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Education Reporter

Libraries Toss Out the Classics

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So much for "deathless prose." However immortal the words of Charlotte Bront‰, William Faulkner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Harper Lee may be, librarians in Fairfax County, Virginia are prepared to throw them out unless they're being read. The library system has discarded thousands of books since initiating a program to weed out those that haven't circulated in two years or more.

Many of those books were doubtless no great loss: yesterday's beach reads or self-help books, or duplicates on the same topics. As the system director, Sam Clay, put it, "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."

But what about Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, which one branch recently eliminated? Or Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls? Or Voltaire's Candide?

The loss of titles such as these has provoked questions about the purpose of the modern library. Should it reflect consumer tastes like the local Borders or Barnes & Noble? Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association, seems to think it should. "I think the days of libraries saying, 'we must have that, because it's good for people,' are beyond us," she says.

John J. Miller, for one, disagrees, and said so in a recent editorial. Rather than competing with the mega-bookstores, he wrote, libraries should "seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have," by serving as "cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been thought and said."

In Fairfax County and elsewhere, individual librarians cast the final vote on each book. Fairfax branches have rescued many unpopular classics from the heap, and say certain books will always make the cut.

The nearby Arlington County Public Library has its own idea. While responsive to patron demand, it has a new program to display under-circulated classics prominently in the library.

"Part of my philosophy is that you collect for the ages," says Arlington library director Diane Kresh. "The library has a responsibility to provide a core collection for the cultural education of its community."

With computers, audiovisual materials and meeting space requiring more room in libraries everywhere, the discussion about how to weed out books, and which should remain, will continue.

Meanwhile, if you live in Fairfax County and your favorite books aren't topping any charts, go check them out. At least that will guarantee they'll be there for others to discover until 2009. (Washington Post, 1-2-2007; Wall Street Journal, 1-3-2007)

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