- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

This week’s flap over the Fairfax Public Library system demonstrates one thing: People want great literature in the public libraries, and as long as they want it, librarians will need to keep it there.

Some cried foul to hear that Fairfax’s new two-years-or-the-dustbin checkout policy could possibly mean that less-borrowed treasures like Tolstoy or Hemingway would be tossed to make room for more popular “Harry Potter” or John Grisham titles — which would be awful if it came to pass. A taxpayer-funded library is a public subsidy. Why should we subsidize thrifty readers who won’t spend $3 or $4 for these titles? Many asked that question, and justifiably. Libraries should aim to uplift and edify — something which, when it comes to high culture, the markets don’t do on their own.

It was therefore something of a relief to watch Fairfax rush to agree. Fairfax libraries have 99 copies of Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury,” its director pointed out, plus 107 Aristotelian treatises among many other greats that aren’t going anywhere. “We are committed to offering classic texts by important writers like these in our library system,” Director Edwin S. Clay III promised. The follow-through will be watched carefully. But at least we all seem to agree on the first principles.

The unnerving element for many here is a Gradgrindish-sounding computer program that monitors how often books are checked out, helping the library determine what stays on the shelves. No wonder it hits a nerve — even considering how commonplace such programs are nowadays. Private booksellers watch the numbers to maximize sales. Public libraries aren’t supposed to think in quite the same way.

When the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building opened in 1897, one member of the public exclaimed: “Not until I stand before the judgement seat of God do I ever expect to see this building transcended.” Intimations of immortality aplenty here, and no hint of convenience or efficiency. People want their libraries to reach high.

That’s true even in the age of the Internet and a proliferation of sometimes trashy paperbacks. Technological change has created an abundance of ever-cheaper options for reading, which means that in some respects libraries should in theory be freed to reach higher than ever.

Maybe that’s why the news struck so many as foul. It’s easier than ever for the public to read just any old thing. Public libraries should concentrate on the great.

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