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.