IA Rages Against the Dying of the Book

| June 28, 2011

In the library world we call it weeding. In the publishing world we call it pulping. Whatever your preferred euphemism, the sentiment is the same. Around the world people who love books are destroying them in droves and sending them off to uncertain futures. Like a battle hardened soldier, I’ve seen a lot of good books go down. It’s hard for me to relate to the horror with which laypeople react to the destruction of books. They haven’t seen the things that I have seen. With a smile on my face I’ve put a complete collection of National Geographics spanning 46 years in the dumpster, routinely and with relish decimated stacks of national newspapers and sent 80 boxes of slow-circulating nonfiction to charity. I’ve happily slam dunked spent out of print Star Wars graphic novels and dissected countless audio book cassettes for parts.

I guess I should have been kinder to the author who called me the other day to ask about her statement. “It says 200 pulped…what does pulped mean?” When I told her it meant we had destroyed them per her contract her voice dropped to a whisper, “that’s unethical,” she hissed. I should have told her that we released her book’s energy back into the world or that it went to book heaven to collect dust all day with those National Geographics. However grim the prospect, pulping and weeding are good for collections, publishers, authors and books. They keep quality high and redundancy low, they’re just a part of the groovy life cycle of a book, man. It’s this IA preservation thing that skeeves me out. It was all well and good when we were taking em’ down Fahrenheit 451 style, it just meant that they were coming steady. Now the super forward-thinking preservation gurus at the Internet Archive have rounded up a load of books, cataloged them and put them in a time capsule like they’re going out of style.

For all my cavalier book destruction, I fret about the end of analog librarianship. Is this the last time I’ll ever feel a skin of Norbond drying on my hands or black out a barcode with marker? Is this my final chance to wipe a sticky unknown substance away with fragrant Goo-Gone or curse the name of anyone who ever put regular tape on a book? Even as a shameless change pimp and lover of novelties this makes me a little misty. I’m thankful the Internet Archive isn’t going gentle. Will the book museums of the future look like the libraries of the past?