This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, November 8, 1995

November 8, 1995 - cleaning out the room of the public library

My wife, Suzanne, was the youngest of three children - the baby of the family. She was 33 years old when she finally got The Call. Her parents wanted her to come home and clean out her room. Her brothers called it "the Shrine."

It's a bittersweet moment, whether you're 17 or 33. On the one hand, you know perfectly well that your parents have got new and legitimate uses for the space. After all, it isn't reasonable to expect that a Museum of Your Childhood will be maintained in pristine condition forever. Parents aren't curators - they have lives of their own to lead.

You know, too, that you don't really USE anything in your old room anymore.

But on the other hand, it's painful. It's somehow comforting to know that all your old stuff -- usually a shelf or two of yellowed paperbacks, a half-dozen tape-marked Beatles posters, and a couple tons of LPs (that's Long Playing 33 rpm records for you kids out there) -- is still around some place.

Then, on the day that you have to decide whether YOU actually want to give floor space to all of this treasure, you discover that ... you'd rather not. Some fraction gets worked into your current life, but the rest gets tossed. It's a little depressing.

In some ways, libraries, especially public libraries, find themselves in a similar situation. With the exception of children's materials, most of the items that get checked out from a library have been published within the past five years. The public wants new materials -- the latest best-sellers, the controversial new non-fiction titles, and current periodicals.

On the other hand, the public also wants to think that there will always be some place to go to find all the stuff they don't save themselves any more: college textbooks from 1968, Carlos Castenada, Herman Hesse paperbacks. For many people, the public library is the Happy Hunting Ground, where all good books live out their twilight time, forever.

It is true that libraries of all types do have some obligation to maintain a link with the past. Hence our determined effort to gather, at reasonably decent intervals, fresh copies of all the classics that we can still track down from publishers.

But that isn't as easy as it was 20 years ago. Thanks to something called the "Thor Decision" back in the late 70's, publishers' "back stock" or inventory is considered taxable. Since then, publishers tend to print smaller runs, and destroy the stock after just a year or two. This makes it much harder to pick up core titles in some subject areas, or to replace titles that have been withdrawn due to damage or theft.

But if that's the case, shouldn't libraries hang on to everything?

I once worked in a public library that hadn't pulled older materials from the shelf in over 75 years. Were people grateful? No. They avoided the place. So the staff did a "weeding project" -- we removed from the collection some 20,000 items that no one had checked out in over 15 years.

Guess what happened? The public did NOT come storming in to protest our casual disregard of our common intellectual history. People DID begin coming in regularly, and asking, "When did you get all this new stuff?"

With the freed up space, we were able to set up attractive displays. We were able to highlight new collections. We were able to more easily identify those areas that needed an infusion of new selections.

Is there some loss through this process? Yes. But that's why there are other kinds of libraries -- academic libraries, museum libraries -- or, sometimes, special sections WITHIN libraries, like Local History Collections, or Rare Books Rooms. That's why libraries often borrow materials from other libraries. It isn't that older materials aren't sometimes valuable to our patrons; it's that historic preservation isn't the PRIMARY purpose of a public library.

In short, good public libraries come to the same realization as those parents whose kids have grown up and moved out: we aren't running a museum. A good public library is USED, and that means that it regularly requires its older decades to clean out their rooms.

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