Where have all the books gone?

That variation on Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” recently bloomed in this Calhoun Street Main Branch regular’s wandering mind.

So did this question — its own protest song of sorts:

How can reducing the number of books in a library make it a better library?

Doug Henderson, executive director of the Charleston County Public Library, offered a spirited — and even somewhat persuasive — answer Wednesday.

He told me the major book-winnowing process conducted last year was long overdue. He warned that “libraries are only as relevant as the materials they have in them.” He said it didn’t make sense to keep books that haven’t been checked out in years.

He pitched the need for a November 2014 Charleston County referendum that would give voters a chance to say yes — or no — to funding library-system upgrades. The library board is on board with that effort. County Council is considering adding the question to the ballot — though the wording, including the price tag, is a work in progress.

So is the evolution of what a public library will be in the future. And that’s not what it has been in the past. This transformation stirs debate far beyond Calhoun Street.

Henderson pointed out that the county system’s circulation of all materials, including books, DVDs and CDs, was up 8 percent last year. He stressed that some old books removed were physically “crumbling.” He posed this challenge: “Who wants a 1990 travel book on Paris?”

Then again, who wants the empty feeling many of us old-timers get when we see wide-open spaces in the Main Branch — including glaring vacancies on the shelves?

Caught in the Net

Henderson plans for some of the now-available floor space to be filled by up to 500 new computers throughout the system’s 16 libraries. He cited last year’s impressive cyber numbers — more than 440,000 Internet sessions on the library’s computers and more than 220,000 on patrons’ computers via the library’s Wi-Fi access.

He touted expanding e-books offerings. And he hopes to close some old libraries while building new ones in or near the old Pinehaven Shopping Center in North Charleston, Carolina Park in northern Mount Pleasant and the St. Paul-Hollywood area.

He also hailed the library’s advances on the “pre-literacy” front — including a “Babygarten” and “story rooms.”

That sounds sweetly familiar to this Charleston native, who enjoyed 1950s “Story Time” at the little old library on Rutledge Avenue. After squeezing into that small section of a big house, the Main Branch that opened on King Street in 1960 looked immense.

On Wednesday, that derelict King Street library, replaced by the Calhoun Street edifice in 1998, looked much the worse for wear: Demolition work recently began on the quaint architectural, er, curiosity.

OK, so experts have long condemned that building, with its notorious pink marble facade, as an aesthetic mess.

Hey, you’ll miss it when it’s gone — especially when that nine-story hotel goes up on the same site, casting shadows literal and figurative on Marion Square.

Enlightening nostalgia

Back to fond recollections:

This local felt a fifth-grade thrill at the grand April 1964 opening of the South Windermere branch, a short walk from my boyhood home. Back then that library looked large.

These days, it looks tiny.

Back to that King Street pink palace: Remember its space-age gizmos that lit up and made a humming noise while checking out your books?

OK, so libraries — and even newspapers —must change with the times. But before despairing over the demise of the library as we knew it, read between these reassuring lines:

The Charleston County Public Library Bookmobile keeps on rolling.

Henderson: “We still do all that stuff. We haven’t gotten lost in the digital world.”

And we still can find plenty of books — just not as many as before — in the Calhoun Street library.

Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is wooten@postandcourier.com.