I have long put off writing this post because I have an aversion to it. A while back I bought a second hand book by Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (to be reviewed – at only 124 pages it packs in well over 124 things to think about or follow up). It was written a few years before the end of the last millennium and shortly before Calvino died. You sense a lifetime of reading, writing and thinking by a literary and imaginative giant, condensed into a slim volume suggesting some qualities we should aim for in the now new-minted millennium.
Surely food for thought, something to read and mull over for some time to come? Yet when I got the book home and began browsing more carefully, I found a small inked stamp on the title page. ‘CULLED’ by the library whose identifying stamp was just below. Did the librarian feel any slight revulsion stamping that word into a book, let alone one by a writer of such stature?
Culling is what you do to animals you consider to be damaging the environment, such as deer destroying trees because there are too many of them. It’s a brutal word, at best ‘necessary’, at worst implying a bloodbath of clubbing baby seals for their pelts. It seems a strange and alarming word for a library, arguably one of the key custodians of books and the ideas and stories within them, to use.
Perhaps unreasonably, I’m always a little disturbed, even if being a net beneficiary, when I buy a second hand book and discover it has been sold off by a library. Some are gems which make me question the decision process that leads to a book being removed from the catalogue.
Some time ago, I read of an author buying up hundreds of 18th century pamphlets and publications because a leading university library decided they were no longer worth keeping on the grounds that nobody had read or borrowed them recently. Yet he found mounds of ideas in them which he argued were highly relevant today, but simply not part of the currently accepted canon of economic thought. Perhaps a billionnaire could endow a library in a safe mountainous spot, called The Library of Ideas Which May Come In Handy When Those We Currently Deploy Prove Useless.
Recently, a private library I joined told us they are selling off 2,000 books at 5 Francs each to make way for the 500 new books they add each year. Given their limited space, I don’t have a problem with this in itself. It’s rather a question of understanding what parameters are used to take books off the catalogue.
And the use of that word, ‘culled’.