A little-used book was recently removed from circulation at the Largo Library.
From the book's usage statistics, it might be hard to believe anyone would have missed A History of The American Locomotive, Its Development: 1830-1880, by John H. White.
In the past 13 years, the title was checked out 12 times. The last time it was checked out was July 25, 2007. But someone did take notice: John Bell, 77, a Largo resident and designer of trains for the model railroad industry.
He was one of those few interested in the minutia of old trains, their innards and propulsion, capacities and speeds — from 1830 until 1880, at least.
He sent a letter to library director Casey McPhee asking for an explanation.
"What is the purpose of this? Any library must keep these collections. There simply is nowhere else one can turn, without spending a goodly sum of money," Bell wrote.
McPhee responded to Bell's question, and in the process, spoke to trends affecting libraries everywhere, and beyond that, virtually every other industry and profession.
"Changes started about two years ago for several reasons, including a shift in publishing toward online resources," McPhee replied.
She added that there is a "need to reallocate funds to more popular areas and emerging formats. This trend is happening in public libraries nationwide."
Like the steam locomotive, certain things libraries have held in the past have given way to flashier, higher-tech successors.
In other words, White's treatise was downsized because of the Internet. It is now headed to the next library book sale.
An edition of the White locomotive book, in fact, is partly available online for free via Google Books. As are dozens of other similar resources.
The library also offers access to hundreds of database resources — some of them paid for at substantial cost by the Pinellas Library Cooperative — that offer information once kept under virtual lock and key.
McPhee gives one example: Chilton's Automotive Repair manuals.
"We used to have it in reference, (and we would) guard it with our lives," McPhee said.
Chilton's is a veritable bible for auto do-it-yourselfers.
McPhee said in the past, patrons used to come in with greasy hands, and sometimes, greasy auto parts, to thumb through the resource.
But now, since the library subscribes to Chilton's online database, anyone with a library card can access the info from home, or one of the library's 50 computer terminals.
"It's a good example of how things are evolving," McPhee said.
Pinellas libraries also began offering e-books, which can be "checked out" and downloaded to electronic readers like the Amazon Kindle.
Amazon, the popular online bookseller, announced this month that its sales of e-books have surpassed its hard-copy offerings for the first time.
Though pixels — for now — cannot replace a well-drawn line in paper, not for people like Bell — who even at 77 is as savvy online as any youngster, but still craves gems like White's book about trains.
"I rely on these books. This is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Bell said. "I doubt there was any database they use in separating the good from the bad."
Dominick Tao can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 580-2951.