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Seeing books as commodities, with hand-scanners as evidence

At the Seattle Public Library's annual sale, books are often treated as something to be snatched up and quickly resold. But as readers, we can still treasure our intimate relationship with them.

The Friends of the Library book sale: good gathering place for all ages.

The Friends of the Library book sale: good gathering place for all ages. Courtesy of Friends of the Seattle Public Library

I happen to like books very much, and have since I was a small boy. Our house and my studio are overflowing with them, piled on tables, in stacks on the floor, even more of them on shelves. Some are open to pictures or diagrams, some are in the process of being read, many have bookmarks to remind us of their relevance to ongoing projects.

I spend a good amount of time at the computer, but prefer to do any lengthy reading from books. This may be a generational thing, or it may not, and it doesn’t matter. But I now find myself thinking about books as commodities, which is odd. Surely books are things, as anyone who has moved boxes of them knows. Its odd for me to be considering them as such because much of my work traces the lives of commodities; while I always use books in my research, I somehow didn’t consider the books as so much stuff until I attended the recent Seattle Public Library Book Sale.  

Like many hundreds of other ‘friends’ of the library, Friday evening I waited in a very long, snaking line to get into the old hangar at Sand Point, for an early chance at the hundreds of thousands of books being sold. Most all of the books were priced at $1, some a couple dollars more.

Many had been culled from the library’s shelves for one reason or other. (I bought a brand new, apparently never-read guidebook to the architecture of Syria — was it being sold because it had never been checked out, was it never checked out because Syria was right in the middle of the axis of evil?) And many were worthy but no longer loved books donated by people probably also overrun with books themselves. (How many of those folks were back in line waiting to get their hands on new treasures?) 

Treasure-hunting is what got me thinking of books as commodities. A certain segment of sale-goers entered the huge building armed with hand-scanners. Quickly they scanned the barcode on the back of a book, and seemingly they were just as quickly told by the scanner if it would make economic sense to take the book for re-sale, probably on a site such as Amazon or Ebay. If it was green-lighted by the machine, the book went into the take-away box.

I watched several of these folks at work, and they didn’t look at the titles, didn’t seem to consider the book in any other manner than by the scanner-ordained numbers. Several of them appeared to be native Spanish-speaking (they worked in teams conversing with one another as they did so) and it wasn’t clear whether they actually could read the books they were purchasing. Their interest in these books seemed purely economic, they and their scanners appeared to be hired guns for others who would list the books for sale online. 

Probably all of the volunteer-run, big library book sales around the country have discussed the issue of hand scanners, and probably there are yearly re-hashings of the discussion. Some libraries have forbidden the scanners at the sales (though smart phones can and do provide the same data, just a bit more slowly; are they to be banned as well, and how would that accomplished?). Seattle Public Library has no rule about the scanners, and certainly there is no rule that the actual buyer must be able to or want to read the book he or she is buying. The library is happy to unload the books. Then again, some of the books that do get more personally adopted still quickly find their way to the used book stores.

I’ve bought secondhand books inexpensively on Amazon, or Abebooks, and a bit more expensively at Powell’s, the UBookstore, and at Magus. Some of those books no doubt reached me via a scanned barcode. This wholesale treatment of books probably helps get unloved books out into the highway of knowledge, where those looking for them can offer them a ride. But the scanners at the book sales are no doubt depriving serendipitous relationships from developing between orphaned books and would-be adopters who are just not fast enough. 


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Oct 3, 2:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Why does the UW throw away books it no longer wants rather than donating them to the book sale, to Goodwill, or to someone else?

As for those scanners, I don't think they should be banned. Perhaps, however, they could be restricted to Sundays, when the hangar has been pretty thoroughly picked over.

Or not. A dollar to the Friends of the Seattle Public Library is a dollar, no matter where it comes from. And even though I go for the serendipitous aspect, the Friends put on the sale to raise money. That's its primary goal. I just hope the booksellers re-donate their discards, rather than sending them to be recycled.

As for serendipity, I bought seven books at the sale this year — three in the spring, and four in the fall. I didn't go in looking for any of them. They included:

History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time by Clarence Bagley (three volumes — got at half price in the sets section)

How Come I'm Dead? by Glen McDonald (former Vancouver, BC coroner)

Roots and Branches: The Religious Heritage of Washington State by David Buerge and Junius Rochester (written for the state's centennial)

I'm glad the hand-scanners didn't pick these up, especially the Bagley set. It was ex-library, but still, I have no doubt that I could sell it for quite a bit more than I paid for it. I won't.

I'd never have found the latter two if not for the browsing experience at the sale. I'd never have been able to justify the expense of the Bagley if a bookseller had picked it up.

The Web and the Internet are great things. I've made my living mostly off them. Digital is an improvement over analog in many ways. But no one has yet come up with a satisfactory way to provide a good serendipitous environment online. It will be fascinating when such a thing is developed.

Posted Fri, Oct 8, 8:22 a.m. Inappropriate

My wife is on the board of the Friends of the Library in Somerville, MA. When I showed her this article, she mentioned that when she attended a meeting of the MA. Friends of the Library Assoc., some of the Friends of the Library groups in MA. use handscanners to scan their own books for profitable re-sale before they open their booksales to the general public. I wonder if Seattle's Friends of the Library might do this themselves.

Also, the Somerville, MA. Friends of the Library have a preview for book dealers before their booksales are open to the general public. I wonder if the Seattle Library booksales have this as well.

--Larry

Larry

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