy books’, you can be assured they’ll be disappearing from the shelves.

The latest library renovation, a red flag term for book purging, is taking place at Penn-Trafford High School in Harrison City, PA. According to a report by Matt Berlanger of WTAE News in Pittsburgh, the school library is purging 13,000 books in a high-tech overhaul.

Because a test-run of offering students more couches and armchairs and even a coffee bar that raises money for charity has been very successful at the school, they plan to incorporate those elements into the renovation of the library.

Really? Do students need more couches? What happened to P.E.??? And what about educating and challenging their minds instead of letting them sink into the sofa?

We have a Youth Section at our local public library. It’s glassed in so they are somewhat separate, but you can see the computer screens. Everyone of them is playing video games. I’ve yet to see anyone studying since they got their own space several years ago.

At Penn-Trafford High, the school principal, Scott Inglese, says the ‘makeover’ is part of a schoolwide trend of de-emphasizing hard-copy books, with students accessing books and other information online. “It’s going to be a whole new world in here,” said Paul Conrad, librarian at Penn-Trafford.

Their whole new world will only have 6,000 recently published and classic books. But they’ll have plenty of computers and places to charges their ‘devices’.

It’s tragic. We’re dumbing down the kids. Libraries are catering to a culture of comfort instead of creating curiosity about the world.  Meanwhile while there’s a silent scream from books being whisked off to the dust bins.


Read more:


Growing trend: warehoused libraries

In spite of the fact that studies show students prefer print for serious academic reading, colleges and universities continue emptying the stacks, storing books off site, and moving towards bookless libraries.


Miller Library, Colby College, Waterville, ME

In a article titled “College libraries should keep their books in the stacks“, education columnist  addresses this alarming trend. 

The articles profiles Miller Library at Colby College in Maine which recently moved 170,000 of its books to storage, to make room for ‘sumptuous new administrative offices’. This transition is “but one example of a widespread move to re-appropriate library space in the age of digitization,” she said.

“There’s one wholly unsentimental reason the stacks are both vital and irreplaceable, and that brings us back to Colby’s decision to replace theirs with a gleaming shrine to the corporate bottom line. As more of the books disappear from college libraries, the people in charge of funding those libraries will be more tempted to co-opt that space for events that bring in revenue, or entice students for the wrong reasons: food courts. Gaming lounges. I expect rock-climbing walls soon. Unless administrators make a protracted effort to preserve the contemplative and studious feeling, that feeling will disappear altogether, and the whatever-brary will become just another Jamba Juice.”

What do Colby College students have to say about their new dumbed-down library? Sorry, your new library still sucks is the title of an editorial in The Colby Echo, student newspaper since 1877, and pretty much capsulizes strong student dislike.

“…the dismantling of Miller (library) is a liberal arts tragedy,” states Nick Merrill, editor. “Aside from the lack of faculty consultation, the most disquieting aspect of the timeline is how fast it transpires. There’s a reason why students and teachers are so jarred; we were given short notice and expected to quickly adapt. Over the course of this year, it’s become clear that students dislike Colby’s lack of administrative transparency. Like most recent instances of new policy, the library renovation came as a shock.”

The swift progression of the library’s extreme makeover, planned and carried out behind closed doors, echoes the story of library deconstruction in so many other colleges, as well as public libraries. Check out what’s happening in public libraries in my post: “Extreme weeding leaves half empty shelves”.

Not only are the students unhappy, a group of 76 Colby faculty members have petitioned administrators to halt the renovation. In an open letter from the faculty concerning the Colby College library), they  paint an even grimmer picture of the outcome.

“Dear Members of the Colby Community: We the undersigned faculty, writing from all academic divisions, vigorously oppose the ongoing Miller library renovations at Colby.

The renovations have been hurried, poorly thought-out, damaging to the mission of the College and conducted with inadequate faculty input. Books have disappeared into storage, administrative offices have appeared or will arise where stacks of books once stood*, the reference area has been purged and the central floor looks like a massive waiting room, designed for students and other patrons to look at each other in between Google searches rather than engage in thoughtful contemplation and scholarship.”

Administrators obviously know their end game will not be well received or it wouldn’t need to be carried out like some covert operation. Students and patrons, the people who libraries are created for, have been betrayed by people who hold the public trust.

The browsing of physical books is an integral part of the library experience. This cannot be replaced by online browsing.

But what’s even more at stake here is that our historical records are at risk. Books need to be kept in public view, not warehoused in some remote location. The agenda being promoted is that the books will be better preserved in climate controlled buildings than on library shelves ‘gathering dust’. This ‘gathering of dust’ is a phrase I keep running across in veiled apologies for the clearing of stacks.

Paper is not such a fragile material, a common misconception which I will examine in a future post. For now you can check out 10 of the Oldest Known Surviving Books in the World.

We need to demand accountability on the part of library administrators who have prioritized ‘sumptuous new administrative offices’ and social networking spaces over having real books available.

Books are made to be read! Why are they being buried?

This article is part of a Library in Crisis series I am currently working on. Please follow my blog for future postings. I will be covering a wide range of  topics including:

    • the massive purging of library books
    • bookless libraries
    • the battle between physical vs. digital books
    • how libraries are working to create models for the future.


Extreme weeding leaves half empty shelves

empty shelves

Alameda County Library bookshelves after weeding

Every time I read another report like Alameda County Trashes Library Books, my bookish heart skips a beat.

This is not the result of normal weeding, something all libraries must do to make room for new books. What I’m addressing is when the end game results in half empty shelves.

The various news stories all have the same theme. Orders come from above. Books must be hastily discarded. Librarians are not given time to make prudent decisions. And the guidelines for this new wave of discarding are absurd. (get rid of everything bought before 2001, or everything not checked out in the last 2 years)

I understand the necessity for weeding and I don’t have a radical mindset that believes every printed book is sacred. But these half-empty shelves are becoming an alarming trend. Deselection, which is polite “library speak” for discarding books, has guidelines. Most academic institutions and public libraries have them.

The Texas State Library and Archive Commission publishes a manual which uses the CREW method, the benchmark tool for weeding library collections since its inception in 1976. “A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries” states: “The library staff will not need to fill the bottom shelves or pile books on top of the stacks, and the library will be more attractive and easier to use. Good practice says that shelves should never be more than 85% full (and 75% is even better).

Are the libraries following their own guidelines?

Not according to long time library staff members. From the East Bay Express news article: “The practice, they said, has been rushed and haphazard — and not in line with the standard guidelines for “weeding,” the term librarians use to describe the process of moving books out of collections. In Albany, thousands of good books that could be donated or given away are instead ending up in the trash, the employees said. They noted that while this policy is especially widespread at their branch, it appears that this careless discarding is happening across the Alameda County Library system.

My hometown library shelves resemble the ones in Alameda County. The last time I went to the library I was shocked.

Half empty shelves-farSo I began investigating the extent of this kind of damage in other libraries. I came across too many reports of this extreme culling of books.

Suddenly the shelves are half empty. Neat, clean, sterile. The remaining books look traumatized, as if they might be the next to go.

Library employees speak only on terms of anonymity for fear of retribution. Other librarians try their best to rescue books marked for the garbage bins.

Saving books has become a subversive activity. Is this fear-based, money driven direction the way libraries are headed?

Making room for new popular books at the expense of those ‘dusty old books’ that libraries have always maintained—at least in my lifetime—because they are the connection to our past.There doesn’t seem to be any guidelines on the minimum end of the spectrum.

While I’d prefer my library look this,

Trinity College library, Dublin

I’d settle for a more comprehensive collection with ‘dusty old books’ packed to the full 85% on those shelves.

The Alameda County article states that “Increased funding for new supplies can drive the weeding process.” A most curious and disquieting concept, this rush to trash the past.So what if there’s a warehouse full of new books to fill those empty shelves? We are a culture that, on a whole, worships shiny new things, fads, youth and devalues what looks worn and shabby on the outside.

When libraries discard old books because they aren’t relevant to the current worldview, or their covers aren’t pretty anymore, they’ve become heedless of a huge chunk of their responsibility. The need to preserve our history.

Too many books dumped in garbage bins are the ones which connect us with our past. Destroying these books en masse destroys our history. As a result our society is dumbed-down. Without ‘older’ books, we remain culturally immature, narrow-minded, ignorant of where we’ve been as human beings.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher and statesman, said this a long time ago, but his wisdom speaks volumes to our present state of affairs.

 “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” 


Quotes from the Alameda County Trashes Library Books article:

“Everything the library bought before 2001, regardless of its merit or the significance of the book is sent to the discard pile.” As a result, he said there are noticeable gaps in subject matter across a wide range of sections, including music, philosophy, religion, biographies, and more. The fiction section, too, has suffered a noticeable disappearance of major authors, Hess said.

“… library employees contend that there has been no careful balance in deciding what books to toss during the current weeding process. “We are not opposed to weeding as a general thing,” said another employee whom the Express agreed not to identify because the person feared retribution. “But when you are doing it arbitrarily … that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it. … We’ve got these librarians running around trying to rescue books.”

Added a third employee: “Books are not being offered any place. They are just being thrown out. … It’s been heartbreaking.”