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.

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

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.

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. 

As books become things, and at the same time as new electronic readers emerge, what does that mean for we readers? I am happy to leave to others the discussion about the plight of independent bookstores vs. Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Does it matter to me, reading away in my studio, how I came upon the book in my hands? (I am also a true friend of libraries, have cards to three large systems, and use them all the time; most of the books piled up around our place are library books.) 

I don’t know. I do know that I once was told that the UW library threw away books it no longer wanted. Unbelieving, nonetheless I requested and was granted permission to dumpster-dive for books on campus. My haul became the focus of an exhibition I  constructed with the abandoned books, some of which are still on my shelves. I can’t imagine that the U/W still sends its unwanted books to the dump, but I for one would much rather have people with or without scanners make money off the discards, then have them disappear in the landfill.

I understand why libraries get rid of books — there just isn’t enough room for them all, and never has been. Out with the old, in with the new. Of course we can, will, and should disagree with the choices of what gets tossed. But books in public (and private) collections are going to be culled. I just hadn’t thought of books as commodities until I saw them being handled as such.

As I know from years thinking about commodity chains, all things that get bought and sold carry with them a story or stories, and the potential for delight or disgust, profit or loss. No matter if the book is picked up by someone who can’t or doesn’t want to read it; others did, and presumably others will. A book’s intrinsic use, value, or worth isn’t irrevocably changed by how it leaves the hangar. Probably most of us at the sale weren’t looking for anything in particular. When we did stumble upon a book we’d always wanted to read, or had no clue existed, we were happy to give it a home. We were treasure-hunting, too, just not defining the value of our finds in terms of the marketplace.  

Reading is one of the most private, most pleasurable acts available anyplace to anyone. Sex, another one of those activities, has been bought and sold in the marketplace forever. Yet, despite its commercial availability, sexual intimacy is still potentially alive and well in the privacy of one’s life. Hopefully the same will remain true for books and reading, scanners or not.


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