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Save the Little Libraries

By Beth L. Pinsker

HAS anyone ever heard of the Ernie Pyle Memorial Library? Has anyone ever heard of Ernie Pyle? Pyle was a war correspondent and photographer during the Second World War. His photographs--along with a great collection of "Peanuts" comic books--are housed in a tiny public library near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Ernie Pyle is my new idol.

He had to be great to have a library named after him. I wish some renowned figure like him would come along to save the Harvard library where I work. If only we named the Harvard Institute of International Development Library after somebody famous, then no University official would dare try to throw it away.

If I could find some champion to save the research materials on Third World industrialization in which my library specializes, I wouldn't have all of the anxiety I get from throwing books in the trash.

WHEN I signed up for my campus job at the library, I did not have the destruction of the printed word on my mind. I thought I had hooked one of the cushiest jobs around--sitting at the circulation desk for three small research libraries that almost no one uses.

Only after I had signed all of the papers did my boss tell me that we were going to throw out one of the libraries. "Great," I thought, "now I'll only be responsible for two libraries."

Little did I know that the biggest part of my job was braving the dust that had built up on our seldom-used stacks and filling several dozen trash bags with books to be pitched.

As I toss whole shelves of papers and books, I can't help but wonder if anyone will miss them. Someday, a researcher may want to look at the working papers of a study on the incidence of poverty in children under five in Peninsular Malaysia. Maybe someone will need the book on the yarn-ball cottage industry in the rural Botswanan economy. Aren't these things important enough to keep around?

I UNDERSTAND that the libraries on campus are short of space. New books are published every day. Some of them are important. Others, just like obnoxious children, are lovable only to their parents.

Dealing with the thousands of new materials that flood the library system is not easy. If we construct new libraries, valuable buildings will have to be torn down or never built. Since my room at home is in imminent danger of becoming my family's library, I am particularily sensitive to this issue.

Places for people to sleep are more important than safe havens for the transcripts of parliamentary speeches in Uganda. Certainly they are more important than storage for the German and Swahili translations of those records.

I would also admit that the journals and books I am throwing away daily are not classics of literature. But what about the panic-stricken undergraduates and research assistants who can't have the New Delhi Economic and Agricultural Policy Journal because I just threw it in the dumpster? I feel so sorry for them.

If only someone more influential than the scholars who roam my library's stacks would come to our aid. I suggested to my supervisor that we rename the library the "Endangered Brazilian Rain Forest Library." That might get the student activists behind us.

All things considered, my campus job is pretty good. It isn't too arduous, the hours are flexible and the pay is good. But I just can't get over the intellectual guilt from throwing out printed material. This is not what I expected from a college education.

I certainly did not expect my contact with literature in college to mirror a nightmare attributed to British philosopher Bertrand Russell. He once dreamed that he was in a giant library watching a library assistant update the stacks. As she walked through with a bucket, she picked up volumes, glanced at them for a moment, and then threw them away. Russell was particularily alarmed when she tossed out the last remaining copy of his Principia Mathematica, a brilliant work on mathematics and logic.

Maybe we should name the library after Russell.

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