Creative Destruction Hurts!

You can’t find "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" at the
Fairfax City Regional Library anymore.  Or "The Education of Henry
Adams" at Sherwood Regional.  Want Emily Dickinson’s "Final Harvest"? 
Don’t look to the Kingstowne branch.

It’s not that the books are
checked out.  They’re just gone.  No one was reading them, so librarians
took them off the shelves and dumped them.

Along with those classics, thousands of novels and nonfiction works
have been eliminated from the Fairfax County collection after a new
computer software program showed that no one had checked them out in at
least 24 months.

First Tower, now this.  In any case I do not think they are using the correct algorithm; here is more.  Circulation figures, by the way, have become a bargaining chip for more government funding.  That, plus growing demands on space, explain the ruthless culling underway.


1. Make friends with key library staff.
2. Watch the 12-18 month candidate list.
3. Use your judgement and make key borrowings.

There is a real difference between a lending library and a depository library. Most town libraries are lending libraries. But the algorithm should not be quality indifferent.

i had a similar experience this weeked at blockbuster looking for "Chinatown."

If a book hasn't been checked out in two years under what algorithm would you want it on the shelf? What about four years? Eight?


With all the interlibrary loan able to spread out the demand so much, this surprises me.

Perhaps the libraries can use an off-site warehouse to feed requests and just keep best sellers in relatively small local branches.

Hopefully at some point in the near future we can get PDFs of anything we want on the internet for free so we won't have to go to the library.

Good libertarians don't believe in public libraries anyway do they?

The article is maddeningly vague, noting that "the same book might be available at another branch." It seems to me that the Fairfax County system could also prioritize based on the number of volumes available at other branches when deciding what to remove from a branch. It seems like an obvious thing that they may well be doing, but I can't seem to tell from the article.

So what. This is an unstory if I ever saw one. I'll bet most of those classics are available online for free anyway.

The books don't do any good if no one is reading them.

Fairfax county is a suburb and so has lending libraries that serve local readers. If you want to access infrequently read books or do research you must go downtown as you must in other cities. There is the King library in DC, the Library of Congress and many private and university collections. It is a shame that no one checks out books like "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire", but maybe it is because so many people own it from their college days.

The real story is that the English language books are getting replaced by Spanish/non-English books. I visited the Fairfax branch near Tysons corner and I'd say at least half the patrons are hispanic/immigrants.

I have thought about writing a paper that does a social cost-benefit analysis for public libraries. Other than the depository libraries, I cannot see any case for it. There may have been onr prior to the internet, as there may have been with public television before cable, but I cannot see what it is now. Why should I subsidize the reading of other middle class people? This is all the more true as libraries start to also compete with video rental stores and internet cafes.


Please tell me more about this "Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire". I've never checked it out and I don't own it from my college days.

On a related note, Fairfox does have an audiobook of Part I of the classic Gibbon book. I guess the Post writer forgot to look for it, because I found it in one search on the library website.

And now it looks like they've changed the first sentence of the Post article. Curious.

And of course we can't forget that most Borders and Barnes & Noble stores let people browse freely-- and make it comfortable to do so. Barnes & Noble also reprints their own versions of classic books with expired copyrights and sell them cheaply, too. Borders might do so as well.

Since the latest post doesn't have comments working, I'd be interested in hearing Professor Cowen discuss Switzerland in the context of why federalism is unhelpful for small countries, and discuss Japan dominated by Tokyo and France dominated by Paris as relates to the "Nordic countries dominated by their capitals" hypothesis.

Cheap substitutes at BN/Borders/Amazon probably helps. I wonder if displaying circulation information would change books' fortunes. You can sort of tell history from the stamps inside the books, but I wonder if you could improve upon this. For example, suppose we tagged books with RFID; and suppose they distributed a handheld device (maybe a Palm or those digital devices used at museums) that could read the RFID. The device might direct you to where the book is in the library (not just give you a call number, which would be extra useful when you find that a book is supposed to be in the library but isn't or mis-shelved) and tell you info like circulation or any of the other info that Amazon generates for you (if you liked this...; others who bought this...).

Libraries do not exist simply to provide library patrons with the hot stuff that they want to read now. If people wnat to read that stuff, they can go sit in Barnes and Noble and Borders just as easily. Libraries exist not only to serve as repositories for "classics" but also to promote them. If they find themselves weeding books by great authors, something is wrong with how they promote their services.

Speaking for myself, I never would have spent money on Cowen's Creative Destruction, but found it very interesting when I found it in the Fairfax Public Library. It seems to me libraries provide another price-point for books, thereby widening the reading audience for people who write and people who think (sets with some overlap). The more reading in the world, the more ideas in the world, and the more often someone will come up with an idea of interest and benefit to others.

That makes taxing to support libraries worthwhile, even though most taxpayers never cross their threshold. The same principle applies to taxing the old and childless to educate our youth.

If a book hasn't been checked out in two years

People use books in libraries all the time without checking them out. Someone may need to look up a passage, even in a novel (school reports, etc.). Professors, of all people, should not need to be reminded of this.

So the "no one checks it out" argument suggests a fundamental ignorance of how libraries work, an ignorance apparently shared by the people running the libraries. No great surprise there -- how many small public libraries actually employ people with degrees in library science?

I take the liberty of providing the library's take on it (excerpted from their e-mail newsletter):

"You may have seen or heard media reports this week claiming that our
library system is eliminating classic literature from our shelves. These
reports are absolutely incorrect. Although we occasionally reduce the
number of copies of a particular title -- perhaps trimming Hemingway's
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" from 110 copies to 108, for example -- we're
committed to offering classic texts by western culture's leading

Here are just a few examples of the number of books we offer which a
January 2 Washington Post article implied that we've totally "weeded"
off our shelves:

"Dr. Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak -- 50 copies of books, CDs and

"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner -- 99 copies of books, CDs,
cassettes and large print books.

"The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams -- 116 copies of books and
videos, including in some volumes of collected plays.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee -- 359 copies of books, CDs,
cassettes, DVDs, videos, e-books and large print books.

Because of the growing demand for more books in more formats and
languages, we do have to balance the need to offer classic literature,
and satisfy public demand, with our limited space. We can't warehouse
every book that every resident may want to read. We use industry
standards, computer data and the expertise of librarians with decades of
professional experience to offer a dynamic collection of classics, new
literature and reference materials to an increasingly diverse

We take our stewardship of public property very seriously and strive to
prudently manage the public's investment in the library. Our efforts are
paying off: we're on track to have our books checked out more than 12
million times by the end of this fiscal year, a 10 percent increase over
FY2005 when we began our new "weeding" process.

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