It’s a librarian’s worst nightmare: stacks of worn paperbacks disappearing forever into a crackling inferno. Their covers curl and melt as the ink runs down onto the pavement. Nearby a small heap of dust jackets escapes the blaze; these will be sent to the landfill as their plastic coating prevents a clean burn. I glimpse a copy of A Clockwork Orange and watch for a few moments as it turns to ash.
I am standing in a library parking lot in Allentown, Pennsylvania. My companions are not depraved arsonists or book-burning fascists, they are librarians. They wait around quietly, occasionally adding more fuel as a team of fire fighters supervises. A fireman, he asked not to be named so I will call him “Guy Montag”, walks over to us and warms his hands over a copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “You never want to get caught in a burning library, you wouldn’t believe how fast these things go up when you have a load of them packed together.” Indeed. I turn towards Guy’s earnest grin, and he continues. “Eight years ago we had a fire in a book store. Whole place was ash before we even got the call.” Perhaps sensing the dour mood between myself and the librarians, he quickly adds “they were all insured of course… the books… well the building too. Lots of things are insured you know.”
This scene has become all too common across America. Underfunded libraries packed with books, but without the staff to manage them all, are forced to downsize. The kind of literary funeral pyre I witnessed in Allentown is an inevitable consequence. I asked Judy Morris, the library director, whether this was really the best course of action. “We really don’t have any other choice. Every book on the shelf takes a little bit of manpower to keep around. You know this kills me, as a librarian… we love books; you don’t end up in this kind of job unless you love books. It’s just… there’s an economic reality to contend with here and sometimes we have to make difficult concessions to that. Dumping in the landfill costs money so this really is the best in a set of terrible options. I know it probably doesn’t seem that way from the outside but it’s the truth. At least this keeps the library running.”
Libraries throughout the country will likely continue to be faced with difficult decisions like this. When I asked Judy what could be done, she was pessimistic. “I’m really not sure. The funding has been drying up for decades. It seems like the American voter has lost sight of the value that public libraries offer. Maybe someday they will come around but truthfully I don’t think that is going to happen. I only hope they remember what they have lost after it is gone.”