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    Our Take: Old Books

January 2008

Volume XXVIII, No. 1

At the beginning of the twenty-first century a number of American universities invented a new way of making room for new books: removing old books from library shelves and storing them at a remote location. Check with your university librarian to see whether this applies to your school.

At the time when fortunes are spent on increasing the number of university administrators and non-teaching staff, the excuse that “it is too expensive to keep all the books in the library” sounds thin. Another excuse we have heard is that certain books have not been checked out for decades, and therefore can safely be stored far away from the students’ eyes.

This last excuse does not even deserve a rejoinder. In the great libraries of the world most books have never been checked out: simple arithmetic will tell you that. These libraries are great because all books are always potentially available to students and scholars.

It used to be that the older the book, the more it was treasured as part of the collection. Now the opposite seems to be true: the most recent interpretations of human affairs are valued, while the older ones are discarded. Instant and untested knowledge trumps the wisdom of the ages.

Western civilization (or any other civilization worth its name) depends on written texts for its preservation, perpetuation, and development. Dead civilizations are studied through archeology, live ones are reanimated by reading books. Poland’s identity would be unthinkable without the foundation of its Renaissance and Baroque writers such as Stanisław from Skarbimierz, Jan Kochanowski, or Andrzej Frycz-Modrzewski. Jacques Derrida, whose dislike of Western civilization was shared by many twentieth-century literary theorists, bemoaned the influence of the printed word on the Western world.

The removal of a sizeable percentage of books published before the 1960s truncates the memory of the present generation. If a significant chunk of interpretations of culture committed to paper is removed from easy circulation, the culture built on these interpretations will eventually wither. This was predicted by Marxists like Antonio Gramsci who wrote in the 1930s that it is not necessary to engineer bloody revolutions to change political systems and affect a transfer of power: it is enough to change culture to affect such a change. The massive removal of old books from university libraries is a small step in this direction. While many steps have to be taken to bring Gramsci’s vision to fruition, one should not ignore the small steps.

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