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The Life of James Crichton of Cluny

The Life of James Crichton of Cluny by Patrick Fraser Tytler is the oldest book currently in circulation at the Chicago Public Library. It was printed in 1819.

Anthony Vasquez / WBEZ

What’s the lifespan of a book at the Chicago Public Library?

It’s rare to find a library book more than 200 years old still in circulation. How does a title avoid the “weeding” process?

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Queen Victoria of Great Britain donated 8,000 books that would become the foundation of the Chicago Public Library collection.

While none of those original books are currently in circulation, at least one title from around that time can still be checked out today.

We spoke with CPL librarians to learn about the oldest books you can check out from the library and how librarians decide when it’s time to remove books from the shelves. We learned that as long as it meets certain criteria, a book may remain in circulation in Chicago’s public library system for over two centuries.

What are the oldest books in circulation at CPL?

CPL has plenty of historic materials in its collection. For example, Lindsay Laren, assistant commissioner of collections, content and access at CPL, said the library has a leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, estimated to be from the 1450s. “We do have that in Special Collections here on the ninth floor of Harold Washington [Library Center],” she said. “But you can’t check that out, obviously.”

When it comes to the oldest book you can check out, Nick Ayala, an information center librarian at CPL, said a likely contender is The Life of James Crichton of Cluny by Patrick Fraser Tytler. Published in 1819, it recounts the life and works of the titular Scottish polymath, who died under strange circumstances at age 21.

Inside the book’s cover is a CPL stamp that reads “MAY 15 1892” — the date it likely entered CPL’s collection, according to Ayala.

As Ayala noted, finding the oldest books isn’t as simple as searching the library catalog by publish date. Some books are reprints of texts originally published much earlier. One example of an old but incorrectly dated CPL book in active circulation is Travels Through the Middle Settlements in North-America in the Years 1759 and 1760 by Andrew Burnaby. CPL’s database says it was printed in 1775, but upon inspection, we found CPL copies appear to have been printed in 1960.

Laren said the only circulating CPL books that come close to Life of James Crichton’s age are musical scores. For instance, Louis Spohr’s Salonstücke für Violine und Pianoforte, Opus 127 was probably printed in the 1880s, according to its listing in the CPL catalog.

When are books removed from CPL shelves?

Just as books are constantly added to CPL collections, they’re also always being removed through a process librarians call “weeding.”

“Good weeding practice is to weed consistently and all the time,” Laren explained.

Laren said at CPL, weeding decisions happen at the branch level, since the individual communities served by each branch have their own distinct needs. That means it’s up to librarians at each branch to determine which books in their collection should be taken off the shelves in order to make room for new books.

“A metric that we use a lot is how much things are checked out,” Laren said.

At Harold Washington Library Center, for example, Laren said a rule of thumb is to decommission books that haven’t been checked out in eight years or longer. At the neighborhood branches, librarians might consider removing books that haven’t been checked out in two or more years.

On the other hand, Laren said librarians might decommission (and replace) a book that has been checked out so often it’s worse for the wear. “Over time, they just can get kind of grubby, is the technical term,” she said.

Laren said like many older books in CPL’s circulating collection, The Life of James Crichton was likely rebound by a local bindery at some point. “I think … that binding really saved it,” she said. “We send a handful of things to a bindery in Indiana every year.”

Additionally, Laren said librarians take into account books whose information is likely to become outdated after a number of years, such as medical texts or career guides.

“We want to keep people from going off the path of, like, what is the conventional kind of wisdom for that?” Laren said.

When weeding isn’t done consistently or often enough, Laren said this routine process of removing obsolete books from a library’s collection can be wrongly conflated with censorship or book banning.

What happens to library books after they’re decommissioned?

CPL hardly ever throws books away after they’re removed from the shelves, according to Laren.

“If it’s too damaged to sell, we’ll recycle it,” Laren said. “If it’s in good condition, we’ll work with our vendor who will resell it for us.”

You might find former CPL books for sale on sites like ThriftBooks after they’ve outlived their shelf life.

“There’s a market for books,” Laren said. “People want to buy them, and just because we can’t use them doesn’t mean that someone else wouldn’t use them.”

Curious City Question-Asker bio: Brad Kasberg

More about our question-asker

Curious City Question-asker: Bradford Kasberg (square)

Courtesy of Bradford Kasberg

Bradford Kasberg is an environmental researcher at Argonne National Laboratory. He lives in the Albany Park neighborhood and frequents Sulzer Regional Library. “I’m always carrying a book around,” he said.

Kasberg became curious about the oldest circulating CPL titles when he went to pick up a book he’d placed on hold. “I realized that it was really old looking — way older than any book I normally see in the library,” Kasberg said.

That led Kasberg to ask Curious City, “What are the oldest non-archival, printed books that are in active circulation? What’s the lifespan of a CPL book?”

Steven Arroyo is an engagement producer for WBEZ.

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