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David Lee King

That library smell – it’s the smell of death



Stephen Abram recently posted Are Books Smelly? Fun read – learn all about why old books smell!

And I have to admit – I’ve been thinking about “that old book smell” that some libraries have for awhile now. Here’s why – it seems to me that the smell some of us relish in a library is:

  • the smell of books that haven’t moved off the shelves in a very long time
  • which equals =
  • the smell of a library NOT BEING USED
  • which equals =
  • the smell of death

Have that lovely smell of rotting glue and mold in your library? It means that your stuff isn’t relevant, and it’s been sitting for too long. You have two choices:

  1. pay people to move your stuff around
  2. get better stuff

OK – probably more than two choices – you could also learn to market and promote better, actually weed your collections more often (ie, we still have Windows 98 for Dummies – both copies are available!), etc.

Yep – another way to look at change, with a sorta-kinda-measurable tool (ie, the smell-o-meter). Get people using your stuff, get rid of the stuff that’s no longer moving. Left with nothing? Maybe you’re buying the wrong stuff.

Quoting Seth Godin – “change is a bear, but it’s better than death.”

pic by antmoose

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  • Pingback: Musty Books – Eros or Thanatos? | all these birds with teeth: this is not about science.

  • http://birdswithteeth.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/musty-books-eros-or-thanatos/ Jgrobelny81

    Doesn’t that depend on what kind of library it is?

  • http://twitter.com/mcmikedermott Mike McDermott

    Or – you could market it:
    http://www.neatorama.com/2010/09/19/perfume-that-makes-you-smell-like-a-library/
    Personally, I like to sprinkle this on the library Kindles – It seems like one of the biggest complaints people have with e-books is that they will miss the smell of old books.

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    I’ve worked in academic and public libraries – and I’m still not quite sure
    how I’d answer that! Sure – we have a local history collection that doesn’t
    get used much, but does fit our goals. And academic libraries want to keep
    stuff for intellectual reasons.

    But. I have certainly been in places in my career where I was “in charge” of
    buying stuff for academic departments. At some point in the year, it turned
    into “I have to spend this much money or it disappears next year.” I’m sure
    someone can relate. That’s simply not buying the best stuff.

    Same way with keeping the old – in the 1990s when I was getting my MLIS
    degree at UTK, they boasted at having over 6 million items. I’m guessing
    there’s stuff there that never. gets. used.

    Is it worth keeping? Nope.

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    That’s actually what some stores do!

    I’d prefer smelling cinnamon and coffee, but that’s just me.

  • Anon

    Or you could move millions of books to the basement break the fire codes, let them stink, gather dust, and make the employees want to throw a red stapler at you!

    I BELIEVE YOU HAVE MY STAPLER!
    http://gooddeedaday.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/stapler.jpg

  • Andrew Finegan

    We covered this at uni in collection maintenance 101… so why is it so hard for so many librarians to understand? :-/

  • Sourmangoes

    Would you kindly consider changing the image you have chosen to accompany this topic? This type of skull display is associated with genocide, is painful to look at, and is certainly not really representative of the topic.

  • http://www.davidleeking.com davidleeking

    Genocide? Actually, the picture is from a catholic church in Rome that took care of abandoned corpses – more info here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_dell'Orazione_e_Morte

    Sorry you don’t like the pic – but that’s not really the point of this post, is it? What do you think about the topic at hand?

  • Sourmangoes

    Thanks for sharing the source of the image. Noble mission they had. I’m an LIS student about to graduate which is why I came to read, but the photo was so disturbing I couldn’t focus on the topic. Sorry. It looks more like those I’ve seen in photo journalism documentation of Rwanda and Cambodia. It’s unfortunate when the medium gets in the way of the message.

  • Sourmangoes

    Thanks for sharing the source of the image. Noble mission they had. I’m an LIS student about to graduate which is why I came to read, but the photo was so disturbing I couldn’t focus on the topic. Sorry. It looks more like those I’ve seen in photo journalism documentation of Rwanda and Cambodia. It’s unfortunate when the medium gets in the way of the message.

  • Lauren

    It’s not always such a simple equation. Some stock must be preserved, even if it’s not in high demand. For example, “The Joint Fiction Reserves (JFRs) exist to preserve and make available for public library borrowers out-of-print works of fiction.” http://combinedregions.com/Inter-Library_Loans/Locating_Fiction_in_English

    I’m not saying libraries should be full of books that nobody wants to read, far from it, but it’s not a simple “this hasn’t been read in x amount of time, let’s bin it” situation.

  • Rglightyear

    For my Shakespear class, to save money, I used the library’s copy of the plays we were studying. I found a copy of Othello that was printed in 1890, just sitting on the shelf waiting to be circulated. Talk about old book smell!! So, my question is, should a 100 year old copy of a classic (complete with many foot-notes) that can be bought for 9.99 at Chapters be taken off the shelf?