How to Toss a Book

Or at least make room for more important things


A friend of mine is touring England this summer, and posted the following picture on her Facebook account.

Books in Garbage

It’s a quick peek at how books are treated in Cambridge. That’s right, nicely bound classic books tossed willy-nilly in the garbage. It’s a sad sight, but one that may be more common in the years ahead. Two recent trends are driving this transformation. The first is, naturally, the rise of eBooks. Who needs paper when you can make the same content available in a variety of electronic formats? It’s cheaper to store and inventory, it’s quicker to get the books out to more people, and you don’t need those pesky library volunteers dusting shelves.

The second trend is in how libraries are transforming themselves in the twenty-first century. Libraries have always been more than just repositories for books. They store all types of content for patrons: newspapers and periodicals, audio and video recordings, and government publications, just to name a few. They have also act as research centers for the serious student, and a brick-and-mortar New York Times Bestseller lists for those looking for a great read.

But this traditional view of libraries is changing. Instead of focusing on making content available to the public, modern libraries are becoming places where the public is made available to the content. It’s now all about the patron, not the books. The Newport Beach Public Library, located in Orange County, California, is an example of this change. As part of an upgrade to the overall city government campus, the main library branch will add 17,000 square feet of space, and none of it will be for books. The new space is dedicated to study rooms, computer labs, and other facilities that put the focus on humans. While they won’t be purging any books, they won’t be adding any for the upgrade either.

Reductions in physical media by libraries is not new. Harvard University Library director Robert Darnton, in his book The Case for Books, laments the replacement of physical newspaper archives in libraries with microfilm images of those same publications, a practice that began decades ago. In Chapter 8 of the book, he quotes another expert who “rightly warns that the enthusiasm for digitizing could produce another purge of papers [from libraries].” Sounds like a prophecy to me.

So if you are looking for some books to read, to even up your kitchen table legs, or as decor for your walls, stop by the back door of your local library. Just be sure to bring a really big box.


  1. I read Darnton’s A Case for Books while writing my bachelor paper. Brilliant book that one.
    As a librarian to be I’m both thrilled by the development but also terrified. It’s very difficult to say what sort of workplace a library will be by the time my education is finished. In order to renew itself and continue to keep the interest of the users the libraries must focus on other things that just the books. It can no longer solely by a collection of books, but must offer digital databases, study rooms, e-books, other media, entertainment and so on and so forth. At the same time though they mustn’t loose track of what a library is – a place of learning, procurement and dissemination (I hope my dictionary hasn’t failed me in translation those correctly 😉


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