Library Is Still Dumping Books The Free Library Was Ready To Destroy Boxloads Of Usable Books This Week Despite A Deal That It Not Do So.

Posted: October 22, 1998

A year and a half ago, the Free Library of Philadelphia was caught throwing away hundreds of thousands of books, many of them new or perfectly readable.

The library system vowed to stop the practice.

It didn't.

On Tuesday night, the city controller's office - which uncovered the book-dumping in 1997 - discovered that the Free Library again was preparing to destroy boxloads of books. John Grisham novels, Dickens classics, New York Times bestsellers, books with recent copyrights and others were rounded up at several Northeast branch libraries and piled onto a city flat-bed truck bound for the recycling bin.

Controller Jonathan Saidel impounded the truck yesterday and opened an investigation into why the library is still throwing away books.

Dumping library books violates City Charter provisions governing the disposal of city property, Saidel said. And it also runs afoul of an agreement reached last year with Free Library president Elliott Shelkrot holding that the system would send its unwanted books to the Greater Philadelphia Book Bank, the controller said. The Book Bank, under the agreement, would then give them to schools, tutors, literacy programs and nonprofit groups that could find a better use for books than mashing them into pulp.

``To destroy this type of property, which can give people so much value, is an absolute disgrace,'' Saidel said yesterday. ``The library is in an indefensible position. The destruction of books is the worst thing I've ever seen anyone do in government.''

Shelkrot said he was surprised to hear that readable books were still being destroyed. The system shipped more than 180,000 books to the Book Bank last year, he said.

Librarians should only toss out books that are mangled or have missing pages or broken spines, Shelkrot said. Others that are ``weeded'' from the system's collection should be sent to the Book Bank, he said.

He said he would reemphasize the policy to his staff. An e-mail went out to librarians yesterday, Shelkrot said.

``Our policies and procedures, we thought, were very clear,'' he said. ``Obviously they were not clear enough, and we are redoubling our efforts to make sure the communication problem is solved.''

``It's a major concern to me,'' he added.

The city Streets Department truck impounded by Saidel was parked at a city transfer station at Seventh Street and Pattison Avenue. It was brimming with books of every description. Fiction. Non-fiction. Mysteries. Literary masterpieces.

Titles included Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

The volumes had one thing in common: Virtually every one inspected was in decent condition. No coffee stains, no torn pages, no broken spines.

``It makes no sense,'' Joseph Purul, an investigator with the controller's office, said as he sifted through the load yesterday afternoon.

Some of the books bore markings from the Katherine Drexel branch library in the Northeast. Anne Ash, the librarian at Katherine Drexel, said books are thrown out only if they have no other use. It is possible that boxes of books were mislabeled, she said. Books that should have gone to the Book Bank may have been erroneously marked for the recycling bin, she said.

``When we throw something out, it's damaged,'' she said. ``It could have been a mistake.''

However it happened, it's a loss, book lovers said.

Robert Graves, who founded the Book Bank, said his organization - at 3900 North Fifth St. - gives away up to 20,000 books per month.

``By all means, we can use them,'' he said of the Free Library's discards.

When the book-dumping came to light in mid-1997, library officials said that regular weeding of outdated or damaged volumes was essential to make way for newer books, and that no one wanted the discards. They also said they interpreted the City Charter as prohibiting them from giving away the weeded books.

Shelkrot later retreated from that argument and agreed to halt the dumping.

Yet James Robb, president of the Friends of Northeast Regional Library, said he had fielded dozens of reports in the past year of libraries trashing books.

``It's outrageous,'' he said.

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