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the anxiety of influence

Of all the jobs I do at the library, the most thrilling and frightening by far are buying and weeding books. I am in charge of all the YA books, which live (except for the nonfiction, which, when it is no longer new, gets interfiled with adult nonfiction) in two long shelves tucked in the back corner of the adult room. They are so hidden that often when I take people to find a book back there, they are surprised to learn that there is a YA section.

Because we don’t place a book order in August, I have now had over a month to fiddle with my September order. It is rare that a day goes by that I don’t take something out, only to put it back in the next day. I can spend a good deal of time worrying about the books, worrying about what kind of service I can possibly be providing to our patrons if I neglect one of them in favor of another, wondering what influence my choices will have on the people who rely on the library. For instance, the other day, courtesy of A Wandering Eyre, I happened upon this piece on the censoring of YA books from Bookslut, which praises Perfect, a novel by Natasha Friend. It was published last year and has been the subject of some controversy, chiefly, it seems, because it is about a girl who has bulimia, and it is quite graphic in its descriptions of how to become bulimic. Of the eight libraries in our system, five own it, but my library is not among them.
Now, I am all for the stocking of banned books, particularly when (as is the case with this one) they have gotten good reviews and they seem to be popular (three of the five copies in the system are out right now, and one was only just returned). I add this book to my order every few days, and then periodically I take it out, not because of the content (although I will admit that I am squeamish about eating disorders) but because, usually, there’s a newer book that I want to buy instead.

After all, the book is available in our system, I tell myself. But it’s not available in our library, says the other little voice in my head, and the other libraries aren’t anywhere near ours. If kids don’t see it here, they’re not likely to find it. But they can find it through the catalog. How the hell are they going to know to look for it in the catalog? It’s not like there are lot of high quality bookstores in Franklin Park, IL (yes, that third one you see on the list is an adult bookstore–actually, there’s another adult bookstore that doesn’t show up here that’s even closer). But I have to make choices, and if I buy this, I can’t buy a new book that might be equally important!

Well. You see how that goes.

The other day, in another fit of anxiety, I decided to do a little quasi-scientific experiment with my book order. I’ve been reading lately about the paucity of books (especially children’s and young adult books) that appeal to males and how this could be part of the reason that guys don’t read. I went through my order and classified each book, to the best of my ability, as appealing more to females, more to males, or equally to both. The results (excluding half a dozen graphic novels, which were requested by a guy but which I really don’t know where to place):

  • everyone–20
  • females–20
  • males–7

Oh dear. (And that, of course, provides another argument for not buying Perfect, which is likely to appeal only to girls).

But if the process of buying books is sometimes fraught, it pales in comparison to the process of weeding them. There are moments when weeding is satisfying. Clearing out beaten up paperbacks by R.L. Stine is a fine feeling. But more often than not, weeding is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes painful. As Rick Roche recently wrote (on both buying and weeding), “I have to accept the reality that I can not perfectly predict which books will be well read and buy the potentially hot books and shift other books to make a little more room.” I hate that.

I also hate it because I was a reader of obscure books when I was a child. At my elementary school, which was filled with the offspring of doctors, lawyers, and professors, there were lengthy waiting lists for every new book that came it. Because I did not want to wait three months to read a book, and because I didn’t know how to get on the waiting list anyway and was too shy to ask, I prowled the stacks to find the oldest, most abandoned books I could. My ideal was to find a book that hadn’t been checked out since before I was born. I read many wonderful books this way–Octagon Magic by Andre Norton and Quest in the Desert by Roy Chapman Andrews and many more. In high school, I found The Lady’s not For Burning, which had not been checked out since 1972. I checked it out nearly once a trimester for the remainder of my time there; recently, I checked the catalog to see if it was still there, and wrote to the librarian, who confirmed said that yes, the last checkouts dated from the early ’90s–my last few years in high school. (Christopher Fry, the author, died only recently. I hadn’t realized he was still alive. I would have written him a letter–the people who help get you through high school deserve to be thanked). Every time I get rid of a book, I can’t help but wonder if the book I’m tossing is one of these, if it’s a book that’s meant to be found by someone at this very library, if it’s somehow going to save even a small portion of a person’s life, and if I am interfering in God’s great plan. This is the sort of thing that can keep you up at night.

The last best word on the subject of keeping odd (albeit, in this case, well-circulating) books in libraries, though, comes from Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood. She writes about growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and visiting the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh every week and what she learned from borrowing books there:

The Field Book of Ponds and Streams was a shocker from beginning to end. The greatest shock came at the end. . . . When I checked out The Field Book of Ponds and Streams for the second time, I noticed the book’s card. It was almost full. There were numbers on both sides. My hearty author and I were not alone in the world, after all. With us, and sharing our enthusiasm for dragonfly larvae and single-celled plants, were, apparently, many Negro adults.
Who were these people? Had they, in Pittsburgh’s Homewood section, found ponds? Had they found streams? At home, I read the book again; I studied the drawings; I reread Chapter 3; then I settled in to study the due-date slip. People read this book in every season. Seven or eight people were reading this book every year, even during the war. . . . The people of Homewood, some of whom lived in visible poverty, on crowded streets among burned-out houses–they dreamed of ponds and streams.

I miss the days when you could see the date stamps on your library book. I learned a great deal from them. When I stand now in the aisle, computer printout of circ records in hand, trying to decide what goes and what stays, I can only hope that I am doing justice to the worlds that reside on the shelves. The library is a growing organism, but that means, unless you have unlimited amounts of space, that it is also a dying one.


5 thoughts on “the anxiety of influence”

  1. For what it is worth, I have come to learn that a lot of the collection management process is instinct. I know, it is not very scientific, but it is practical. As a librarian and reader, you develop a “sense” for what is good for your patrons and the collection or not. On the book Perfect, if I was in your place, I probably would have ordered it by now. If an item “nags” at me after all the attempts to justify not getting it, it probably means I should go ahead and get it. Simple as that. True, collection management requires we be responsible with funds and resources. I am specially aware of it in my academic library where I have a large order on hold waiting for the new fiscal year, and thus new money, so I can order stuff. But, along with that responsibility and sense of stewardship, you are also the expert the library is paying for to acquire the books in your area. So, go ahead and use that expertise. I think it is there where the thrill, good or scary, comes in. Anyhow, just an idea. Best.


  2. Excellent post Laura! I’ll be taking a collection development class this fall, and this has already given me so much to consider.

    Collection development is one area of librarianship that I am most ‘afeared of.’ I think you caught that feeling quite well for me.

    I appreciate how you show that “obscure” books may, in fact, circulate. I too miss date due slips, and although this information is often available for the collection developer from our ILSs, I feel it is dangerous to base these decisions too much on circulation history. If we did, much classic literature would be removed from the library.

    BTW, the “bookstores in Franklin Park” link went to Amazon.


  3. Thanks–the link should be fixed now. Buying books is mostly fun–it’s just when you have too long to think about it that you can drive yourself slightly batty.

    Glad to hear there are other obscure book defenders out there. Long may they live.


  4. Laura, thanks for the interesting post. I’m going to asking our new teen librarian to get Perfect. Also, I want to join in the encouragement of obscure reading. I have on numerous occasions checked out a book that I am considering to weed, read it, and kept it. Some of my favorite reviews are for such books. I also look for other ways to push worthy books. It does not always work. If I see after another year or two that the book has not gone out since I once saved it, I weed it. I feel it then gets another chance in the Library Friends book sale. People buy a lot of books they would never find to check out. I think some of these land in the book sale year after year, as they get donated back to the library. It is like some books get another life post library.


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