Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Mystery of the Vanishing Books

I'm a little bit upset today. I've just learned that all my attention to the forgotten mystery writers whose books still wait to be checked out from the Chicago Public Library may be harmful to the works themselves. To my shock I just learned that the many of the books, right after I have returned them, never make it back to the shelves. They seem to be vanishing.

I think I might have mentioned that I have a habit of taking out books that have not been checked out since 1995 when the library catalog in Chicago first became digital. Often I discover that a book by A.B. Cunningham or Elisabeth Sanxay Holding or Richard Sale or William O'Farrell has not been entered into their database. This has been happening with increasing frequency since I've been trying to find more books via the Chicago Public Library rather than buying a used copy from a dealer. Lack of circulation is one of the factors that will come into play in the future of a book's life within a library system. And today I have discovered that all of the books by Amelia Reynolds Long (who I have lately discovered and whose books will soon be reviewed here) have been pulled from the shelves. But not just pulled from the shelves -- completely obliterated from the Chicago Public Library catalog system. Gone for good.

I had to find out what was happening. So I talked with one of the silky voiced librarians in the Fiction Department. She told me that the library staff regularly weed the collection. They send some poor underling to go through the shelves pulling out beaten up, "well read" books and consign them to one of two fates. Those in good condition (translation: newer books) survive and are offered for sale in the main branch's "used bookstore" which amounts to a single table in a tiny cubbyhole behind a security guard's post on the ground floor. Some store. I don't think anyone even knows it exists!

But here's the sad part. The books I like to read, the books I am always writing about here, the books by writers long gone from our world but whose words live on (translation: the old books) are often just scrapped. Sent to a recycling company with whom the library has a contract. So they are getting a little bit of cash out of killing off these old books. I'm not terribly comforted, I'm sorry to say.

Patron Saint of Libraries - St. Jerome
 I told the librarian that I was interested in two specific books and she said she could check if they had been brought down to that embarrassing closet where old library books await to be purchased for pennies. I told her not to bother. I was convinced that the two Amelia Reynolds Long books are sure to be pulp in a few days. They'll be waiting to be resurrected as a mixed content packing box or the coffee cup you'll get at Starbucks a few months from now or some other form of reincarnated paper product.

I'm wondering if I should just stop taking out the books. It's almost as if I've turned into a book hitman and I've targeted these authors' books for a fate much worse than being sent to the bindery for repairs. In any case, later tonight I will be having a little memorial service for all the books that are being taken from me (and everyone else in Chicago) and destroyed in the name of more shelf space. I may even start saying a few prayers to St. Jerome.


  1. This reminds me of the time I borrowed out "The Poisoned Chocolates Case" by Anthony Berkeley. It was such a wonderful read that a few weeks later, I thought of checking it out again... only to find out that they had eliminated it from their collection! It was a very sad day for me...

    I propose a novena to St. Jerome, but St. Lawrence of Rome is a solid alternative. The guy was cooked to death on a gridiron-- if nothing else, you'll know that the saint you pray to is a persistent guy!

  2. Why is it that most saints were executed in such horrible fashion? It was a toss up between St Jerome and St Lawrence. I just liked the paintings of St Jerome more. He comes in all ages, all moods, and is usually posed in a lovely library with that lion at his feet.

  3. You'd think that people who work at a library love books and would, at least, ask around if anyone wants to take them home before offering them that prospect of a temporary job at Starbucks. And why not sell them on the internet? I think a lot of those books would fetch them more than the pennies they bring up as scrap paper. I mean, for how much goes an Amelia Reynolds Long these days?

    By the way, in case this book is missing from your collection, there's a reprint from the Wildside Press of one of her novels, Death Has a Will.

  4. I became interested in the thriller author Dennis Wheatley about two years after his death. To my delight I found that the local library were selling off lots of hardback editions. Very quickly my collection became quite substantial, but one day I realised that the local library were systematically removing him from the shelves. Within a few years he'd vanished completely. Up till that point I'd considered the library to be somewhere you could re-discover dead or forgotten authors, but checking the contents of the fiction section it became obvious that most of the books had either been written within the past few years or else were recent reprints of classics. Public libraries are funded by the government in Britain, and have to constantly justify their existence by getting the public to come through the door. A lot of the public want to be able to read the latest bestsellers without having to pay for them, hence the need to constantly weed the shelves. That said, the destruction of old books is an abomination. It's a shame that there isn't some sort of scheme whereby you can leave some sort of note on the library computer telling them that you are interested in the book. If it becomes available then you are automatically sent an e-mail telling you that it is available to buy. This would help the reader and the library, and would prevent the barbaric destruction of old books.

  5. Ack! I'm feeling a little less saintly than Patrick. My temptation is to tell you to simple check out these lovely old books and not ever return them. Or--if it could be managed, just smuggle them out. And I'm not really a thief at heart--but sending books to be pulped is a crime itself.

    I wonder if the library would be open to suggestions that they sell on Ebay as TomCat suggests? Surely to goodness they could get more money that way...

    At least when our library her "weeds" they put all the books (not just the shinier, newer-looking ones) in their Friends of the Library Bookstore. I've gotten my hands on some favorites that way--not nearly enough, though. I've missed some of the weeded out books that I would have liked to have.

  6. Wow, this is really depressing. Either you don't post about them so no one reads them, or you do post about them and then no one can read them. I don't know which is worse.

  7. As someone who has previously worked in libraries, I advise a prayer to St. Jude--the patron saint of lost causes.

    The fact is, library shelf space is limited and books are removed all the time for a variety of reasons (haven't been checked out for over a decade, there's a new edition available, the content of the book is obsolete, etc.). The interests of one patron have to be weighed against the interests of many (sadly, more people would rather read the latest John Grisham than read Elisabeth Sanxay Holding). So, while I shouldn't advocate theft, if you know for a fact that the books you love will be pulped in a few weeks, I suggest some "judicious liberation" is in order. (But be sure the books don't have a security tag that will cause the alarms to sound if you try to leave without checking them out.)

  8. Thanks, everyone, for your commiseration.

    Deb, you are so right. St. Jude is definitely who I should be praying to. I'm well aware of our libraries work, but I was disappointed to learn that the main branch of CPL (where I most often visit) is one of the few that don't run a real used books store for discards. There used to be one called Second Hand Prose _ great name, right? But then the got rid of it and transformed the space into something much better - a teen and youth center with computers, areas to socialize, and on-going programs for kids 12 to 18 years old. I shouldn't be bitching about destroyed books when the library system does in fact do real good for our city.

    "Judicious liberation" is a wonderful euphemism. I know what it really is though, and I just can't resort to becoming a book thief no matter how good the intentions might be. This is what happened to most of the Harry Stephen Keeler titles years ago prior to the magnetization security system that all books undergo now. I was not responsible, however. Don't go spreading rumors about me.

  9. More serial killer than hit man, I think. After all, there is no third party involved - and, sadly, no pay. Add to this, the fact that your victims share similar profiles. The neglected aged... they likely won't be missed.

    On a more serious note, I'm more than a little surprised to learn of the library's policy. Old Fodor's guides are one thing, novels are quite another. True, shelf space is precious, but where if not in the country's largest libraries? Are we to leave it to the Library of Congress and the universities?

    I'll end this rant with these sad facts:

    - Chicago, the country's third largest city, ranks only ninth in terms of the public library holdings.

    - Toronto Public Library, serving roughly the same population, has over 12 million holdings - more than twice that of Chicago.

  10. John, I suspect that these classics have actually found their way to a good home. You have to remember: This is Chicago! What’s most likely really happening here is that a high-paid consultant (aka an alderman’s son) and his crack staff of ghostworkers (a different alderman’s brothers and sisters) are hailing this “Library Modernization Program” as a success. Meanwhile, that recycling contract is with a crony of the mayor’s shell company. And, finally, some city worker with benefits better that we’ll ever see is making a fortune selling these books on eBay for personal gain. And, the books are finding their way into the hands of people who will cherish than (and, hopefully, pass them on when ready). Let’s hear it for The City that Works! I’d also like to nominate Rod Blagojevich as the patron saint of government graft…

  11. Hysterical, Dave! A perfect encapsulation of the Windbag City style of government. One of the librarians who I ran into while she was weeding (yes, I've actually witnessed it now) told me, "Welcome to the world of less government."

    BTW - I'll not join you in nominating Ol' Blago for anything remotely resembling sainthood.

  12. Brian -

    I suspect that part of the reason that our holdings are so much sparser than Toronto's is due not only to the destruction of older books but by the exponentially higher rate of book theft. In addition to the books I have taken out then go missing, there are also a higher proportion of books that should be in the library system but haven't been located for over a decade.

    A large portion of the books by Harry Stephen Keeler (a lifelong resident of Chicago), for example, were most likely swiped back when there was a spike in his cult popularity. I know that the CPL is proud of retaining books by homegrown authors on their shelves and that fact that Keeler's books were missing could only be attributed to theft. The CPL catalog in 2001 listed about 20 of his books in their collection, but only five were located on the shelves. I distinctly remembering having a conversation with a librarian about this back in 2001 because her husband was interested in reading the books and she started to track them down. She found a few on -- of all places --the reference shelves where books that cannot circulate are held. But most of them never turned up. Now there are only three. Soon there will be zero based on the practice I have uncovered.