The librarian plucks a book from a cart at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington and flips through the pages, scanning “Goodbye, Sweetwater” for signs of damage.
“Is it stained? Is it torn?” Jo Stallworth asks of the 1988 collection of stories by novelist Henry Dumas. “Because even if you say, ‘It’s a good book,’ but the binding is cracked and the cover is falling off, it’s taking space from another book on the shelf.”
Since the central library closed its doors to the public for a $208 million, three-year renovation, Stallworth and dozens of other librarians have been examining thousands of books. Their job is to determine whether the titles should be kept, given to other branches or donated to Better World Books, which saves books from landfills.
As she scrutinizes “Goodbye, Sweetwater,” Stallworth’s eye lands on pages 12 and 13. “Oh, my,” she says. Someone has written in pencil in the margins, scribbling notes as though it were his or her own personal copy, with little regard for the next borrower. The words “Fish-hound, you ready?” have been forcefully underlined. On the next page, the reader left questions: “Imagery? Reference Wright Big Boy leaves home?”
It takes just a few seconds for Stallworth to decide the book’s fate. She places “Goodbye, Sweetwater” on a cart destined for donation.
“I think there is someone out there who will treasure this book — insights” in the margin, “and all,” Stallworth says, as she moves to the next book.
There is a hushed silence as she works. No one is roaming the stacks. The library’s vast lobby is empty.
The culling process is a librarian’s dream, says Sheryl Katzin, assistant director of collections for D.C. Public Library system.
“People go to library school because they love books, they love reading and whatever it is that drives them in that direction,” Katzin explains. “This is a quiet moment for bibliophiles to live that moment. So that is what we are doing.”
Since the library opened in 1972, it has accumulated thousands of books, including those stashed there during renovations of other branches. But no one is sure how many.
“One of the things the move out allows us to do is physically see everything we have,” said George Williams, a spokesman for the library system. “There are some things we have had on the shelves that may be on the shelf, but not in the catalogue. Or it might be in the catalogue but not on the shelf. Part of the collection maintenance is getting a grip on what we have and what may be missing — and what may be damaged.”
Some books and other library items are considered timeless. But others are obsolete, Katzin explains as she heads for the audiobooks.
“There was a time when this company called ‘Playaway’ created these things; it was a cross between DVDs and MP3s for audio books,” she said. “Instead of an audio book with eight disks, they had this thing.”
She opens a case titled “Between Lovers,” by Eric Jerome Dickey.
She takes out a cassette about the size of a small pack of cigarettes. It is a self-contained gadget with control buttons.
“It kind of looks like an eight-track, and it requires headphones and a battery,” she said. “We no longer collect this format. It’s been overtaken by all manner of formats to get at the same information. So the Department of Corrections decided they wanted them — we have a library there.”
All these “Playaways” will be packed up and sent to the D.C. Jail.
Down one floor, in a place called “the Cages,” there is a storage area where books sent from other branches, and some items and special collections, have been kept behind black chain-link fences.
Signs attached to the cages and hung above huge bins of books warn: “MLK WITHDRAWN ITEMS,” with a downward arrow. “NO TRASH, EVER.”
“These are books going to Better World Books,” which collects unwanted textbooks and library books and uses their sales to finance nonprofit literacy programs around the world. “We never throw books away,” Williams says.
Katzin and Williams eye a cart of obsolete books.
“The collection needs to represent up-to-date information,” Katzin says. “Under no circumstances do we want to give you something that is not true because we let it sit too long.”
Katzin points to a book called “Germany 1945/1954.”
“This book says the Berlin Wall is still up,” she notes. “You don’t want that to be out there.”
Here’s a reference book called “Something About the Author; Volume 29.”
“It says contemporary authors now covers more than 70,000 authors,” Katzin reads, “but this is from 1982. When I was in middle school.”
“In that book, [poet] Gwendolyn Brooks more than likely is still alive,” Williams says. “Dr. Seuss would be alive. So if you have a hypothetical kid coming to do homework and they pull that book off the shelf, we don’t want that young person, or anybody, to get information that is no longer accurate.”
For a moment Williams and Katzin get lost in the book, flipping pages.
“There is a good one,” Katzin said. “[Illustrator/author] Edward Gorey is still alive in here.”
They put the book back on the cart of books headed for donation. Katzin notices that the cart also contains a fragile set of books tied by faded string. The binders are cracked and the pages are crumbling.
It is from 1957. She carefully pulls the string.
“I have to open it to check the title, but I’m afraid to do it because the whole thing may come undone,” Katzin says.
She slips the string off. Carefully peels the pages. The first few seem to be stuck together. The title is “St. Nicholas Vol. 7.”
The decision is easy: “This will go to Better World Books.”