Monday, April 16, 2012

So Where Have All the Good Books Gone?

“I always thought that libraries were repositories of all the best in literature that had ever been written,” my friend Michelle Miller shared, “but then I started noticing that a lot of the good old books just weren’t there anymore.” She began doing a little detective work about their mysterious disappearance.

Before disclosing her findings, let me first wind back in time to the beginning of lending libraries in this  country. You probably would not be the least surprised to learn that good old Benjamin Franklin is credited with opening the first one back in 1731. That was a private lending library from his personal collection, but the first public library funded with tax revenue was in Boston. With the advent of public schools in the mid-nineteenth century, school libraries began as well, even as a corner in the one-room schools.

Naturally, the privleged classes had owned personal libraries for centuries, and even the learned poor built  up treasuries of books that were passed down to succeeding generations. A result of the American mindset believing that everyone had a right to the good life, unsurprisingly, led to books being made available to all.

Coincidental with the growth of our young nation, toward the end of the nineteenth century, children’s  literature began to increase in popularity. Naturally books had been written for children before then, but not so much for them to read for themselves. This new genre of publishing grew until a veritable explosion of books printed for children to read was in full bloom in the 1930’s. They were so prolific that books and magazines began to be published for librarians and teachers to help them select literature. Some fondly look  at the period from 1925-1965 as “the golden age of children’s literature.”

So why was Michelle, a young Mom in the 1980’s, having difficulty finding these golden treasures for her children at the public library? Apparently, with hundreds of thousands of books published annually, there was a limit to what the library shelves could hold and the old were being discarded to make room for the new: discarded, disposed of, dumped; sent to dusty warehouses, piling up in land fills, being incinerated. With horror, she was discovering that the new books were not at all new substitutions, but inferior in most all ways. What had happened?

That answer is probably way too complicated to tackle in this brief history, but the overall deterioration in traditional values, family life, and education in general is the all too familiar setting for this decline in quality. There was a further influence. The Education Act of 1965 (Public Law 89-10, 79 Stat. 27), signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in order to "improve" public education made enormous amounts of federal money available to libraries. The natural consequence was that, with more money at their disposal, librarians had a larger number of books to purchase and they did not have to be as choosy as they used to be. Simultaneously, printing and photographic technology was improving. Why pay the best authors, the best artists for illustrators, when things could be done so much more cheaply with photos and, later, computer generated pictures? Add to this, the proliferation of television and visual  entertainments, and it doesn’t take a moderately imaginative person long to figure out why those golden  treasures lost popularity.

As Michelle laments, “libraries are not repositories of all that is best anymore, but are full of all that is popular and current.” In school to earn her library science degree, she found out that the goal is to own books written in the last five years (and only 3 years old for non-fiction books). Does this at all help you to understand why there is a growing movement to rescue the old books? Would it surprise you to know that
some people are dedicating hours – yea, even weeks of their lives to prowling antique stores, flea markets, estate sales, dusty basements to retrieve what our society has deemed dull and out of date? These folks are triumphant about every find, hoarding ancient treasure to preserve something not current and popular, but of  inestimable value to them, their children, and their grandchildren.

Would you believe the desire is so intense in some people to recover what is lost that there is a single Mom in Los Angeles, California willing to travel to Appalachia this summer to learn how to start a private lending library in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin? Some of you might be interested in following her example. Let us know.

For the joy of reading,



  1. I will be at the conference in June, one week after my oldest son's wedding. I am so excited! For years I have collected books with the idea that someday there was going to be something I was called to do with them. Then just over a month ago, by "chance" (meaning, God), our Bookmobile driver met the owner of the Heritage Homeschool Library in Wmsbg (who is five minutes from my parents' house) and subsequently, I met her, and the vision was made more clear. At the same time, I discovered a treasure trove of old tomes needing rescue, and now I can't wait for the wedding to be over. Yikes! You know what I mean, though, right? I happened upon your site tonight when I Googled "heritage library" and voila, here I am again by "chance." God is amazing, isn't He? I look forward to meeting you. God bless you.

    1. Heather,

      I think we should have a story time at our conference just so everyone can tell their library tale. For many of us, the direct guidance of God is unmistakable, inspiring awe of Him and humility in us for being part of His plan. The anticipation of meeting face to face is mutual.