Kristen Arnett: We Need to Talk About Library Junk
Thousands of Librarians, Millions of Useless Old Objects
Recently one of my library employees was doing a little spring-cleaning behind the circulation desk and unearthed a wealth of items so antique I wondered if we’d amassed them during the Stone Age. Libraries love to hoard things! I mean, I get it. You try so hard to catalog and place and collect materials that getting rid of them can feel a little like ripping off a limb. During this cleaning process, we found broken laminators, drawers full of outdated policies, tangled headphones from 1983, documents so furled and yellowed they resembled ancient scrolls, and an avalanche of outdated technology. Floppy discs! So many of them!
“What can we even do with these?” my employee asked, and I pointed out the special bin where we could place it.
I am a huge supporter of weeding. By that I mean it’s important to cull your collection. Weeding allows for new growth, provides space to put fresh materials that might circulate and appeal more directly to your current community of readers. But sometimes weeding can mean taking a long, hard look at all the junk that’s managed to accumulate in the library. Buddy, you gotta throw some of that shit away.
Because libraries cater to the public, it means that we grow and adapt to accommodate changing needs. Often that means adapting to the new tech that our patrons use in their everyday lives. Out with the old, etc. Outmoded materials don’t magically go away, though. Most of the time they wind up stashed in library cabinets and in desk drawers. Libraries have closets full of secreted materials! We save them for many reasons, but chief among them is there might be a need for it in the future. Okay, sure, another very important reason: what the hell do you even do with them?
To be fair, I still have to use the fax machine on a daily basis at my job, but most places have stopped using this totally dead technology. Scan it, email it. Send a picture from your phone. Upload a goddamn PDF. Yet fax machines are present in almost every library! Sitting there collecting dust. The best part about a fax machine is it almost never works right and no one knows how to use it. The second best part is when it knocks itself off the hook and starts dialing out and you can’t get the screeching to stop.
Microfilm and fiche readers
Again, these are still used in some libraries. But many libraries (especially smaller public libraries with less room for expanding collections) have given away their microfilm and fiche to archival projects. The last library I worked at had one reader and I was the only one who knew how to use it. That meant any time someone wanted to access it, I had to walk over and show them how to operate the machine. Lemme tell you, it is truly a joy to sit around in a cramped little room with an undergrad trying to explain how microfilm works while they ask if you could just “do it for them.”
Once bastions of the library, card catalogs have been relegated to attics and crawl spaces and basements or sold on Etsy as wine holders. I will tell you that I do have one of these in my house and I would absolutely put wine in it if wine ever lasted longer than a night in my home.
Saw John Overholt tweet about listservs today (Hi John!) and had such a feeling of total librarianship that I almost had to lie down on the floor. Listservs, a truly outdated technology, are still used exclusively by librarians. What are they? They’re essentially a reply-all email chain you can never escape dealing with topics that nobody is ever really talking about in a helpful way. At this point in time I can safely say I am a member of at least… seven different listservs. Jesus. Name a type of listserv and your librarian is probably on a thread for it. My favorite listserv story is about the time people in the InterLibrary Loan list got into a huge fight about putting removable stickers on the front of books. One woman replied to the list with, and I quote, “some of y’all are just godless wretches.”
Does your library have stacks and stacks and stacks of CDs and CD-ROMs? Yes. Are most of them from AOL? Affirmative. Can anyone use them anymore? Not really. Does anyone need to use them or have any use for them? Absolutely not. Well, wait, I stand corrected: you can use these at Storytime for holiday crafts. Give the kids some glue and glitter and thread a piece of yard through the middle. Voila. Repurposed technology (and glitter all over the inside of someone’s car).
Just google it for god’s sake.
Sincerely my favorite form of outdated technology. Overhead projectors! Nobody ever knew which way to put down the transparency sheet and it wound up upside down or backwards. Someone would always do something disgusting with it, too, like lick their finger and use the spit to wipe off the marker. I miss overhead projectors. If you’ve got one in your library, send it my way. I wanna use it to play Pictionary with my dogs.
What’s your favorite outdated technology in the library? World’s oldest credit card reader? Library server from the year of our lord 1995? Send me your best and I’ll post ‘em up here for next week’s column for us to all laugh (and cry) over.