Libraries in the West regularly make room for new titles, but what about the nostalgia value of the old?

In the book-rich countries of North America, public and school libraries often have a bin near the exit filled with books that are either free or nearly free. These already well-stocked libraries are always acquiring new books, not to mention gadgets for reading e-books and playing igames, so they must discard some old books. Recently, a librarian in Canada explained how educators trained to cherish and preserve books go about culling them.

School and public libraries annually weed out books and make an intensive effort every five years, she explains. They regularly sell off books that are dog-eared or falling apart. Some books are repaired and sent to Third World schools, mainly to travelling teachers who use them to teach English. Science books, which become quickly outdated, are recycled for the paper, since they are useless to young readers. Printed encyclopaedias are considered obsolete, and students are instead taught to cite their various sources, online or otherwise, when they write papers.

When a book contains words or ideas now considered to be racist or offensive, it may be held in a special section, to be used with a teacher’s guidance or with some explanation of context.

It’s not just the dog-eared books that go in the free bin. Books that are just not popular any more are also cleared out. According to our librarian from Canada, those include the Pippi Longstocking books and the works of Enid Blyton, news that would outrage half of India. Libraries also encourage summer reading by letting kids swap books or just take them outright if they agree to write short book reports. This way, she says, librarians make space for new titles and reward the avid readers. Many of the books now published are not even made to last, and very few are hardbacks.

And what about nostalgia value? If I were to sneak into an American or Canadian school library today I wonder if I’d still find Sydney Taylor’s All Of A Kind Family, a series of novels about an immigrant Jewish family with five girls set in New York before World War I. Or Misty Of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, about children who capture a wild pony. Or Eleanor Estes’s Rufus M, about a young boy knitting washcloths for soldiers when he isn’t getting in trouble. Or Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins, who was always saving to buy a bicycle or having difficulties with doughnuts. Or Helen Dore Boylston’s Sue Barton: Student Nurse, which hinted at an adult world full of possibilities.

Each generation of young readers will build its own nostalgia, and one day the children who now have their noses in a book will tell their children about the twiggy Wimpy Kid, or Geronimo Stilton, talking mouse and editor of The Rodent Gazette. But the old books told us how children lived and dreamed on farms and in slums everywhere in the world and in every age. Surely librarians somewhere in the world will find a bit of room for that.

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Well VersedMarch 8, 2013