Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2012 Issue

Academia’s Dirty Little Secret: De-Accession by Dumpster

Threw Away the Bound Civil War Era Periodicals

She went on to tell me they had recently cleaned out a whole section of leather bound periodicals dating back to before the Civil War (Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly) in preparation for a renovation; about forty or fifty volumes were pitched directly in the trash early that week.

She told me where the dumpster was and I ran out there at 10:00 p.m. in the dark, but it was filled over with construction debris and I was unable to retrieve the books. 

This is common practice on all levels, it appears. I blame overwhelmed or ignorant staff. 

Another practice I've been trying to combat in the public libraries here is that those that do sell the discarded children's books routinely mutilate the books by tearing out the pages with the card pockets.

I keep telling them I would've bought most of their jacketed award-winning and classic children's picture books if they had not torn out the fly-leaf or endpaper or whatever. 

The one small concession I've noticed is that they've started to just tear out only part of the page now (which I still won't buy -- including three Sendak titles just this past week!)


I think the internet has made books way too common and price-wrecked most of the good mainstream reading material to the point it is not economical to change the culture to deal with the bulk. 

Rather than shaking a stick at the organizations (which generally I believe are trying to do their best with the dwindling resources they have available) I think the only thing we can do (if our aim is to change the system) is develop a sure-fire alternative method of processing what is viewed as a waste-stream into an income stream (cost vs. benefit).

Legal issues with ownership of the material and withdrawal, logistics of transport and storage, sale and disposal of unsellable books would all have to be addressed. This is what Better World Books is capitalizing on.

And the trend in libraries now is to move toward electronic resources (think Kindle) so there is a lot of pressure to reduce the size of traditional physical collections to just those core volumes that show solid use statistics -- everything else can be sourced from Google or other partners online. 

In academia … books are generally considered tools to be used, not sacred objects to be shelved, cherished and admired. 

This is the mindset that allows the powers that be to quickly consider tossing what is not easily quantifiable as valuable or readily understood as important -- like Hawaiiana collection you described.

AE writer Susan Halas can be reached at wailukusue@gmail.com

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