Gardening and reading are often pictured together as delights practiced into the afterlife, probably because people can’t imagine ever giving them up.
While everyone knows that gardeners have to weed their plots to get rid of plants that would choke out the beauty of the whole, book lovers rarely consider that good libraries must be weeded as well if they hope to avoid the fate of becoming frozen in time – dusty, unused and overseen by a Miss Havisham of a librarian.
The removal of books – seen as artifacts – has often caused much drama for small local and school libraries that attempt to stay current.
As a school librarian working on a campus that several years ago celebrated its centennial, I am one of a long series of teacher librarians who have never had the time to properly cull the collection. So much remains on the shelves that should have left the building decades ago; these books become time capsules, and the weeding is a romp through pop history and culture.
It’s difficult not to have deep affection for outdated books in the same way one might for a ride that is torn out of Disneyland because its time has passed.
As a form of amusement, the book itself, the information it contains, or its author, might have been a part of our childhood or, in a library as old as mine, our parents’ or grandparents’ childhoods.
I recently promised myself to remove the library’s never-used books from the shelves. Some were easy to pull, such as the science books that stated that one day people would land on the moon.
With others, I fought an undercurrent of affection, the source of which was puzzling. The checkout history of “A First Electrical Book for Boys,” published in 1936, was lost; however, the book was never added to the circulation system when it was automated in the late 1980s.
I imagine innocent, inquisitive kids pouring over it. I like to picture smart, sneaky girls taking the book home with the compliance of their librarian.
“The Story of X-ray” from General Electric is a pamphlet that appears to have been printed in 1949 and was checked out nine times from 1951 to 1959. It pictures a technician without any protective garments taking X-rays in a hospital room with a mobile unit. X-ray technology itself is described as something of a creepy Big Brother: “There is practically no region of the body that is not subject to its searching eye.”
Shelved nearby, “The Walt Disney Story of Our Friend the Atom,” published in 1956 and acquired in 1958, enjoyed numerous checkouts ending in 1981. Despite being fabulously dated, it does appear to be a friendly book, with its full-color illustrations and cartoon images.
I move to find books that are either “head scratchers“ or “heartbreakers.”
“Cheese Varieties and Descriptions” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Agricultural handbook No. 54), first issued in 1953 and costing $1.75, was never checked out. Even back in the day, it seems teens were focused on something other than their future wine-and-cheese parties.
More curious yet is “How to Know the Eastern Land Snails: Pictured-keys for determining the land snails of the United States occurring east of the Rocky Mountain Divide.” Published in 1962 and acquired in 1967, it was checked out once, in 1970. That’s once more than I would have put money on.
The “heartbreakers” include “National Geographic’s Song and Garden Birds of North America.” This volume is beyond beautiful, its heavy glossy sheets thick with full-color images of every imaginable bird. It’s an early interactive book, complete with a booklet of bird songs on several flimsy 45-rpm vinyl records.