things i heard at the library # 10: weeding, the library's not-so-dirty, not-so-little secret

Wmtc readers have told me that they like the inner-workings-of-the-library posts, so I'm going to let myself write those whenever an idea comes up. That means the "things I heard at..." category becomes less literal... not unlike the title of this blog.

Did you ever wonder how a library manages to keep its whole collection on the shelves, when new books are coming out all the time? Where do all the books go? How can it all fit?

The answer: it doesn't. Space is finite, and the number of books in any collection, although also finite, is always expanding. That contradiction is resolved through weeding.

The walls won't expand, so the collection must shrink

This seems obvious to me now, but before I worked in a library, I never realized how often collections are weeded. Think of your own collection, your personal library. Perhaps you are that rare person who has never gotten rid of a book, a CD, a DVD, or (if you're old enough), an LP. Perhaps you live, and have always lived, in a huge house with vast amount of space, perhaps you've never changed addresses, perhaps you've never been forced to pare down your belongings. Or perhaps you're not acquisitive, you don't collect books or music, and all your possessions fit into a few small boxes.

But if you're like most (first-world, book-loving) people, over the years you have culled your collections. Maybe some books were in terrible condition. Maybe your interests have completely changed. Maybe what was once an important statement on your shelf is now just a dust-gatherer. Or maybe, like most bibliophiles, you simply do not have the physical space to keep every book you have ever read or might want to read!

The library has the same dilemma - but worse. Long ago, librarians wagged their fingers and preached about what people should read, and the collection reflected that attitude. (That's an interesting post for another day.) Those days are gone, and good riddance, in my opinion.*

The credo of the contemporary North American library is "give 'em what they want". That means we need to make space for 10 or 12 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games and the latest spy thrillers. We still want to offer older works that are widely read - say, 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Great Expectations. But we don't have the luxury of space to offer titles that no one ever borrows, no matter how worthy.

How it works

Weeding starts out simple enough.

We weed books in bad condition. Getting rid of torn and tattered books makes the entire collection look more appealing, and I think it treats library customers with more respect.

We weed books that are no longer relevant. No one needs science - or social science, or geography, or culture, or just about any nonfiction - from the distant past, and in many cases, not even from the recent past. There is value in a historical view of science, but that's not the public library's job. Information on the shelf should be current.

We weed duplicates and triplicates and taking-up-half-the-shelf-licates - titles that once warranted a whole slew of multiple copies, but whose popularity has waned, and now one copy will suffice.

But what happens when we get down to that one, final copy? Do we reorder? Our computer systems can tell us how many times the book has been checked out. If a book never circulates, or has only circulated once or twice, with space at a premium, it might get yanked.

In which I become an experienced weeder

Since my library education was almost completely devoid of practical information, I never even heard of weeding until I started working. But soon after I started, the Mississauga Library System began preparing to convert to self-checkout. That means that every single item in the entire system has to be tagged with an RFID sticker. It makes sense to weed thoroughly before, rather than after, that labour-intensive process. So I've had much opportunity to see weeding in action.

Recently, one of the system's smaller branches weeded a huge number of junior nonfiction titles from its collection, and they asked if the Central Children's library, where I work, would like them. Yes, please! I am the department point-person for junior nonfiction, so box after box of books were delivered to my desk. It's been great practice.

Almost all the junior nonfiction from the small branch was in excellent condition. It just wasn't circulating. I had to think about each title in terms of age, relevance, and what we already have in our own collection. An excellent book in good condition might be tempting, but if we already own five copies, do we need a sixth? Probably not. On the other hand, if it's a subject that kids always need for school projects, an extra title allows us to stretch our annual nonfiction budget.

So I look at each book, and look at the circulation statistics, and ponder. Keep, keep, toss, keep, toss, toss, toss...

The discards go in one direction to be withdrawn from the collection. Some will be sold in public book sales - revenue coming back to the library - and some will be thrown in recycling bins. The keepers go in a different direction, so they can be officially transferred from that small branch to our location, both in the catalog and on the shelf.

You can read more about weeding on the ALA Weeding Fact Sheet, and learn all about the CREW method of public-library weeding. For a lighter take, see the Awful Library Books blog, which reminds us that "hoarding is not a collection development".

* This opinion is by no means universally accepted. It is, however, more egalitarian and less patronizing. No one tells middle-class or upper-class people what they're supposed to read. The people who depend on the public library for access deserve as much freedom of choice as their wealthier neighbours. Another post, I promise.


deang said...

This is such an interesting topic to me. A looooong time ago, there was a discussion in one of your comments sections about how some of us miss the old date-stamped cards in the front of library books. I said that I missed those in part because I liked knowing when a book I liked was last checked out. It always made me feel good to know that I was the first in a long time to check out a particular book; I felt like I was encouraging retention of seldom-used books just by checking them out, but I had no idea what went on behind the scenes. Now I know that my checking them out might actually have helped keep them from being eliminated.

We're lucky in Austin to have many excellent academic libraries at the University of Texas, so that if the city libraries remove a book because of low public interest, I can almost always find it at one of UT's libraries.

Gunner said...

Oh oh oh... allow me to present: http://awfullibrarybooks.net. Thought I'd originally been pointed to the site from here. It's a blog by a couple of librarians who present some of their more recent weeding finds.
Oh and Hi again.

Gunner said...

Oh that was dumb... seeing as you already mentioned Awful Library Books in your post. I must remember not to jump to a post after a 12 hours nightshift.

laura k said...

Ha ha, thanks Gunner, not dumb! Never! :)

deang, you were definitely helping those books stay on the shelf. For a lot of the nonfiction I read, I am the only person to borrow them from my library, or one of a very few. But at worst, those books end up in a book sale or at a used-book store, so someone will find it.

johngoldfine said...

No one needs science - or social science, or geography, or culture, or just about any nonfiction - from the distant past, and in many cases, not even from the recent past.

I wrote my master's thesis on penology in England 1840-1860, when it was a very hot topic. My prime and primary resources were the many mid-19th Century books written by prison architects, penal theorists, prison administrators and chaplains, ex-prisoners, and so on.

These were books about society, culture, penology, criminology, and science (or so the science writers fondly imagined; phrenology was big and nothing said modernity like the findings of scientific racism.)

I do appreciate that a large city library is not the same as a specialized research library...but I could never agree that the outdated writing of the past is a weed unworthy of retention.

laura k said...

You supplied my answer in your comment: a public library is not a specialized research library.

Obviously, people need to study the history of science (and I believe my post says as much), but no one would confuse the Mississauga Library System with a place one could research at the Master's level.

So I'll ask you this. When our science department cannot hold any more new titles, and the most current title on the shelf is from 1995, if weeding is not an option, what would you do? How would you offer the public current information?

johngoldfine said...

What would I do? I'd convince the public of the value of superannuated books so it would happily pay higher taxes to build new buildings with mile after mile of shelving and to hire armies of librarians to tend to the vastly-increased collections.

If all that were impossible in this fallen and imperfect world, I suppose one does what one must but reluctantly and unhappily.

I have to take back a bit of my own answer to my own complaint: some of my thesis materials did come from places like the Widener, the British Libary, and so on--but a lot also came off shelves of much more obscure public libraries in Great Britain and the USA.

On the other hand, a lot of what was obscure and difficult to find in 1969 is much more easily available today, if one has the money and internet. Tonight, for example, I see that the prison memoirs of John Clay by his son, Walter, a treasure I pored over for months despite increasingly annoyed requests for its return to Manchester (?), Sheffield (?), are available on amazon.com for $31 (former library book), at auction on ebay for 49.35 (former library book), and through Barnes and Noble for $77 (new and unread.)

laura k said...

One of the many great things about the internet is our ability to find books. I guess that's the trade-off for killing so many independent/used bookstores. The hunt is gone, but you no longer have to live near the bookstore to get the book.

I can deal with outdated nonfiction being off the shelf - in fact, I think it should be - but I dislike that literature that doesn't circulate will get weeded. In our system, much literary fiction is only in the Central Library, not at the many branches. And if no one borrows it, it will eventually be nowhere.

Like deang, I would like to continually borrow all the great fiction to help keep it on the shelf.

impudent strumpet said...

The Awful Library Books blog is so interesting! There should be some kind of category for obsolete books kept for historical purposes. Not "These are books about science", but "These are books that show how people used to think/write about science."

(Which, I realize, doesn't solve the problem of space being finite, but I kind of wish they were all archived somewhere for historical purposes. Or scanned and put online.)

We had a 1963 World Book Encyclopedia in our house when I was growing up. My grandparents had saved up to buy it for their kids as soon as possible after they moved to Canada (and it took years to save up for it), but reading it 30 years later, it wasn't just retro, but weirdly paternalistic in tone. For example, the article entitled Clothing presumed to tell you what types and quantities of clothing you should own. That's not something you want people using for general research, but it's so interesting!

laura k said...

There should be some kind of category for obsolete books kept for historical purposes. Not "These are books about science", but "These are books that show how people used to think/write about science."

There is a field of study called the History and Sociology of Science. I hope those historians are saving all this stuff. It is VERY interesting.