Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Burning Books? Been There, Done That.

You read the title correctly. I have burned books. I would do it again, despite getting a snoot full of smoke because I didn't move quickly enough when the wind changed direction.

Some of my handy work.

I know what you're thinking: "But wait, Jessica, didn't you post not just once but twice last week about Banned Books Week?" And the answer to that is much the same as my answer to your assumed question about the title of the blog post: Yes. I have written about Banned Books Week. I would do it again, despite the flames I encountered in a comment I ended up deleting.

The thing is, these two activities aren't actually mutually exclusive. It's all about intent. I burned the books to create a display for my library in honor of Banned Books Week. I burned the books to get attention for the display, and the display was for educational purposes. I burned the books, created the display, and then didn't think beyond that. I had a busy week last week, so I didn't really have time.

Then the unexpected happened: people got offended. They wanted to know how I could do such a thing. Burning books is BAD, after all.

Do I care that people got offended? No, not really. The truth is that the books in question had been offered up in multiple Friends of the Library book sales and had been passed over every time. Besides, a couple of them smelled like my grandfather's basement. They were on their way to the recycling dumpster when I gave them one last chance to be useful, to impart knowledge one more time. Would I burn books for the same reason again? Well, I hate to repeat display ideas, but if I'm ever at another library and need an idea for a Banned Books Week display... Heck, yeah, I'd do it again.

So, no, I don't care that people got offended. On the other hand, I do care that there was a difference in perception. That's why I want to write about burning books in my blog, so I can clear up that misunderstanding. I know my scribblings are read more widely, but this blog is geared towards new professionals and library science graduate students. I have admitted before that I'm trying to influence the kind of librarians you will be in the future, and I'm consciously trying to influence you with this post. So let me be completely clear about how I feel about books:

Personally? I love books. Love them to pieces. I'm a bibliophile of the first order. I love the smell of old books, the soft *crack* when you open a new hardcover book for the first time, and the rustle of pages turning. I grieve when someone tells me they don't like to read, because reading is such a huge part of my life.

Professionally? I'm a librarian, not a curator of a collection of books. Books are just one (sometimes small) part of what I do for a living. Further, being a librarian means I get rid of books sometimes. I get rid of books that are duplicates or inaccurate or damaged or smelly. I get rid of books to make space, to improve the look of the collection, and to make sure I have up-to-date information. I get rid of books that were donated to the library but for which the library has no use.

I get rid of them, most times without the slightest regret, because books are NOT sacred objects. They are just objects.

On the other hand, information (and access thereto), education, and learning ARE sacred. Educating my community about the need to value access to information is why I burned those books, and why I would do it again.



  1. My first thought was that this is an excellent display idea. My second is that the librarian field is all to often dominated by the idea that books are best thing ever. Don't get me wrong, I love books just as much as any other librarian. But the reality is a love of books has little to nothing to do with the actual practice of librarianship. I was always dismayed that during library school I would encounter people that decided to become a librarian because they love to read. Again, nothing wrong with that, but it does a lot to reinforce the notion that libraries are archaic institutions filled with books that have no place in our modern technological society. While we know this isn't the case, it is a perception lots of people have. Librarianship needs to become more than just books, banned or otherwise.

    1. The woman in charge of our career center has taken to sending anyone who says "I want to be a librarian because I like to read" to me. She knows I'll wake them up: "I like books, too, but I don't actually read that often at work. This is a people oriented career path, and if you don't like people you might want to think about another career."

  2. When I first got into library work it was because I wanted to save all the books (I think my MLIS application essay was on this, actually), but one of the biggest things I've learned since starting library school (not just from classes, but most viscerally from work and volunteer experiences) is that work in libraries and archives is not so much about keeping alllll the books and papers so much as it is about keeping the most useful ones. And that a LOT of stuff just needs to be thrown away, for various reasons. Books are objects, and we use them as is appropriate according to the situation, whether that means preserving them, or writing all over them, or burning them for a display (which, love the idea)!

    1. One of my earliest weeds was a biography of the editor in chief of a newspaper that (at the time) hadn't been published in over 50 years. Strange book that might have had an appropriate home, but that library's collection wasn't it.

  3. "I get rid of them, most times without the slightest regret, because books are NOT sacred objects. They are just objects."

    Love this line!

    In addition to the comment regarding those who become librarians b/c they like to read, let me add this: packrats may also want to reconsider this profession.

  4. Great post - great display - great early result: that people reacted and questioned the nature of the display, opening the way to *THINK* - not that everyone will agree but if a display gets people thinking then it does its job.

    I'd be interested if the display had means for people to share their reactions? And now I'm wondering how I might enable that kind of sharing around displays in future - and whether they would be used. Perhaps a pile of blank card on posts representative of placards, with some textas (markers) - and encouragement for patrons to express their point of view?

    I am curious at the word offense: you said people got offended - is that their own word, or your own label for their reaction? Might other words be shocked, startled, surprised, horrified, concerned?

    Somehow I think of offended as a more closed state of mind wherein an initial shock reaction has undergone some thought and judgement in line with a particular point of view. The other states of mind are closer to reaction and thus possibly more open to appreciating diverse points of view.

    It might be interesting to explore other themes than Banning with such burning too. Like: if the only means of obtaining heat for survival was to burn, and everything burnable is gone but the books - what would we burn first/last?

  5. Hi there,
    I'm blogging my thoughts (http://www.contentdivergent.blogspot.com) and will link to your post. I sometimes use snippets of book pages in my artwork and while I haven't received any negative feedback about it (YET), it does seem that some wonder why *I* as a librarian would do such a thing.

    However, the books I use are not books as art or sacred objects - no first editions, no significant literary works, etc. (Yes, it is a subjective criteria). The book as a medium to communicate information has little intrinsic value beyond its information; however, when it approaches a level of art through quality paper, bindings, illustrations, marginalia, printing technique, number of the printing or edition, among other characteristics, then it moves from a container of information to a sacred object. In some cases what is sacred, is what we - archives, libraries, museums - say so.

    Even knowing a particular book was unloved or unappreciated enough for no one to want it, I do feel a moment of sadness when I rip out pages of a book or cut it up.

    Information is important, the medium, not so much (as long as it accessible); however, there are moste definitely books that are sacred beyond the information contained. I have books that fall into this category (an early edition William Wordsworth collection of poetry that my mother gave me for christmas; the book I wrote and illustrated in second grade). Obviously the book I wrote in second grade has no value beyond sentimentality, but that is important, too.

    That's for the food for thought.
    robin @georgiawebgurl

  6. I've done it too! And I'm not ashamed. Our Friends group has recycled so many copies of The Da Vinci Code. That book isn't going anywhere, so really, it's just paper, isn't it? Thanks for getting the community to think.