Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2012

Wickie's Wisdom

Threatened Books

By Timothy Harrison


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On a regular basis I browse through eBay in search of old original lighthouse-related photographs that can be purchased and used for stories and then saved in our archives for future generations. Of special interest are old original press wire photos or original newspaper photos that are being disposed of, especially since those types of photographs are generally one of a kind.

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However, I have become more and more concerned about the number of old lighthouse and other historical images that are being offered for sale on eBay that have been “carefully cut and removed” from old books. Naturally, after the photos have been removed from the book, the book is thrown away. This might be good for book collectors, who will eventually see the increase in the value of certain books as fewer copies remain in existence, but it is bad for preserving history and it is bad for future generations.

Some may say this is no big deal because the entire text of many of these books has already been preserved on the Internet. However, this is not always the case, especially with many books published by small publishers with a limited printing, or books on an obscure topic that is no longer relevant in today’s society, or books written in a style that is no longer commonplace. As well as applying to history, lighthouse, and maritime books, this also applies to your average novel or mystery book, as well as to many of our great classics, all of which are slowly but literally being lost forever.

After doing a little research, I was quickly able to learn that many old books are now being destroyed faster than at any time in history, even more so than during the book burning days of the Third Reich! I was shocked to learn how widespread the destruction of books is today in this country. I have to wonder why this hasn’t drawn continued media attention.

The problem seems to be twofold. First, many libraries and book stores simply do not have the space to store and display the large number of books that have been printed through the years. Although they do hold book sales, obviously many of the books still do not sell and have to be disposed of in one way or another. Secondly, as people are reading less, or reading books on Kindle or other on-line services, fewer books are being printed. And the older books, as well as many newer books, are being disposed of after they are read. Second-hand and used book stores are busting at the seams, and even they don’t have the space to save the many books that they are being overwhelmed with. Couple that with the current state of the economy and it adds up to one answer: the biggest disposal of books in world history. And it’s happening right in front of us.

The day will come when some of the websites that hold so much of this old material and historic photos will be taken down or disappear for a variety of reasons. When that happens, and in some circumstances it has already happened, these stories and photographs will be lost forever. And, since many of the original photos are already gone, there will be nothing left to replace them and many of the original photos may never again be found. The exception to this would be in the pages of old books, some of which will eventually be unattainable by the average person or even a researcher. That day may arrive sooner than most of us could ever expect.

Not surprising is also the fact that the destruction of magazines that also help preserve history, such as we do at Lighthouse Digest, is more widespread than book destruction. Many of the photos and stories that we have published in our magazine, as well as in the few books that we have published, are the only known source of a story or photograph. And we are not alone in that regard.

So . . . I would encourage the subscribers of Lighthouse Digest to continue purchasing lighthouse books and never part with them. And please encourage your family members to keep those old lighthouse books and the back issues of Lighthouse Digest and revisit them long after you are gone. We must all pitch in to save the printed material, and the history it has preserved for future generations.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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