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.

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