Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Harvard Classics at the Library

BHPL has the set of books called the Harvard Classics, the so-called five foot shelf of books selected by Harvard president Charles Elliot at the beginning of the last century. He claimed in the introduction to the set that these works could provide a "liberal anyone who would read them with devotion, even if could spare but fifteen minutes a day." At our library, and I suspect many others, this set gathers dust on the shelves while taking up more than five linear feet of valuable shelf space. BHPL's have not circulated for five years. That is: not one single volume of the set of fifty-one has been checked out in all that time. This presents a dilemma, because the 8oo's (literature in dewey numbers) section is so crammed that books can't be shelved easily in that area. The entire text of the set can be found in Bartleby's online (see above link.) So why do we keep them? It seems that any self-respecting library should offer the classics of the Western World just in case anyone has the notion to undertake the autodidactic mission that Elliot proposed. But we don't have space for it and it is available online. What to do? "Weed" (ie: discard) them? Here's another proposal, if anyone out there is reading this, go to your library and take out a volume from the Harvard Classics set; think of it as the bibliographic equivalent of rescuing a stray dog. Or think of it as a self-improvement project: looking for humor? Try Moliere instead of chic lit like the Devil Wears Prada. Need business advice, how about Machiavelli instead of Who Moved My Cheese? Looking for spiritual roots? Read the Sacred Writings in volumes 44 and 45 on Confucian, Hebrew,Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Mohammedan (sic) thought. Struggling with creationism versus evolution? Read Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. And so on. Centuries of the greatest thinkers and writers all waiting to be rediscovered - on the five foot shelf at Dewey address # 808.8 Check them out before they end up being used by a decorator trying to fill a client's bookshelves with classy looking books.

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