October 23, 2014

The Weeding War | Blatant Berry

BerryWebB The Weeding War | Blatant Berry“We have to weed the collection!” Every librarian will tell you that, but a great many library users, including many of those unpredictable “Friends of the Library,” along with a lot of other citizens, simply don’t understand why it is necessary to throw away “good books.” As a result, careless weeding of library collections has been the source of tremendous misunderstanding, disruption, bad publicity, and, all-too-frequently, the departure of library directors.

Who can forget Nicholson Baker’s “The Author vs. the Library” in the October 1998 issue of The New Yorker, which combined a plea to save library card catalogs and to stop replacing books with microform copies with an attack on the practice of weeding. These themes were carried over to his 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random).

Each time a weeding controversy hits another library, I think of my author friend who was outraged when he was told by a librarian that one or more of his books had been “weeded” from the collection. “They weren’t weeds when you planted them!” he would shout as he stormed out of the building.

There is little doubt that weeding is controversial, and that is why it must be done with great care, very quietly.

It would be a great step forward if we could find a better name for the practice, one that didn’t have the negative implications about what was being removed from the library. I have thought about that for decades, because a weeding fracas at the academic library where I worked nearly got me fired from my third library job. I still haven’t come up with a kinder term, a euphemism to describe the process that doesn’t call the discarded books “weeds.” But I’m sure we could find some label that describes the process as “cleaning the collection” or “dispensing with worn-out books.”

The root problem is that the majority of people see most books as permanently valuable, and for many that is true. Our personal books don’t circulate, so they don’t wear out, and even when they do, we hang on to them. Consider how many of us still find shelf space at home for all of our beat-up and tattered college textbooks that we rarely, if ever, consult in later life. In the eyes of much of the population, every book must be maintained, no matter its condition or content.

Another concern arises when we make weeding a special project, done with lots of fanfare, employing a large number of library staff. It results in dumpsters and trash receptacles full of what look like good books. Some libraries have been attacked because users found books with library ownership marks in the local landfill.

Frequently, the weeding process is performed with less attention than it deserves. We employ questionable measures to determine if a book should be jettisoned. Low circulation or infrequent use numbers are not enough evidence to scrap a book. Publication or acquisition dates prove nothing about a book’s value. Citizens don’t even understand when a library tosses “extra” copies of a title that occupy shelf space because the work’s popularity is past.

In truth, there is no way to convince our communities that a library needs to throw away books from its collection. That is what they learned in San Francisco when Baker went ballistic. That is what they are currently learning at the Fairfax County Public Library in Virginia, where angry Friends have protested a massive “weeding” project.

I wish I had a solution to bring peace to the long-standing weeding war, but it has been waged for more than a century. I guess the best advice I could devise for those who want or need to remove library books is what one experienced library director told me years ago: “If you are sure you have to weed, do it after midnight on a Sunday, and bury the discarded books at the bottom of the barrel, under the rest of the trash.”

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This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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Comments

  1. Maybe replace “weeding” with “strategic collection maintenance” ?

  2. Mary Lou Hughes says:

    I feel weeding is a love hate relationship. My first director would never weed. It got to the point where the books were getting damaged because there were so many squeezed in on the shelves. We were constantly shifting and trying to make things work. Every so often she would relent and some would be weeded. Then we got a new director and she brought us into the 21st century. Initially we were happy when the moldy and broken books were pulled from circulation. Then the panic set in because it was so foreign to us to have a routine of weeding. It took some time to adjust to the reality that our four walls do not expand as we fill the shelves with new titles. Even the patrons thought she had gone nuts! Many see the recycling buckets filled and go through them to pull out books. We sell as many as possible, ($1 a bag) and donate to local schools, etc. It is a delicate job, and perhaps, as you stated, best done under the cover of darkness!

  3. How about “optimizing the collection” – the process of making the collection the best it can be?

  4. I guess I’ll never understand why people don’t “get” the importance of weeding. Think of your closet…If you kept everything you wore over the course of your entire life, wouldn’t it get a bit crowded? Wouldn’t it be hard to justify buying new, fashionable clothing when you had enough stuff already? Space is at a premium in libraries more than ever, what with computers, maker spaces, meeting rooms etc, taking shelving space away from books (not that I disagree with the importance of having any of these awesome things in a library!). Having a well-maintained, current collection keeps patrons informed and interested.

    • Thanks! That’s a great metaphor – hopefully I can remember it if someone ever challenges our weeding practice.

  5. I used to tell my staff that I was going “gardening.” Here in Tampa we have written guidelines for weeding materials by Dewey, format, etc. Our BOCC approved a policy of conveying to the Friends materials that were “released” from the system. The Friends operate book stores and sell our excess inventory. The proceeds go to fund programming. Some of the FOL groups also have recycling bins for un-sold items. A win-win-win.

  6. In the last few years our collection has started to “self weed”, especially DVDs. And given our decreases in both money and staff time, most of the weeding done is for condition. Unfortunately, we’re still dealing with the “something is ALWAYS better than nothing” mindset. Selection has had to become very precise because of demand up and money down, so that might result in a few years in fewer titles needing to be weeded for lack of circulation.

  7. Sarah Stauderman says:

    In the museum and archives world (and surely in special collections in libraries) it is called deaccessioning, which is part of the entire field of collections management. Good collections planning includes having rationale for deaccessioning, and there are guidelines by AAM and other organizations. I wonder about throwing books away; what kind of resale and repurpose strategies have library communities engaged in (probably not for 100% of the deaccessioned works, but maybe 30-40%?).

  8. ow about trimming or culling?

  9. That should, of course, be How…

  10. Weeding is the most necessary of evils. My heart breaks with each beloved writer I deselect. Last week, I culled Paul Mazursky’s “Harry & Tonto,” an absolutely beautiful screenplay/novel. I’ve read that book more than a dozen times. <> Similiarly, we have since weeded ALL our Richard Condon novels. <> When people stop reading Vonnegut (and that day is fast approaching), I will need to seek a new profession. I simply cannot bring myself to remove Kurt from the stacks.

    • Oh heartbreak… I simply cannot bear the thought of a library without Vonnegut. How would one go about initiating a viral Vonnegut revival?

  11. My local library in Glastonbury, Connecticut, takes away some of the sting of “releasing” books from its collection by holding a very popular book sale, with low prices.

  12. Is it exceptionally naive of me to suggest donation of certain material during the “weeding” process? Underfunded schools or prison libraries could perhaps benefit from these so called “weeds” more than the landfill will.

    I’ll grant that library books have a somewhat limited shelf when compared to the lifespan of the personal collection. Just keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with seeking creative solutions to reduce our waste and maybe even empower future generations to do the same. The recycling industry is alive and thriving and even if a book is no longer in any condition to remain in a library, there may be hope for a life beyond the traditional realm of the book. Poorly funded art programs could turn books into art projects inspired by the likes of book sculptors Su Blackwell or Brian Dettmer.

    My point is that the dumpster does not have to be the only option if only we are willing to think outside of the traditional box of old and unloved books. If you were a book being ‘weeded’ would you rather decompose in a landfill or inspire a student to create a work of art…maybe, just maybe even inspire him or her to stay in school and become a librarian.

    • I wouldn’t want to give either prisons or school libraries books which are outdated and/or in poor condition. And there is only so much “book art” to be made (and sold).

    • Many prison libraries won’t take hardcover books. They can be used as weapons.

  13. When people ask me about weeding I simply explain the facts. For nonfiction areas such as legal, building trades, health, etc., this is easy. Out of date information is unsafe.

    But what hits home with people, (I never hide my weeding from the public) is the fact that we either remove what is not being used or we build a new facility to house things that do not check out.

    Buildings cost money. Money comes from taxes. I have yet to encounter a patron who preferred a tax increase to pay for storage and maintenance of material very few want to read. The clincher is always ‘we have to free up the space for new books.’ Once in a while I may need to throw in a reminder that ILL is always available to provide access to materials that may or may not ever be requested again.

    The next question, what we do with discarded materials, is also easy. Three months in the book store, then what is left goes to Better World Books. BWB provides boxes and pays the shipping. We get a small cut of net profit, and the rest goes to support literacy programs. http://www.betterworldbooks.com/go/libraries

    Anything BWB can’t take is shredded and recycled, an expense of doing business. Any library putting books in a trash dumpster is asking for trouble. We paid to shred and recycle until recently. Now our local solid waste district uses books to make roofing felt.

    Recyclable materials do not belong in a landfill. If only the makers of AV and cases would use 1 thru 6 plastics we could easily recycle those as well. As it is, AV is the worst problem when it comes to discards. I’ve long wondered why the library community hasn’t taken a stand on the use of non-recyclable plastics in AV, especially in AV cases.

  14. How about “deselecting” or “deaccessioning”? Some libraries I’ve worked at have used those terms for years.

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