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Oldies but still goodies 

Don’t use Measure L funds to get rid of old books

While reading some literature in support of Measure L, (the sales-tax increase to raise money for public libraries), I came across a statement that made me stop and think.

Among the problems that they had recently come across in libraries around the county, the authors of the information listed “old books and out-of-date reference materials.�

“Now, wait a minute!� I thought; I can see the problem when libraries can’t afford up-to-date reference materials, but what, generally speaking, is wrong with old books? True, it is a matter of concern when a library has nothing but old books because it lacks the funding to buy new ones, but I think that I would be even more distressed to see a 90-year-old library that didn’t have any books more than 20 years old. That would be a tragedy indeed.

In the Paso Robles Public Library there is a section devoted to books that deal with the state of California in its many and varied aspects. This section contains a wonderful collection of old writings, some of them dating back a century or more. Obviously there are people working at the library who have recognized the value and historical importance of these books and have taken the necessary measures to keep them on the shelves, and they are to be commended for their efforts.

I am sorry to say, however, that not all of the old books in our public libraries are treated with this degree of respect. All too often they are regarded as unpopular, unfashionable, or out-of-date, and end up being weeded out of the collection. I have been living in San Luis Obispo County since 1978, and during that time I have been a regular and enthusiastic user of several of our local libraries. Over the years, I have seen a number of changes and improvements, but I have also seen too many old friends disappear from the shelves. I realize, of course, that any public library will inevitably experience some losses due to theft, accident, wear and tear, and general human carelessness, but I am afraid that these are not the only factors involved.

There seems to be a widespread perception that an older nonfiction book has lost much of its usefulness. With this attitude, I must respectfully beg to differ. True, a person writing 30, 50, or 100 years ago may not be able to give us a picture of the way things are now, but they can tell us about the way things used to be in a way that can hardly be equaled by a modern writer who has not lived through the same period. And sometimes we need to study the past in order to fully understand the present.

As an example, I would say that reading John Muir’s description of the Hetch Hetchy Valley — and his impassioned argument against building a dam there — has helped me to better understand and appreciate the present movement to restore the area. Then, too, each writer brings his or her unique voice and perspective to their chosen subject. When an author’s works are removed from the library shelves, that perspective is made inaccessible to the public.

Now, I am not objecting to the practice of replacing a worn-out old book with a newer edition of the same — this is a perfectly reasonable (and sometimes necessary) thing to do. Getting rid of a book altogether simply because it is old is, however, an entirely different matter. The purpose of a library, as I see it, is to be a storehouse of information, ideas, and literature of all types. A library should not try to be hip, trendy, or fashionable; it should, rather, strive to be above trends and styles. The hot new bestsellers should share the shelves with ancient lore, timeless classics, and obscure treatises on esoteric subjects. Share the shelves — ah, there’s the rub. The most commonly given reason for discarding older books is that it is necessary in order to make room for new acquisitions, and obviously this concern cannot be lightly dismissed. Space limitations are an issue that most libraries must confront, sooner or later.

What can be done about this problem? A perfect solution may never be found, but I am sure that if we put our minds to it we can find ways to improve the situation. Appropriate measures will vary, depending on the individual library and the resources available, and could be as simple as making more efficient use of existing space, or as ambitious as establishing a new branch library.

Personally, I would like to see the public invited to discuss the situation, and share ideas. The important thing is to realize that this is, in fact, a problem, and that something needs to be done to alleviate it. Assuming Measure L passes, it is my sincere hope that our libraries will use the additional funding not only to buy new books and hire new staff, but also to find ways to preserve and protect those items already in the collection. Those old books on the shelf should be a source of pride, not shame. ³


Rachael Denny is a Bradley resident.

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