Friday, June 24, 2011


Part of my job consists of weeding the print collection a relatively large community college library. As electronic books and databases become the norm for research practices, the print collections of most libraries is being drastically reduced. I understand this, and there are long-term cost savings, but at the end of the day it still means that a bunch of books are getting thrown out. Of course, a lot of the time these books are outdated and somewhat useless (see, computer science manuals) or too specific for a community college (veterinary medicine is not a huge topic here). But sometimes, it's just an old book that not many people check out. At the moment, I'm looking at a book called The Power of Steam: An Illustrated History of the World's Steam Age. It's a thirty-year old book that's long since been out of print and not specific to a subject taught here. And it hasn't been checked out since 1997. So I am forced to recommend it to be junked.

But here's why this bothers me so much.

This book is amazing. Never mind that I don't care about a lot of the specifics of the development of the steam engine, though it confirms that it was invented by James Watt (thanks, The Simpsons!). The book also explores the social and practical impacts of it (which is way more in my wheelhouse) and features so many awesome pictures I don't know where to start with it. There are oil paintings of a steamboat drag race, photographs of the Industrial Age's foot soldiers toiling in assembly lines and engineers caked with oil and grime. There's a wood engraving of an engine on Tokyo's Negishi Line from 1872*! There are lithographs of the first trial run of the London Underground (between Paddington and Farringdon in 1863), and a race in 1866 between a steam engine and a pack of dogs!

Sure, this the sort of thing a dork like me loves, and I hardly had time to explore the text itself. But if I can be so engaged by this book, couldn't someone who actually cares about engineering or history get even more out of it? This is my biggest problem with the eagerness of so many libraries to dump their print collection. I never would've searched in a computer for this book in a million years. The only reason I found it was because I stumbled across it while going through the shelves.

*Strangely enough, we were at a train museum a few weeks ago and saw an electric trolley that ran on that exact line at around 1910. I won't get into why we were there or why that excited me, but it should probably confirm what you think you know about me; namely that I am a 6 year-old at heart.

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