I Didn’t Actually Burn the Books: A Librarian’s Thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451”

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Everybody read the late Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” in high school.  I didn’t.  I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t read it until last summer, when my then 12-year-old daughter brought it home from the public library. 

Anyone who reads the novel is bound to have strong reactions to this story of an authoritarian society where books are systematically destroyed by firemen, assisted by demonic Mechanical Hounds, whose job is to deliberately set fires, rather than put them out.  Reading it later in life, after well over a decade’s experience as a law librarian, my immediate reaction was a pang of recognition, a feeling of complicity: over the years, I’ve been responsible for the destruction of thousands of volumes.  Whether or not my identification with the protagonist, the apostate fireman Guy Montag, was valid, I feel like I can’t completely excuse myself.  Given Bradbury’s high regard for libraries and librarians, to some degree I feel like I’ve betrayed his trust.  But then, the fact is that the responsibility to weed the collection is a fundamental aspect of librarianship.   (The novel was written on typewriters in the basement of the UCLA library.  I wonder if Bradbury ever considered the disposition of the books that I’m sure were being withdrawn from the collections upstairs from him even as he wrote, though I imagine not on the scale of today’s law libraries.)

One would be tempted to dismiss Bradbury as a Luddite, but, as a gifted writer with a passion for books and libraries, he gives his readers pause.   Did reading “Fahrenheit 451” make me feel as though our profession is carrying the weight of collective guilt for destroying books?  Are we reduced to rationalization like Bradbury’s firemen: “you weren’t hurting anyone, you were hurting only things”?

Of course, there really isn’t any comparison between what we do and Bradbury’s apocalyptic vision of government maintaining control by suppressing independent thought.  The books I’ve thrown out are not Shakespeare or Thoreau or the Bible, but primarily case reporters that haven’t been touched in years and that no other libraries want.  Given the advances of the Internet and online services, we can truthfully say that we’re not destroying the books, but only the print format; it’s not the right to read that’s being taken away, but the outdated way we do it.  What’s more, today we can even take comfort in the hope that the books are being recycled and not ending up in some distant landfill. 

Librarians don’t experience the delight of Bradbury’s firemen as they watch books being devoured in flames.  While the firemen in the novel feel that they are carrying out a protective mission, serving as “custodians of our peace of mind”, librarians know that we are removing books for the sake of the bottom line.  As we toss out books by the armful, it would be more accurate to describe our reaction as relief at getting the whole distasteful process over and done with.

We are not eliminating books, excuse me, print resources, as an exercise in thought control, but in response to firm management’s imperative to reconfigure costly office space and limit ever-increasing subscription costs.  It is a reasonable approach that realistically adapts to advances in the way we obtain and use legal information, in spite of some attorneys’ resistance to change, practical objections, or just plain sentimental attachment.

Yet we can’t completely dismiss the impact of the books themselves, even if it’s purely visual, like the background of every legal drama we’ve ever watched on TV: the image of walls lined with those stately reporter volumes.  Why do we keep so many of the volumes that we no longer update?  How do you answer a litigator who insists on a print volume that he can bring to court with him?  Are we, too, Luddites when we say that sometimes it’s just easier to look it up in a book?

Is it just visual or do the books represent the physical presence of the library within the firm environment?  Now we’re back to the recurring motif of current librarianship: how do librarians maintain their role within the legal profession as electronic research becomes increasingly user-friendly?  Would it confirm our irrelevance if we were to mourn the loss of our books?

The practical answer to all these questions is, “Get over it”.  As Bradbury’s character, the retired English Professor Faber puts it, “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we might forget.  There is nothing magical in them at all.”  As librarians, we never expected magic from our books, yet there’s still a reluctance to let them go, an insecurity about where we’ll be without them.  

 

Anne L. Salzberg is Librarian and Records Supervisor with Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville, PC in Washington, DC.

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