Book Burning 2011

This Cracked article leaves me … well, ALMOST speechless.

For the past year or so, part of my job has been to walk through library warehouses and destroy tens of thousands of often old and irreplaceable books.


Imagine holding a beautiful, dusty, illustrated volume of Shakespeare printed in the 1700s, a calligraphic message from its long-dead owner inscribed on the inside cover, and throwing it straight in the trash. I’ve been there, more than once. I could have kept it and maybe gotten a few hundred dollars for it on eBay, if my supervisor wasn’t watching with specific orders to prevent me from doing that.

Um …

Sure, it’s one thing that libraries are forced to shred their collections because of an implosion in the economy. That’s depressing, but understandable. But what about when thousands of turn-of-the-last-century books and newspapers become landfill because the library wants to install a coffee shop?


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  • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    It’s depressing, but an inevitability of economy. I was having a conversation with my mother about something similar – more centered around digital media than anything. As we go through a boom in media storage, the day will inevitably come where some well-meaning individual will make some storage medium that will trump all the others, and it will make books, tapes, CDs, DVDs, and whatnot obsolete. Rather than dealing with a huge amount of obsolete media, it’s likely it would be instead destroyed.

    Sadly, my scenario ends with a kind of technological dark ages as media is copied and expanded there’s the fact that data becomes corrupt. Your digital version of “The Ancestor’s Tale” will start to collect little errors in data, not much – maybe a bit here and there – until the checksum decides it’s too corrupt and it can’t be accessed. Well I can just get it from the central repository – only that copy is corrupted, too.

    Something will happen in the future where history, science, some great literature, will be lost forever. Maybe something taken for granted like the Theory of Gravity, maybe something really important to culture like “The Collected Works of William Shakespeare.” Future generations will not know what’s going on and society will likely collapse again into a kind of technological darkness.

    That’s why books and libraries are important, but it’s sad that it’ll come in the future that they’re going to all be gone but for the collections of those who care too much to let them go.

  • machintelligence

    Knowing this, I’ll definitely specify in my will that my personal library be “donated” to a used book store rather than a library.

  • jacobfromlost

    My dad was a garbage man years ago, and brought a few very old books home that were thrown in the trash.

    Nothing that is probably worth anything, but there was a prayer book from the mid 1800s (it’s copyright 1867, called “Morning to Morning”) that had names of people hand written in the margins, the years of their death, and other little personal things that the owner of the book either wanted to remember themselves, or let others know in the future.

    I was of course only interested in it on a humanist level. The back page and inside the back cover is filled with a list of hand written personal rules, in ink (imagine using ink wells back then!) that are quite interesting to read:

    “I. Try not to show off and be conscious.” (maybe he/she means conscientious? or maybe not)
    “II. Try not to be so [illegible] in school.” (it looks like “cliquy” or “digny”…maybe he/she meant “dingy”? I don’t know, but number II was crossed out anyway)
    “III. Try never to answer back but wait” (with wait underlined).
    “IV. Try to listen pleasantly when mama talks about herself.”
    “V. Try to be charitable in all the constructions you put upon people’s words & deeds, especially mama’s.”
    “VI. Try not to look provoked when Papa does something you don’t like.”
    “VII. Try not to look around for admiration” (this one is crossed out too).
    “VIII. Try to do every duty faithfully”
    “IX. Try to practice slower.”
    “X. Try to be a good example at school”
    “XI. Try to keep all hard feelings out of your heart & think that God does all in a loving fatherly spirit.”
    “XII. Try to trust & commence [?] with them more” (not sure if I got that one right; the handwriting is difficult).

    Then there is a line across the page, and it says, “Lord Jesus: I begin with these faults. Alone I will forget & will do nothing; but do thou help me perfect they strength in my weakness, for thine own sake, Amen.”

    Then there is an other line, and the numbers continue…

    “XIII. Try to cultivate Christlike manners.”
    “XIV. Try not to be haughty” (this one is crossed out).
    “XV. Try not to think much of dress” (this one is crossed out too).
    “XVI. Try not to be so selfish” (this one is underlined all the way across).
    “XVII. Try to cultivate Christlike spirit” (each word underlined twice).
    “XVIII. Try not to be self-willed and obstinate.”

    That’s the last one. “1889″ is written in pencil next to II–I’m not sure whether to indicate when II was crossed out, or when the list was begun. (Number XVIII is in pencil too, but in the same handwriting as everything else.)

    It just struck me as how practical it all was…and how the the personality of this person didn’t strike me as similar to many religious folks today. (And it has a very distinctive “old book” smell that makes you feel like you walked into the 19th century…)

    Or maybe I’m just idealizing the past. Who knows? But I’ve always had the sense that religious folks in the US in the 1800s were not exactly what they are today.

  • chris evo

    You may be interested in the Metafilter discussion on this topic, linked here:

    >”I’ve worked at a couple of state schools, and state property laws and regulations generally get in the way of actually selling things in a manner that is beneficial to the institution rather than the state. To be fair, this is for good reasons (which should be obvious if you think about it for a few minutes), but it leaves libraries in quite the bind.”

  • ralphwiggam

    You do realize that is a humor site, right?

    • P Smith

      Cracked is humourous in the same way that Jon Stewart is humourous.

      They don’t invent or fabricate in their items. They point out the fact that seem or are ridiculous.

      The difference is, Cracked isn’t as funny.


      • BrianX

        Not as funny, no, but it makes up for it by being malignantly interesting, like TVTropes or Wikipedia.

  • Liessi from BC

    Ironic snapshot: picture some ancient-ish Egyptian stumbling across a time-transported Kindle and reassuring everyone that it was ok to destroy the great library of Alexandria. Goofballs. Who the hell destroys books? How long do they think batteries are going to last?

  • F

    So, pulping dime-a-dozen modern paperback trash isn’t an option, then?

  • WMDKitty

    That’s… disgusting.

  • ralphwiggam

    It is hard to believe that so many people thought this was real.

    It is a parody you know, like a bad version of The Onion. America’s only Humor site since 1958.

    • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

      Not so.

      A lot of stuff on Cracked (go here – – click on any article about nature, it’s all true) isn’t parody, they just tell interesting factoids in an amusing manner.

    • Hank Fox

      Ralph, I clicked on several of the links in the Cracked article before I posted the piece, and they all look legitimate. I’m pretty sure this is not an Onion-type article.

    • Luna_the_cat

      Cracked have covered a number of very serious economic and social issues. They aren’t parody, sadly; or at least, they are like parody only in that they attempt to highlight the ridiculous nature of modern life.

      See, for example, articles like — and speaking from a biology perspective and as someone with acquaintances in the food business, everything I know confirms everything they say.

  • evilDoug

    … I’ll definitely specify in my will that my personal library be “donated” to a used book store rather than a library.

    Don’t be surpised if the used book store refuses them.
    I have found getting rid of books to be rather difficult. I took a bunch to a used book store and they didn’t want them even though I expected no payment for them. (They didn’t want them because they were hard-cover fiction, and their policy was to price used books at some set fraction of the original price, so hard-cover would be priced too high to sell – price higher than what I paid for them as new remainders. Dumb, but there you go.) The only place I found that had some slight interest in them was my local library (branch of city library, in a city of over a million), where they would be put on the disposal table for sale at fifty cents each – same as they do with their unwanted books. Generally, the library has very little interest in most donated material for the circulating collection.
    Libraries constantly have to dispose of unwanted books, often redundant copies of last year’s best-selling fluff.

    • WMDKitty

      My favorite used bookstore allows you the option of leaving the “rejects” in the Free Books boxes out front. It’s always fun to go through the boxes because a) I’m perpetually broke, and b) you never know what you’re going to find.

  • P Smith

    The item points out why some libraries don’t just give books away: the security devices in them.

    The public library and college library in my old town (which shall remain unnamed) would cut out the security devices and the bar codes of old books, then mark them as discards. There were sales of old books every few months to let people buy and make use of them.

    There are two caveats why this is different than the item: One, my old town is small – under 100,000 – so there aren’t as many books to sort through. Two, local volunteers help at the library which undoubtedly reduces costs and/or lets labour be distributed more cost-efficiently.

    I found a few gems over the years, the most notable being a hardback copy of James Burke’s “Connections” which I still have (the old version with the arc light on a black background).


  • Peter B

    Re: chris evo’s usenet quote @4

    Anybody remember tab cards a.k.a. IBM cards? As a poor undergrad I collected used cards, boxed ‘em up and took them a recycling center for cash. My school had an IBM 407 as its only printer. Generally one, sometimes two, cards per print line. The life of most cards was card punch, print lines and trash.

    After recycling about 30,000 cards I was told to stop. The state college would now be collecting the cards and keeping the proceeds. At the time computer center staff was paid $2/hour. It took about 2 to 3 hours of card collecting to get $2 at the recycling center.

    I was saving the state money but rules prevented me from putting money in my pocket while saving tax dollars.

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