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Washington Post Issues Correction on Fairfax County Library Story

Submitted by Leo Klein on Sun, 1/28/07 (8:48pm)

The original story that appeared in the Washington Post about Fairfax County's weeding of classics from its collection raised a nationwide "firestorm of outrage".

Now WaPo Ombudsman, Deborah Howell, reports that the weeding wasn't perhaps as sweeping as orginally suggested:

The story said that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" are among the titles that hadn't been checked out in two years and that could be eliminated. Those books have been checked out; it would have been better to say that some copies of those books may not have been checked out in two years at some branches and could be weeded out. Kirkpatrick and Clay say there was never any intention of weeding out all copies.

Complete article here...

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by Leo Klein on Sun, 1/28/07 (9:07pm)

WashingtnPost's Ombudsman, Deborah Howell's complete statement:

Fairfax library officials complained about the Jan. 2 story that indicated some literary classics were being "dumped" to make way for more popular books. Reporter Lisa Rein asked Lois Kirkpatrick, library marketing and public relations manager, in December for a story idea during the holidays. Kirkpatrick and Clay told her about the "Hot Picks" computer program and a "new, more retail-oriented approach" that would get more popular titles to patrons faster, Rein said. To do that, librarians needed to aggressively remove other books -- ones not checked out in two years -- from the shelves.

Rein noticed that some of the books weeded out were classics and thought that was the lead. Edwin S. Clay III, the library system's director, said the story "was basically accurate" but the impression that he believed was left by the headline and graphic "couldn't be further from the truth." Kirkpatrick thought the story "sounded like we were trashing" classic literature. "Classics are a minuscule proportion of the books on our computer reports. The largest percentage is nonfiction," she said.

The library story's headline was "Hello, Grisham -- Goodbye Hemingway?" The graphic listed five books "in danger of being weeded from the shelves of the Fairfax County Public Library system." This is how many copies the library system has of those works, in print and various electronic formats: "The Works of Aristotle," 107; "To Kill a Mockingbird," 359; "The Sound and the Fury," 99; "For Whom the Bell Tolls," 108; and "The Glass Menagerie," 116.

The story said that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" are among the titles that hadn't been checked out in two years and that could be eliminated. Those books have been checked out; it would have been better to say that some copies of those books may not have been checked out in two years at some branches and could be weeded out. Kirkpatrick and Clay say there was never any intention of weeding out all copies.

The story was picked up by news services and resulted in a firestorm of outrage across the country and critical editorials in other publications that depended on The Post's reporting. Clay said that all public libraries weed out-of-date, unused and "torn-up and ratty" books. Most of the books are not "dumped." They go to organizations that sell them and return proceeds to the library, which the story noted.

The most obvious problem is that the graphic, not done by the reporter, said that the book titles were in danger of being removed from the system. That was not true.

Howell faults the graphic artist (easy target) but if you're like me, it was the text of the story and not the graphic that people noticed.