Libraries: Warehouses for Dead Books?

Fisher Library, University of Sydney

The University of Sydney’s Fisher Library has joined a growing list of libraries to attract the wrath of borrowers at the suggestion that a large number of books are to be removed from the shelves.  Recently libraries at the University of Denver and the University of New South Wales also attracted criticism from borrowers.  These protests  demonstrate that libraries are regarded as providing an important service in our society.  More importantly they demonstrate that libraries are undergoing a transformation. As with all transformations it is a painful, exciting and uncertain time.  We cannot be certain about what lies in the future for libraries, but we do know that libraries cannot continue to function in the same way they did last century.  This is the Information Age and as libraries have traditionally been the source of information for our society, it is hardly surprising that these usually quiet places are now the centre of an intense debate.

Nothing about our present understanding of libraries should be taken for granted.  In this post I want to focus on the role that libraries currently fulfil as archives.  Seth Godin recently made a provocative comment on libraries as archives:

The library is no longer a warehouse for dead books.

Seth Godin, ‘The future of the library‘, 16/5/2011.

Godin’s post is designed to shock us into thinking of libraries in a different way.  He is talking about public libraries, presumably like those that are scattered throughout our suburbs and towns  rather than  academic libraries or libraries that seek to act as archives such as our state libraries in Australia.  While these local libraries have a role to play in preserving local history, they cannot afford to think of themselves as archives for books unless the books focus on their locality.  I don’t have a problem with local libraries removing books from their shelves that are out of date and rarely or never used.  If the locality does not have any other reliable archival service that looks after local history, the library would need to take on that role and retain material that provides insights into this.

However, I am concerned about Godin’s reference to “dead books”. What is a dead book? Earlier in his post Godin used the example of an ‘out of date encyclopedia’. Perhaps he thinks of a dead book as one that contains superseded information. But the term “dead book” can convey the impression that these type of books are worthless and therefore should not be stored anywhere.  We still need to keep old books, even if the information they contain is out of date.  I work with old education textbooks and while I would not refer to them for advice on teaching now, the information gives us insight into the education that all children were receiving in the post-compulsory schooling era. The attitudes, knowledge and skills of millions of people have been substantially influenced by what these out of date textbooks were telling their teachers about how to teach. Our understanding of the past has been enhanced because libraries retained these books.  Books with obsolete professional or technical information are not dead.  The information these books contain takes on a new life as it is used in ways that the authors had never envisaged.

Gary Pearce wrote about this issue last week but his focus was on academic libraries.  In the context of Godin’s argument that libraries are not warehouses, Pearce stated:

… anyone who thinks that the main role of the academic library is to maintain the “archive” just hasn’t been paying attention.

Gary Pearce, ‘The curious case of shrinking libraries, coffee carts and ‘the dust test‘, The Drum (ABC), 25/5/2011.

Pearce is not entirely rejecting the archival role of academic libraries, but he does not see it is as the principal focus of academic libraries – there are more important roles that academic libraries have to fulfil.  I agree with him, but I am concerned about the direction this could take us.  I can envisage some time in the future librarians faced with difficult budget constraints deciding to concentrate on their main business and discontinuing secondary roles such as keeping archives of old books.

In my comment on Pearce’s article I wrote:

We need to retain the archive function in our society. Maybe we are going through a period where there is a clearer separation between the functions of libraries as information exchanges and archives? Maybe there will be a formal separation of these roles?

We need to examine the function and operation of archives in our society at the same time as we are reviewing the role of libraries. If we don’t we run the risk of compromising the work of historians in the future because in the rush to embrace the new we might allow our archives to wither.

Yvonne Perkins, comment on Gary Pearce, ‘The curious case of shrinking libraries, coffee carts and ‘the dust test‘, The Drum (ABC), 25/5/2011.

I don’t think anyone would argue against our society retaining historical records, but it would be so easy to overlook the needs of archives in this debate and then find years in the future that we have lost a lot of our historical sources.  There are some great initiatives being undertaken in this area which I have covered in a previous post.  But I am concerned that this issue is lacking the systematic society-wide attention that is needed.

This is a debate for everyone, not just librarians. I am not a librarian. Historians, in particular, have an important voice that needs to be heard in this debate.  We are so reliant on libraries to do what we do.  We also need to hear from archivists who are also struggling with budget constraints.  Most importantly we need to hear from you.  The archival role of libraries is diminishing.  What systematic steps do we as a society need to take to ensure that we retain old, infrequently used books given that libraries do not see this as their principal role?


Further Discussion About Libraries

The following  is just a small selection of the myriad blog posts and articles that have examined the role of libraries in the 21st century during the last couple of weeks.  I have tried to include perspectives from people working with different types of libraries such as public libraries, academic libraries and school libraries.  There will be many posts that I have missed.  You may want to share good posts on this topic that you have come across.

My Previous Posts on This Topic

4 thoughts on “Libraries: Warehouses for Dead Books?

  1. Hi Yvonne –

    Thanks for taking up the discussion. I agree that the archive is an important part of all this.

    I guess one of the points I would make is that there have always been different types of academic library placing differing emphases on this role. Libraries belonging to universities of technology, for example, with their strong applied knowledge focus would differ from the more “traditional” university library (although I’m not discounting the possibility of historical collections around areas like engineering, education or film).

    I think there was also a comment in that discussion about the difference between an archival and academic library — the line is more blurred than was suggested in that comment, but clearly it is worth noting that the latter is quite focused on the teaching, learning and research needs of the particular university rather than maintenance of the historical record as such.

    In any case, most libraries would have collection policies that included the maintenance of important historical works which would override considerations about usage. In all this discussion, I haven’t heard any suggestion that this would change. They are also investing heavily in retrievable storage, often shared between different libraries, which helps ensure that last copies of works are maintained.

    The state libraries and National Library, not to mention the Australian Archives and institutions like the Australian War Memorial etc, would no doubt be part of the discussion you are suggesting. I notice that these various institutions are doing some of the most interesting things around building digital infrastructure to maintain the historical record.

    The other thing is that there are/have been good opportunities for digitizing older historical works because often you don’t have to contend with copyright issues.


    • Thankyou for your insights Gary. I suppose my main concern centres on the issue of funding and the pressure that tight funding might impose on academic libraries in the future. Certainly none of them would give up the archival function lightly but will the money be there to do non-core functions in the future? I have worked with some librarians who are concerned about the security of their historic collections. It is because of their concerns that I realised that it was important that historians speak on this issue.

      Digitisation is great, but it costs. Is there a systematic program to digitse Australian published books across the country? Most of the digitised Australian published books I access are books held in North America that are digitised there. We have a wonderful newspaper digitisation program through Trove and state archives and state libraries are doing a great job of digitising other historic material. I would be interested to know more about the state of digitising of Australian books.


  2. Here in the U.K. a lot of the libraries in small towns / villages are closing down. A story recently in the news told how in protest everyone in a village visited and booked out the maximum 12 books until the library was empty 🙂

    Old books are important, not dead. New books always have references to old books. If they’re not in the library, how can I fully understand the new book? 😦


    • Thankyou for mentioning this. Libraries in the United Kingdom have been badly affected by the government’s quest to reduce spending. The most well-known act of mass book borrowing to protest against library closures was the one at Stony Stratford Library, Milton Keynes.. Similar protests have occurred elsewhere including the Isle of Wight

      I agree with you about needing to look up references on which a new book is based!


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