When libraries (especially university libraries) destroy books

Reflection on the sidelines of the news that the Sapienza Library in Rome threw several books into the trash a few days ago.

It caused a stir the day before yesterday, a news story that came out in La Repubblica: some students atLa Sapienza University in Rome found among the garbage a number of books, especially humanities books. These were books thrown out of the library of the same university. Repubblica also published a gallery in which one can clearly see the black garbage bags full of books, and the students rummaging through this pile of books to try to salvage what could be saved.

In fact, the practice of disposing of or destroying books is quite common in libraries, not just Italian ones (although it is much more widespread in Italy than elsewhere). But that’s not all: unsold books from bookstores also end up in the shredder, or books from bookstores that are forced to close their doors: this is the case, for example, of Libreria Fenice in Trieste, which, after closing its doors in 2013 due to bankruptcy, risked having to send thousands of volumes to the shredder, which were then, fortunately, taken over by the Roman publisher Alberto Gaffi with the aim of putting them back on the market. But there are also other stories with happy endings: such as that of the students and professors of the University of Turin who in 2010 rescued more than 4,000 books from the library of the Faculty of Humanities that were in danger of ending up in the trash.

What should actually surprise should not be the disposal of books, which can be dictated by many causes: books that are no longer up to date, lack of space in storage to make room for new acquisitions, books that are never requested to be borrowed, books that are ruined. What should be astonishing is the lightness with which institutions that should be defending culture find no better solution than to send it to the pulp, thus turning books into waste, but without thinking that among those books there might also be important (or simply pleasant) texts that might be of interest to more than one person. Instead of destruction, there would be many other alternative ideas that could be applied. Books could be offered for sale at a token price, for example: and this could also be an idea to find extra funds for library activities. In the United States, the University of Florida has even opened a bookshop that sells books that libraries want to get rid of. And specialized websites have also sprung up.

Or, in case even the volumes cannot be sold at token prices, should they not be given away to clubs, associations, schools, parishes, prisons, or even individual individuals? Books are culture to be defended, and to see them being destroyed always hurts, but it hurts even more if the one destroying them is a University, that is, an organization that is supposed to promote all forms of knowledge. What lesson can be taught by a University that instead of disposing of books by selling them or giving them away, throws them into garbage bins? It is paradoxical. Destruction should be alast resort, in case you can find no one, but no one, who is interested in the books you want to get rid of. Which may be plausible: think for example of spoiled books. Who cares about a book that has had several pages torn out of it? We are not saying that all books have to be preserved: libraries are hardly in charge of preservation. However, the events in Rome, Turin, Trieste, and dozens of other cities in Italy and around the world, show that people often think of eliminating without even considering that there might be someone willing to save the books.

That is the problem: the mentality. The mentality of waste and rejection, which trumps the mentality of reuse. But fortunately there are also entities that, before disposing of books, ask themselves if they can still be useful to someone. We close this post with an enlightening example: that of the Brugherio Library. A small town in the province of Monza-Brianza: because often you don’t need to go too far to find smart initiatives. Every year the Brugherio library organizes an event called Save me from the rubbish: for about a month the library, during its opening hours, puts on sale books to be disposed of for the sum of 2 euros. The proceeds from the sale are then donated to a local association that assists poor families. Last year, the initiative raised a considerable amount of money: 4,184 euros. So the benefits are twofold: the books are saved, and the poor receive a little help. Much better than sending books to the rubble, right? And if the Brugherio initiative began to spread throughout Italy, wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?