Old Books Are Not Weeds

When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness” – Alexis de Tocqueville

I recently joined the local library’s 10am crew, literary loyalists who form a small crowd around the entrance before the grand opening. Near the front desk, a substantial number of books were displayed, “weeded” from shelves and available for purchase by donation.

On the chopping block were a significant number of old Canadian history books in good condition. A rough count indicates 56, a sizable portion of the already small Canadian history collection. Gone were several by the great Peter C. Newman, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia who went on to be awarded the highest level of the Order of Canada for his writing and journalism, and died aged 94 on September 7th. Jettisoned were books by Pierre Berton, who penned 50 bestsellers on Canada’s history and popular culture.

Also in the crosshairs were regional histories, indispensable to understanding a country’s larger national narrative. These included titles like Spilsbury’s Coast: Pioneer Years in the Wet West, Stumpfarms and Broadaxes (an account of homesteaders in Burns Lake), Bowen Island 1872-1972, and River in a Dry Land (a memoir and history of Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley). And, ironically, Memories Never Lost: Stories of the Pioneer Women of the Cowichan Valley.

All told, it was a veritable bonfire of Canadiana.

Weeding is an established practice where libraries remove certain books according to chosen selection criteria. I reached out to our library to clarify which criteria they used, but did not receive a response by the time I sent in my column.

Library weeding practices reflect social trends. It is particularly trendy to judge the past in the light of the modern cosmopolitan worldview. This fallacy is known as presentism: “Uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.”

A prime example is the “Equity-Informed Weeding” guide provided by Canadian School Libraries (CSL), which suggests that books about Canada’s history with “older publication dates” be thoroughly weeded in a process which “may leave the shelves a bit bare”.

Recently, students in the Ontario Peel District found roughly half of their school library books gone. Libraries not Landfills, a Peel Region advocacy group, alleges that staff were ordered to remove all books older than 2008. This included Harry Potter, the Diary of Anne Frank, and other classics. A landfill had to hire more staff to destroy the large numbers of books sent their way.

Our library’s Canadian history shelf is considerably diminished. The only sections left untouched are local and indigenous history, although it is unclear for how long. The “new non-fiction” shelf near the front entrance, full of woke treatises and American politics, offers little comfort about new acquisitions.

Old books are not weeds. They are windows into history, paths to deeper knowledge, and escape hatches from the drudgery of everyday life. Canadians must stand up to attempts to discard them from modern life.

Editor’s note: My bi-monthly Counter Current column is originally published in the Islands Marketplace paper (islandsmarketplace.com/issue.pdf). 

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