Every year libraries are forced to eliminate thousands and thousands of books to make room for new inventory. Alex Casey investigates their final resting places.
Everyone wants John Grisham until they don’t. There are currently over 100 copies of his 2021 legal thriller The Judge’s List in Auckland city libraries, but one need only look to history to see just how much those numbers will dwindle in the years to come. . For example, his 2019 release The Whistler – “a thrill ride through the darkest corners of the Sunshine State” – has only 28 copies left, and 2009’s The Associate – “if you thought Mitch McDeere was in trouble in The Firm, wait until you meet the associate” – only has five.
Anyone familiar with op shopping will know that popular titles dominate the book section, meaning it’s rare to walk into any store in the country without encountering The Da Vinci Code, The World According to Clarkson or Fifty Shades of Grey. And our libraries face the same problem. Every year, Aotearoa libraries have to deselect thousands and thousands of books to meet the demand for new titles and maintain storage space.
As necessary as it is – Tāmaki Makaurau alone buys around 386,000 new items a year – Auckland council’s library and learning services manager Catherine Leonard says it’s part of the job that doesn’t never gets easier. “We really need to arm ourselves,” she said. “For us, it’s not just the book itself, but the work that has gone into acquiring it, describing it, cataloging it and putting it on the shelf – it really feels like it has a little life.”
Though she finds it sad, Leonard says that’s the reality of the library book life cycle. Tāmaki Makaurau’s libraries contain over 3.2 million items, shedding an average of 10% per year, or 320,000 items. “As with all public libraries, we are in a continuous cycle of renewing collections to keep them fresh and engaging for our customers,” explains Leonard. “When we see that the items are no longer in demand, we will look at the number of copies and decide if we keep a small number or maybe just one for the whole region.”
Aside from Grisham, another recent title that she says has ended up on the chopping block is Michelle Obama’s 2018 autobiography Becoming. “When that came out, we couldn’t keep up with the demand and ended up with over 100 copies,” Leonard explains. “But once the demand fades, it’s a question of ‘do we really want to try and store 100 copies of this?'”
When it seems like a library book’s life is coming to an end, Leonard says there are strict review guidelines to ensure libraries are “accountable and consistent” with how they operate. Books are not only rated on reader demand, but on what might be useful for future research or heritage purposes. “We’re really hesitant to get rid of the final copy of anything,” Leonard says. “Even if the condition is so bad that we couldn’t have it in the loan collection, we would still put it in the back catalog and try to find replacements.”
Alas, some items are just too tired, too damaged, too stale, or just too prolific to warrant a backstage spot. These unlucky books face three possible fates: book sales, donation, or recycling. Leonard says the Community Library book sale has been an exceptionally helpful way to move old stock, with the Central Library’s Friday morning sale gathering queues. Unfortunately since the arrival of Covid-19 in 2020, Auckland’s libraries have not had their regular book sales. “It just didn’t seem very appropriate for the time.”
Although Covid has meant fewer library books being sold to the public, it has strengthened a new weapon in the ongoing storage battle. “Usage of our e-books has increased dramatically during the lockdowns, so that’s been huge for us,” Leonard says. During the second long lockdown, there was a dramatic increase in the number of rented children’s e-books compared to the first. “It was really gratifying to see that people were using our children’s online collections to entertain and read to their children,” Leonard says.
Since ebooks don’t take up shelf space and don’t have to be returned — they just disappear from your device when the time is up — Leonard says they can be a useful solution to a lack of storage. physical. In other words, they can add another link in the chain between purchase and disposal. But popular e-book titles face the same brutal guidelines when their time in the sun is up. “The ebook supply is really one copy per customer, so we have to make the same kind of balance with respect to demand for our ebooks that we do with our physical books, which seems weird when you’re talking about something digital.”
The next route taken by libraries is donation. Auckland Libraries have agreements with a number of organizations including Auckland Hospital, Mt Eden Prison, Women’s Refuge and a selection of local nursing homes. “As you can imagine, we have to think carefully about what suits each of them. For example, we would not like to donate a medical text containing outdated information to the hospital, whereas Women’s Refuge is very interested in children’s material.
Chief Warden of Corrections Neil Beales says book donations from libraries and the public are a hugely important educational tool in correctional facilities across the country. “Prison libraries are well used and we have seen inmates have extremely positive experiences,” he says. Genre readings such as fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, crime and thrillers are all in high demand, as is non-fiction based on New Zealand and Maori history.
He cites an example of the book club held in Rimutaka prison, where a participant liked Paul Woods’ book How to Escape from Prison so much that he didn’t want to return his copy to the library. “It’s the first book the man has ever finished and he felt that in returning it he was losing a friend,” Beales explains. “This book club participant is now studying for NCEA Level One.” (NB The book talks about mentally release from prison).
If deselected books can’t be sold or given away, they’re – prepare – in the trash with them. Plastic covers are removed, barcodes are cut, and unwanted books cascade into their papery mass grave in what Leonard describes as “just your usual big recycling bins.” The Auckland Council does not have data on items donated or disposed of, but assures that “all withdrawals are made in accordance with our assessment and disposal guidelines”.
The death of a library book is still something that some librarians struggle with more than others. “Some are grateful to be able to create space for the new books that are coming,” Leonard says. “Others may feel like it’s not just the pages and the feel, it’s the ideas and the stories inside that you’re getting rid of.” It reminds me that I have an immaculate copy of Michelle Obama’s Becoming that I feel bad for getting rid of. Would the library like it?
“No thank you,” Leonard said. “We’ve had enough.”