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Librarians with a sense of purpose — and humor

August 13, 2009

albBelieve it or not, this is the cover of a book from 1993, when apparently, the acme of telecommunications was the cordless phone and the pay phone. I’ll pause a moment while the older members of the audience explain to those under 25 what a “pay phone” was. More incredibly, this book is still on the shelf at a library somewhere in the United States.

You can find this and other hilarious examples of obsolete library books at Awful Library Books, a blog set up by Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner, who describe themselves as Michigan librarians dedicated to exposing books “we find amusing and maybe questionable for public libraries trying to maintain a current and relevant collection.”

The blog has fast become a minor Internet phenom since its start in February, with more than 30,000 hits a day. But really, what bibliophile could resist a site that highlights such volumes as It’s Your Future! Catalyst’s Career Guide for High School Girls (1984), or Nice Girls Do–and now you can, too! (1983–yes, it’s a guide to female orgasm), or how about Ethics in Business (1963)? These are all books mouldering on America’s library shelves, crowding out more recent and useful volumes.

As Holly notes about the ancient business ethics book: “Martha Stewart, Enron, WorldCom…all came long after this book. I mean, the Internet didn’t exist in 1963, so business was conducted very differently back then.”

Some other recent examples (this is addictive, like potato chips): Phunology (1923) — yes, it’s a reference book on parlor games; The Love Bugs: A Natural History of the V.D’s (1974) — “I haven’t heard the terms VD or love bugs in at least 30 years. Would today’s teens even know what this book is about?” notes Mary; Teacher Spanks Johnny (1968), which advises “five blows with a ping-pong paddle is not unreasonable force.”

Even the “About This Site” is chucklesome: “In no way should the opinions of Mary and Holly be interpreted as a standard for every library. We just want to have a few chuckles and talk about library collections….Comments are welcome, but we do ask everyone to ‘be nice’ and use your library voice.”

Awful Library Books also includes contributions from librarians around the country, most anonymous. The part of the website listing the credentials of Mary and Holly and offering their services as speakers and consultants is called “Will Weed For Food.”

Great fun, true, and I acknowledge the need to keep library collections up to date. Still, I’ve haunted library stacks since the age of six, and I have to say, somewhat wistfully, that obsolete books have always been part of the charm, offering as they do an accidental view straight into the way people thought and wrote in earlier times.

Maybe Mary and Holly should send the volumes they weed from modern libraries to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, an institution found, alas, only in the novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    August 13, 2009 2:55 pm

    That is amusing and I’m glad that their website has drawn so much attention and that they are being so clever. However, like you Chauncey, I happen to think that finding the odd, funny, outdated books as you are wandering the library is part of the fun. Not only that but from an academic standpoint it seems like it would be beneficial to have those outdated books around. I can imagine that it might be fun and interesting to look at “Get the Message: Telecommunications in Your High-Tech World” and a contemporary book discussing the different modes of communication in our high-tech world and the different ways in which the books were written as well as perhaps hypothesize on the effect that these differences have made on people’s lives and society as a whole.

  2. Chris Bohjalian permalink
    August 14, 2009 9:41 am

    I love that “Get the Message” cover — and I love all these titles.

    And I have a terrible feeling that I saw some of those books floating around my house growing up.

    Another great column, Chauncey. Thank you!

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    August 15, 2009 5:04 pm

    Thanks, Chris. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

  4. August 16, 2009 6:20 pm

    Despite the angst I perceived in your piece about libraries, Chauncey, I still feel that there are some vestiges that are proof that they are keeping up with the times and changes that modern technology has given them. Albeit, card catalogs are not only nostalgic but archaic in the sense that they are still part of their lexicon, not to mention the Dewey Decimal System! Books, the very entities that make or break a library should be eclectic enough to allow flexibility and comprehensive enough to allow them to change and challenge status quo to give as much as they can to make them more of a destined place to be…and thank God for computers in the library! But when you talk about the books that don’t belong, or those that should be thrown out, then you truly have a story worth talking about!

    Alvin C. Romer
    Editor/Blogger/Frteelance Writer
    The Romer Review

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