Retiring a Library, Or, Sometimes Books Need To Be Disposed

During my four years at a small university in Mississippi, I worked in the library as an assistant. Initially, I interviewed because I liked the idea of working in the library. I stuck with it because I was an extremely busy theatre and creative writing student. Working at the circulation desk usually allowed me a few hours of homework/study time. The year previous to my attending, the university had upgraded from college to university. The campus was getting a series of makeovers and changes, which included the library.

For some backstory, the current library building is not the original library building. The original burnt down in the early 1900s. The second sunk. No, it wasn’t some kind of floating library boat, although that sounds nice. Mississippi has very soft, clay-filled earth which makes construction somewhat difficult. The second library’s foundation sunk into the ground, making the floor slanted and unsafe, and the building was condemned. None of the books inside could be recused before the building was torn down. The current library is three stories tall and when I arrived, two stories were full of books.

It started with shifting books on the third floor, so that the tall metal shelves were completely full. I was often up there, either returning books to their home or checking for misplaced book. The newly empty shelves and then sections spread through the third floor until almost the entire top floor was empty, save for sections right by the stairs.  The third floor had once been a quiet refuge, but the eerie empty shelves and low lighting made it too spooky to be comfortable for reading or studying.

Downstairs, the shifting had begun sideways to make room for a new tutoring space. The space would take over a year to complete. When finished, the bright décor and modern furniture was at odds with the rest of the library’s very 70’s look. To make room for the study space, the first floor books were crammed so tightly that it was difficult to pull a book from the shelves.

Out of my classmates, I knew about the trashcans of books first. Industrial sized trashcans filled the back offices of the library, stacked high with moldy, crumbling books. Book rot is dangerous in a large collection, like an academic library. It can spread through the entire collection, especially in damp, warm weather. Ahem, Mississippi. The on-staff librarians were working extremely hard to purge the collection of affected books, but this meant the collection shrunk rapidly. No one wants books with book rot.

Cue the English department students seeing the trashcans of books taken out of the library. Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth. I was not part of this, but many of my classmates staged book rescues to take as many books as possible home with them. The librarians warned them not to. I warned them not to. It wasn’t just the English department, or just students either. The library staff threw up their hands.

Fine, take your book rot home with you.

Friends, all good things must come to an end. If a librarian warns you not to take a book from the trash home with you, heed their warning. This was no library of Alexandria. The knowledge that was contained in the removed books now lives on in the students and professors who had read them. Let a library retire in peace.