Books-the other sacrament?

That smell of books that people are so obsessed with is the smell of the book slowly molding. I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for what’s wrong with being obsessed with the materiality of books. And yet as library and archival workers we are supposed to love books. Despite the amount of work many in the field have put in to expand the idea of libraries beyond books and monographs, they are still the main character of the ensemble that is the institution of libraries.

And so why does this matter? Books are pretty cool! And it’s true, book are pretty cool. But they are, in most cases, not inherently sacred objects. They have a life cycle just like anything else. They are born, they live, and they die. And when books die, they get pulped and recycled and the cycle begins anew.

At least that’s how it should work. But the nostalgia tied to books means that it’s a battle for books to actually die peacefully. Whenever it’s time for books to get thrown out it becomes a huge kerfuffle. The picture of books in a dumpster, without fail, will go viral and it begins “how could a library throw out books????” Or something like this happens:

And the library worker is seen as some monster. And while the poster in this case isn’t a librarian look at the conversation that later takes place in regards to this situation:

The librarian and patron agree that this must not have been a real librarian that was helping them. A real librarian wouldn’t be so callous and understand the sacredness of a book. If books are seen as sacred objects they cannot be “misused” in any way. Their life cycle can never end because of fear. It’s the same fear that leads to people archiving everything rather than having holistic acquisition and disposal policies.

As we start to dismantle vocational awe in ourselves and advocate for healthier work-life separations it’s important to remember that the books themselves are just tools. They will always be important as a medium for information. The accessibility of books are unmatched; physical books don’t require technological devices like electricity and WiFi. But they’re not sacred objects. It’s not a requirement for a library or archival worker to be in love with physical books and monographs.

That’s the most important takeaway really-it’s not a requirement to be in love with physical books in order to be a good or even great librarian/archivist.

2 Replies to “Books-the other sacrament?”

  1. What librarians are in love with is connecting people with the information they seek. (And, yes, information includes entertainment.) The tools and the toys may look different, but the mission is the same worldwide. Because of this, librarians will advocate for the _most appropriate format_ for that information, be it physical or digital. We love books, because books still serve a purpose in fulfilling our mission. We also love electronic resources, microfilm, posters, and any other medium that connects people to information.


  2. I worked in a public library for 20 years and librarians know better than all just how many books there are in the world, the sheer volume of those coming out each year, and that there is no room for those that other people will not borrow. This means that no, we don’t need multiple copies of old novels, books that are damaged or worn, non-fiction over a few years old etc. It also means that we regularly get rid of books (gasp) that are still in “readable” condition, to make room for new ones. They go in book sales or places like Better World Books.

    Libraries are not archives. Librarians are not priests of books. We are more like gardeners, having to ensure there is space for people to find the books they actually want and need.


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