Where do library books die?


Every year, libraries are forced to sort out thousands upon thousands of books to make room for new inventory. Alex Casey investigates their final resting places.

Everyone wants John Grisham until he doesn’t anymore. There are currently more than 100 copies of his 2021 legal thriller The Judge’s List in Auckland City libraries, but you only have to look to history to see how dramatically those numbers will decline in the years to come. For example, his 2019 album The Whistler – “a high-stakes roller coaster ride through the darkest corners of the Sunshine State” – is only 28 copies available, and 2009’s The Associate – “if you thought Mitch McDeere was on The Firm in trouble, wait until you meet the employee” – only has five.

Anyone familiar with op shopping will know that popular titles dominate the book department, meaning it’s a rare experience to walk into a store in the country without looking at The Da Vinci Code, The World According To Clarkson, or Fifty Shades of Gray to encounter. And our libraries face the same problem. Every year, libraries across Aotearoa have to deselect thousands upon thousands of books to keep up with the demand for new titles and free up storage space.

As necessary as it is – Tāmaki Makaurau alone buys about 386,000 new items a year – Catherine Leonard, Head of Library and Learning Services at Auckland Council, says it’s a part of the job that never gets easier. “We really have to arm ourselves,” she says. “For us, it’s not just the book itself, but the work that went into acquiring it, describing it, cataloging it and preserving it – it really does feel like it has a bit of life.”

Although she finds it sad, Leonard says this is the reality of the library book life cycle. Libraries in Tāmaki Makaurau contain over 3.2 million items, an average of 10 percent per year, or 320,000 items. “Like all public libraries, we are in a continuous cycle of renewing collections to keep them fresh and engaging for our customers,” explains Leonard. “When we see that items are no longer in demand, we look at the circulation and decide whether we should keep a small number or maybe just one for the whole region.”

Aside from Grisham, another recent title she says has landed on the chopping block is Michelle Obama’s 2018 autobiography, Becoming. “When that came out, we couldn’t keep up with the demand and ended up doing over 100 copies,” says Leonard. “But once demand dies down, the question becomes, ‘Are we really going to try to stock 100 copies of this?'”

They can pinpoint the second when their heart rips in half (Picture: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

When it seems like a library book’s life is coming to an end, Leonard says there are strict grading guidelines in place to ensure libraries are “responsible and consistent” with the way they work. Books are rated not only on reader demand, but also on what might be useful for future research or heritage purposes. “We’re really skeptical about getting rid of the final copy of anything,” says Leonard. “Even if the condition is so bad that we couldn’t have it in loan stock, we would still put it in the back catalog and try to find a replacement.”

Unfortunately, there are some articles that are just too dingy, too damaged, too outdated, or just too productive to warrant a spot backstage. These unfortunate books face three possible fates – book sale, donation, or recycling. Leonard says the community library book sale has been an exceptionally useful way to move old holdings, with the central library sale gathering queues outside on Friday mornings. Unfortunately, since the arrival of Covid-19 in 2020, libraries in Auckland have not had regular book sales. “It just didn’t feel very appropriate for the time.”

Although Covid has resulted in fewer library books being sold to the public, it has strengthened a new weapon in the ongoing camp struggle. “Use of our e-books has increased significantly during the lockdowns, so that’s been huge for us,” says Leonard. During the second long lockdown, there was a dramatic increase in children’s e-book borrowing compared to the first. “It was really gratifying to see people using our online children’s collections to keep their children entertained and read,” says Leonard.

Because e-books don’t take up shelf space and don’t need to be returned – they just disappear from your device when the time’s up – they can be a useful solution to a lack of physical storage space, Leonard says. This means they can add an extra link to the chain between purchase and disposal. But popular e-book titles face the same brutal guidelines when their time in the sun is up. “The supply of e-books is really one copy per customer, so we have to do the same balancing act when it comes to demand for our e-books as we do for our physical books, which sounds strange when you’re talking about something digital. ”

Photograph of a bookshelf in an OP store crammed with Lee Child and Jodi Picoult et al., odds and ends along the top shelf
Where Jodi Picoult, Lee Child, Kate Atkinson and others die (Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

The next avenue down libraries is donation. Auckland Libraries have agreements with a number of organizations including Auckland City Hospital, Mt Eden Prison, Women’s Refuge and a selection of local convalescent homes. “As you can imagine, we have to think carefully about what is appropriate for each of them. For example, we don’t want to donate medical texts with outdated information to the hospital, while the women’s shelter is very interested in children’s material.”

Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales says book donations, both from libraries and from the public, are an extremely important educational tool in prison institutions across the country. “Prison libraries are busy, and we’ve found that people have extremely positive experiences in prison,” he says. Genre readings such as fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, crime and thriller are all in high demand, as are non-fiction based on New Zealand and Māori history.

He gives an example from the book club at Rimutaka Prison, where a participant liked Paul Woods’ book How to Escape from Prison so much that he didn’t want to return his copy to the library. “This is the first book the man has ever finished, and he felt like he was losing a friend by giving it back,” says Beales. “This particular book club attendee is now studying for NCEA level one.” (NB: The book is about mental break out of prison).

If the deselected books can’t be sold or donated, they end up – get ready – in the trash. The plastic covers are removed, the barcodes clipped, and the unwanted books tumble into their mass paper grave in what Leonard describes as “just your regular big recycling bins.” Auckland Council has no data on items donated or disposed of, but assures that “all disbursements are made in accordance with our assessment and disposal policies”.

The death of a library book remains something that some librarians find more difficult than others. “Some are grateful that they can make some space for the new books that are coming in,” says Leonard. “Others may feel that you’re not just throwing away the pages and the print, but the ideas and the stories they contain.” This reminds me that I have a pristine copy of Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which I’m sorry about to get rid of it. Would the library like it?

“No thanks,” says Leonard. “We have enough.”


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