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Monday, July 2, 2007

The Inner Workings of the Public Library Part I


The Life Cycle of a Public Library Book

I have taken it upon myself to detail the life cycle of a public library book in order to form a response to a frequently asked question: "Whach yall do wit dose ode books and stuff?"

If a library book were alive, its point of conception would be what is known as the ordering phase. A librarian is courted by publishers and vendors via trade and advertisement publications. With the gloss of the cover like a twinkle in the eye, the black and white pictures of the book like a lover's promise, the publisher's review like a boastful suitor's speech, the librarian cannot help but fall in love.
(Much like real life, however, the librarian can order a book simply to fill a need. The resulting purchase is usually made after the librarian is met with selection list lacking anything better. In fact, this is much more often the case... at least with library books.)
The next stage is known as processing, or, sometimes, pre-processing. This is the equivalent of a naming ceremony, the confirmation, and the circumcision. The book is stamped with the name of the library to ruin its chances at ever being considered valuable. Thus a promising first edition is forced to serve the public good. A security device is installed, and a sticker to aid location is attached. The book, freshly aware of its place in the library, is now ready for introduction to its public.
From here the book can follow along two very different paths that lead to a shared end. The path of the unpopular book is one of dust and inertia. Occasionally someone will check it out, but not enough to warrant the shelf space it occupies. This book will be "weeded" due to limited number of checkouts. An alternative to this would be that the books inertia carries it in obscurity until someone notices the information it provides is outdated or proven incorrect. Then it is weeded.
The second path is one of extreme popularity. The book actually checks out so much that it needs to be removed from the collection, often before most patrons even know the library owns it. This counterintuitive measure must be taken. Books that check out at a higher than average rate are likely to be damaged through use. Broken spines, loose and missing pages, water (coffee, urine, kool-aid) damage, eaten by a dog (baby), stolen, vandalized, or other forms of destruction await these books. Since most of these titles are ordered in multiples, these books are weeded and often not replaced. Not thanked for their sacrifices, these books disappear quietly, with little more than a gasp caused by their condition as a eulogy.
(I shall not attempt to judge which is the more depressing path. Instead, I will find solace in the fact that books are inanimate objects that possess no feelings or desires whatsoever.)
After the book is weeded, it again finds itself on one of two possible paths. The first path is reserved for books whose condition may allow them further service. These books are typically sold for pennies on the dollar to help fund the library. One final sacrifice for those who didn't already give everything to their duty. You can find these in "Friends of the Library" book sales. If you buy a book that has a library stamp on it, paired with a "withdrawn" stamp, this was its past.
The books that are too broken to sell for two bits are recycled. By recycled, as a matter of remaining truthful, I mean thrown away. These books are usually deposited into black, thick trash bags so that no one sees them during their final journey. For some reason, people can get upset when they discover that their library destroys books. (I believe I have explained enough so that it is understood that the library doesn't destroy books, it simply removes books that have been destroyed.)
The vacant shelf space left by these books must be filled, which brings us back full circle.

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