Recently I was at Pack Library downtown and asked why they had moved the ongoing sale of used books upstairs. I was told that the library is scheduled to undergo major reworking of the street floor, which will result in a permanent reduction of space for books. In anticipation, the library is in the process of selling off a substantial portion of its collection. I was deeply dismayed by this.
There are three areas that particularly concern me: the sale of the books themselves, the manner in which this decision has been made and implemented, and its purpose. From my time working as a librarian, I know that all libraries cull their collections on an ongoing basis. But what’s happening now is apparently a permanent downsizing. Nor is it only fiction that is disappearing. Science, history, biography, psychology, cooking, gardening, crafts: Every area is being depleted. Many—indeed, most—of the books being sold are out of print and therefore not easily available elsewhere, if at all. This is especially deplorable in areas where old books contain information not available in new ones. In cooking, gardening, crafts, yoga, poetry, history and even in science, in fields such as animal behavior and paleontology, old books contain detailed, lively information that’s no longer covered in more recent ones. To get rid of these books is the equivalent of deliberate, collective amnesia.
I was told that the criterion used is how recently the book last circulated. I just bought, for $2, a book that I took out about a year ago (and that cost the library more than $30 when acquired). No library I have ever worked in would consider discarding a book that has circulated within the past five years (or, often, a much longer period)—unless it’s best-seller fiction that’s now off the best-seller list. Even then, a responsible approach would take into account whether the book contains information that might be of use to future patrons. At the sale, I also saw two books that I know are the only ones in the entire collection covering those topics. I returned these to the reference librarian with the comment that these should be returned to the collection, only to be told that this was not her decision.
I was able to make informed choices about my husband’s cancer care thanks in large part to the library’s collection of books on the subject. The most useful to me were two old ones that have since been revised—i.e. they are now “obsolete.” Luckily, the library was not yet throwing away its assets then. After my husband died, I donated some of the books I had bought myself to the library, so that others could be helped as I was. When I do research for my speaking and writing, I often include lists of books available at the public library, many of which are old. Is all this to disappear? The purpose of a public library is to give citizens access to books they would not know about or be able to find or afford without this wonderful resource. A collection is the work of decades and is a legacy to the future. Yet someone who should be the guardian of the collection is selling it for a fraction—probably much less than 10 percent—of what it cost to acquire, and with no recourse for its users.
This brings me to my second concern: the way this is being done. Neither the staff nor the public has apparently been included in making a decision that will affect not only every library user and employee but every future student and adult who relies on the library to have the resources they need. I have seen no public notices on the library bulletin boards. The staff seem uninformed and appear to have had no part in the process. They’re unsure of the scope, schedule or purpose of the changes. Decisions seem to have been made by a few people at the top who feel no need to inform those who will have to live with the effects of those decisions. Between Friends, a newsletter put out by The Friends of Buncombe County Libraries, notes that Pack is to be remodeled but makes no reference to the downsizing of the collection. The same issue includes statistics showing a healthy growth in circulation over the last 10 years, making the decision to downsize seem even stranger.
I’m also concerned about the purpose of the sale. The library apparently plans to increase the computer area and decrease the circulating-library area. There’s talk of installing street-level bathrooms and moving the staircase. From my experience as a regular library user, the latter are unnecessary and the former might well be accomplished at much lower cost by judicious relocation of interior, nonpermanent partitions. Had the public and staff been consulted, would these costly decisions have been made? As a longtime committee member, I know how much decisions are improved by collective input, despite how tedious the process is.
I have lived in Asheville for more than 30 years. In that time, the library has moved in the right direction, and I have rejoiced. Ironically, as we acquire a world-class reputation as a cultured city, we are doing the equivalent of selling the furniture—at yard-sale prices—to fund an addition to the house that will then be bare of furniture.
I urge all who are concerned about these issues to let the library know.
[Asheville resident Ileana Grams-Moog is a retired member of the UNCA philosophy department. She is the wife of the late synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog.]