June 25, 2017

The Art of Weeding | Collection Management

Getting rid of books can feel uncomfortable and look bad to community members, but careful weeding is key to the health of a collection.

There’s an uncomfortable truth about library stacks that most librarians know but many don’t like to admit: those shelves hold a lot of junk that has to make way for the new titles getting published every day. Considering the volume of material libraries deal with, and the span of time over which those titles have been acquired, it’s not surprising.

Pulling that chaff from the collection can be time-consuming for librarians with no dearth of other projects needing their attention. Also, weeding—removing items from the collection—can seem counterintuitive. It’s by and large a thankless task as well. Patrons don’t walk in saying, “Thanks for getting rid of all of those books!” Some may even drag library staff over the coals, furious about what looks, to them, like useful books being destroyed or funds being wasted.

So why go to the trouble? Because in a library, just as in a garden, taking out unwanted items makes those left behind stand out. Circulation frequently rises after a weeding project, however counterintuitive that may seem: when people can browse the shelves (or the online catalog) without having to sift through older material they’re not interested in, they’re more likely to find something they are looking for—or something they didn’t know they were looking for.

Meanwhile, freeing up physical space devoted to books that never leave the stacks makes more room to buy new materials that will circulate—and sometimes cash to do so, when weeded materials are resold. As more room is devoted to shared resources other than materials, such as Maker spaces and community meeting rooms, space for collections may be contracting altogether—and that means clearing out books that don’t circulate the way they used to (and maybe a few that never did).

Slow and steady

Holly Hibner, adult services coordinator at the Plymouth District Library, MI, and coauthor of the blog Awful Library Books, recommends thinking about weeding as a normal part of collection management rather than waiting to do it all at once. Taking a few minutes every day to look through the collection and pull titles that don’t belong anymore can save library staff from having to undertake a major project.

“There’s no reason to load up a cart with hundreds of items once a year when you can pull a few things here and there all year round,” says Hibner.

Not letting weeding turn into a large effort can help prevent a lot of the headaches associated with it, says librarian Mary Kelly, who coauthored with Hibner the textbook Making a Collection Count: A Holistic Approach to Library Collection Management (Chandos). Major weeding programs can cause anxiety and misunderstanding among library staffers and community members alike.

Examples of libraries throwing out thousands of titles in one fell swoop, and losing a lot of public goodwill right along with those titles, are not hard to find. In the UK, the destruction of nearly a quarter of a million old, damaged, or irrelevant titles during the renovation of the Manchester Central Library was described by opponents as “morally reprehensible,” according to an article in the Guardian last February.

Dumpster dismay

Also in February, Alameda County Library (ACL) in northern California came under fire when thousands of titles turned up in the dumpsters of its Fremont branch. “My stomach went into a knot,” Fremont resident Dorothea Dorenz told a local CBS affiliate. After several months of negative publicity, the ACL Advisory Committee agreed to work with Discover Books, a for-profit company that will sell the weeded books through eBay and Amazon, with a portion of the sales going to the ACL Foundation.

Maybe the biggest shame of these controversies is that folks like Dorenz—who belongs to a group named Library Book Savers of Alameda County—have the best of intentions and the library’s interests at heart. These advocate groups should be natural allies, but miscommunication can turn them into enemies. In Hennepin County, MN, the whistle-blower was an anonymous library employee who went to the press, telling KMSP-TV that “hundreds of thousands of perfectly good books” were being thrown into the library’s recycling bins.

“Even if all the weeded books meet the weeding criteria, the sheer volume can get people worked up,” says Hibner. “Large-scale weeding is what gets libraries into trouble and [is] where mistakes can happen. Going slowly and carefully is better for the collection and better for users.”

Hibner says it can be helpful to keep a couple of noncontroversial titles on hand to illustrate why collections need pruning. “Hold up a copy of How To Get More Fun Out of Smoking (Ram, 1941),” she recommends, “and say, ‘This is why we weed.’ ”

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A SMOKING GUN Keep examples of outdated titles on hand to ­explain the need to weed

Necessary sacrifices

All the same, sometimes a huge cull of titles is necessary. At the University of Missouri, library director Jim Cogswell oversaw the destruction of nearly 190,000 titles from the collection after they had been damaged by mold in 2013 and were no longer fit for circulation. Even though more than twice as many titles were saved by cleaning since the problem was discovered, a faculty committee described the destruction of the damaged titles as an “egregious violation” of trust between the library and faculty members.

“We should have done better in saying that the only books that were going to be destroyed were duplicates,” Cogswell told local paper Lee’s Summit Journal. “But I make no apologies for the outcome.”

Renovations or moves to a new location, or simply a change of policy can also trigger larger deaccession projects.

When a lot of titles need to be weeded at once, communication is key. Being transparent about the decisions being made and the thought process behind them—and getting ahead of the story—can help prevent a library’s otherwise supportive public from becoming upset when a number of books need to go.

Even in the course of regular weeding, transparency and openness are important, says Mindy Reed, managing librarian at Recycled Reads in Austin, TX, and a 2015 LJ Mover & Shaker. Recycled Reads operates a retail space that sells and recycles books discarded from the Austin Public Library’s 23 branches, upward of 60,000 books every month.

“We’re totally transparent. If someone wants to come in the back to use the restroom, they will see us sorting books,” says Reed. More formal tours are available, too, of course, as a way of opening the process and winning trust in the community.

“We’ve built credibility, but that takes time,” Reed says. “It can’t be just a matter of ‘Trust me, I know what I’m doing, don’t look in that bin.’ ”

Weeding by numbers

What makes a book a good candidate for weeding? How much use a book sees is obviously a major factor. Running an integrated library system (ILS) usage report can return an objective list of titles that can safely be culled to make space in the stacks for new blood. For those whose libraries subscribe, specific collection analytics software, such as Baker & Taylor’s Collection HQ, DecisionCenter by Innovative Interfaces, and on the academic side Intota Assessment can take the library’s data and turn it into user-friendly weeding and branch distribution reports.

However, even the most accurate algorithm’s list can benefit from a double check from a trained librarian’s eye, as certain titles (classics, local interest, backlist for authors about to release a new title after a long hiatus) may be worth keeping on the shelves in spite of low-traffic track records—especially if yours is the only library in your consortium or interlibrary loan pool to retain a copy.

Spending time in the stacks with the titles is a must. It’s also a great way to get, and stay, familiar with the collection—good, bad, and ugly. Making a habit of roaming regularly will make sure a librarian always has a feel for what’s on the shelves.
“You can’t make weeding decisions based solely off of paper. Things circulate that shouldn’t. Things don’t circulate that should,” Hibner says. “Old things should be considered on an individual basis, not weeded simply because they are old.”

Aging out

Age is a factor to consider in weeding, though. That’s especially true for subjects in which staying current is important, such as law, medicine, or technology. When patrons see titles on how to make the most of Windows XP, they may question the reliability not only of that book but the institution that loans it. Out-of-date works can be worse than simply embarrassing, however. They can keep information that’s been proven incorrect, or even harmful, in circulation.

Jennifer LaGarde, educator on loan for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker, recalls a title she came across while thinning out a reference section during her first year as a school librarian. The book stated confidently that “scientists do not believe HIV is transmitted through sexual content.”

“I ended up giving that book to a science teacher who wanted to use it as a tool when discussing the learning curve associated with contagious diseases. In that situation, that book was an awesome resource,” LaGarde wrote on her blog. “But on a library shelf, it’s like a loaded gun. That kind of misinformation can do serious harm.”

Condition matters as well. Even if a title is relatively new, if it’s a hot read that is showing signs of its heavy use, it could be time to take a book out of circulation—and order a replacement copy.

Not every library will need the same kind of weeding. For instance, in school libraries, out-of-date materials can be even more of a problem for students who need the most current information as they prepare for reports, papers, and tests. Academic libraries and special collections such as film and music archives will also need weeding attention, though the criteria may be different.

In a university setting, for instance, physical archives of journals and other publications that students have access to online may be taking up space that could be used more effectively. “Stacks and stacks of bound periodicals generally do not make sense anymore [for] the off chance a student might browse the section,” Carroll University, Waukesha, WI, reference and instruction librarian Joe Hardenbrook wrote on his blog, Mr. Library Dude. Duplicate print material, he says, “can’t compete—nor should it—with 24/7 perpetual access to resources such as JSTOR—available from the library website from anywhere in the world.” On the other hand, history students may need access to out-of-date material for the insight it brings to the mind-set current at the time it was published.

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BOOK ART Weeded titles can see a second life as crafting raw materials for programs
and as fundraising options during sales events

Where to?

Once weeded titles are off of the shelves, the question remains: What we do with them? Tossing books into dumpsters can rile up the public and cause ill will among patrons and civic leaders, as discussed above. Friends of the Library groups can be a great resource, stepping up to run that tried-and-true event, the library book sale.

“A friend calls weeding ‘selecting for the book sale,’ and I think that’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever heard,” says Hibner. “It’s a positive message.”

Other services, such as online bookseller Better World Books, will buy loads of titles in bulk and sell them on commission. Titles that don’t sell are an opportunity to get creative as well, as books can be upcycled into creative furniture or works of art for your branch, as well as raw materials for book art crafting programs. That’s something that Reed, her staff, and volunteers at Recycled Reads are becoming proficient at out of necessity.

“When I first got this opportunity, I had this idea of a bookstore like Meg Ryan’s in [the movie] You’ve Got Mail,” she recalls, a cute little space filled with great books and knowledgeable staff helping people find the titles they love. “Then [we] started getting dropoffs [donations], and it became very clear very quickly that if we couldn’t do something with the books we couldn’t sell, we weren’t going to last more than a few months.”

The retail space just celebrated its sixth anniversary, and while many titles that can’t be saved are recycled into pulp, others get a new lease on life as artwork. From used book piñatas to crafty collaborations with Austin’s Maker community, the Recycled Reads crew are always looking for ways to repurpose titles they can’t sell. Lately, they have been experimenting with a growing business turning discarded books into custom-designed table centerpieces for corporate dinners, charity lunches, and similar events—they’re even considering branching out into wedding decor in the near future.

Digital discards

Even items that don’t take up physical space still need weeding attention. When readers browse ebook collections, they don’t want to have to sift through titles that no one checks out. After the hype around a newly released title fades, a library can stop paying for multiple digital copies as demand trails off.

“Materials can get lost in a vast digital collection just as they can in a large library. Easy accessibility in the key,” says Ashley Eklof, head librarian at Bibliotech, San Antonio’s bookless, all- digital public library. “This is why I weed—it’s certainly not because of lack of space.”

Eklof reports that the process of weeding an all-digital collection is different. When the license on a title expires, Eklof reviews the usage it has seen over the two years Bibliotech has been open—or in the case of a title that expired after reaching a download threshold, how long it took to hit that mark. Then she analyzes how many copies of the title she purchased initially and either downsizes the number of copies or weeds it altogether. (In an academic setting, where the rising price of journals is claiming an increasing share of library budgets, cost per circulation is an essential weeding metric, along with impact factor and a variety of alternative considerations.)

Of course, there are a few titles that will always have a place on Eklof’s shelves. “Classics, for example, are often a one-time purchase,” says Eklof, citing books by Dickens, Steinbeck, and Austen as examples. “It is great to have this core collection of materials that I don’t have to worry about…expiring.”

Collection DNR

Since perpetual licenses can be pricey, Eklof and her staff have to be judicious in forming the core of the collection. And that judiciousness, says Mindy Reed, is a lesson all libraries can take to the bank. After all, weeding can be a much easier task if it’s a consideration in the collection management process from the day a book arrives. When ordering material, having an end-of-life plan for it is essential, especially for content like encyclopedia sets and other reference titles that take up lots of shelf space—and, in the age of digital databases, may be out of date by the time they arrive.

For Reed, success at Recycled Reads will be marked by having fewer and fewer titles come through the shelves. “That’s how we’ll know we’ve really thought through how we’re managing a collection through its whole life cycle,” she says.

Picture This

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Not sure where to start with upcycling your weeded titles? Austin Public Library, TX, holds monthly craft nights called Upcycle This. Below, we reproduce, with permission, one of its upcycling projects for weeded books, how to make a book cover picture frame.

Supplies

  • Book cover (preferably with illustrations on the inside)
  • Box cutter
  • Glass from a picture frame
  • Hammer and nail
  • 2 Screws (1”)
  • 2 Screws (2”)
  • Wingnuts
  • Cardboard
  • Book pages
  • Glue

Step 1

Decide how big you want the window to your frame to be, and whether you want to display an illustration from inside the back cover. Use a box cutter to cut out the window.

Step 2

On the back side of the front cover, construct a mat to hold the glass in place. Cut your cardboard to the size of the book cover, cutting out a space for the glass. Make sure the cardboard is about the same thickness as the glass. Cover the cardboard mat with pages from the book. Glue the mat to the inside of the front book cover.

Step 3

Measure where screw holes should be located to hold front and back covers together. Drill these holes or hammer a nail through the covers.

Step 4

Stack the front book cover, glass, artwork, and back book cover together and insert screws, tightening the wingnuts in the back.

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

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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Comments

  1. Becki Bishop says:

    Thank you for this article! When I first began at my library in 2002, there was so much to clean out. I had several teachers questioning my ability as a librarian because of it. They also wanted to take the weeded books to their classrooms which opened the door for explaining the weeding process. After the first few years, I am now able to weed much less volume each year, mostly those titles completely out of date or falling apart. My two favorite finds from those early years–a title about space travel in which it detailed how eventually we would be able to have spacecraft that could land like an airplane (forecasting the space shuttle) and a title called “Modern Egypt” which was copyrighted in the 1960’s or 70’s!

  2. Very interesting article. What has struck me at places like Palo Alto and Menlo Park, California, is watching 13 of the latest Janet Evanovitch titles appear while the Perry Mason titles by Erle Stanley Gardiner (PA) and the Bony novels by Arthur Upfield were disappearing and being discarded. Poor library management, in my opinion. In fact, in MP in that era, the Mystery Club had a display out front showing mysteries from around the world with Upfield titles on display! If you want the latest bestsellers, then go to a bookstore or wait in line. It is a shame to do it like what I’ve seen. Or maybe libraries, especially local public libraries, don’t want to be archival sources and would rather just have best sellers from the last 2 or 3 years. Then we need regional depositories of the Perry Mason titles and all of their companions. Janet Evanovitch doesn’t need much help from the library community. Or maybe in 25 years someone will be looking for One for the Money (1994) and won’t find it because all our libraries have weeded the “old stuff”.

    • anonymous coward says:

      THIS sentiment that is killing us.

      You think Perry Mason is worth keeping but Evanovich isn’t? Perry mason is every bit as trashy and pulp… it’s also OLD.

      Public libraries are not repositories and never-ending archives of popular materials. They just aren’t.

      NOT having enough copies of the latest bestsellers means you will be thought irrelevant by the public… you know… the people we work for and serve?

      Ugh. Not even someone wanting high literature… but just pulp from a different age.

    • MLibrarian says:

      Clearly spoken by someone who isn’t a librarian and hasn’t worked in a public library.

      People do not come to a public library to check out 30 year old mysteries. They come to the library to read the new Janet Evanovich. If all I had were old titles that people like you just like to see sitting on the shelf, no one would come to the library at all.

      Not to mention, if people are CHECKING OUT the Perry Mason then they won’t be weeded anyway as they wouldn’t fall within the weeding criteria of having not been checked out at least 1 time in the past 5 years.

      If you want to see old, nostalgic titles like this on a shelf available for people to read, go to a used book store..maybe goodwill…you’ll find plenty of them there.

    • Some members of the community don’t realize (like anonymous) that books that are old may be discarded because they are falling apart beyond repair from decades of use, have been damaged (mold is dangerous), or are too costly to replace. Yes, new material that comes out, like Janet Evanovich, will be more popular and that is why libraries purchase it–so the public doesn’t have to. Demand is as much a part of library collection development policies as is archiving, especially with popular fiction. Sometimes you can go to a nearby academic library to find older books like Perry Mason or Agatha Christie, etc.

    • Lindsay says:

      No matter which type of library you work in, I feel like the buck is always being passed to the other type for who’s responsible for having the ‘archival’ materials that you don’t have on hand. When I was in public libraries we referred them to academic, and now in academic I constantly here patrons being referred to their public library. The truth is, that even academic libraries have to weed pretty hard to stay relevant and to keep the most up to date info in their stacks. Unless you’re talking about a very large university, academic libraries aren’t all that archival these days either…basically, we aren’t interested in housing the complete Perry Mason collection here either :-/

    • Perhaps one solution would be for Stan to become the Perry Mason archive? If he’s willing, he can take all of the books the library weeds and leave his name, and if anyone ever searches for those books in the catalog or requests them, we will direct them to Stan’s archive. Just trying to think outside the box! :)

  3. I got some ideas about weeding of books from library . Thank you for all resource sharing persons.

  4. kyoshimura says:

    Our household is a big beneficiary of the weeding done by our public library. Our community includes a rotating contingent of Japanese ex-pats; when they go back home they donate their books to the library, and they are often duplicates. Perfectly good books – the library does periodic sales and we’ve picked up hundreds of these books for as little as $1 each. Japanese books sold in US bookstores are really expensive. Glad to help support the public library at the same time as expanding our home library!

  5. Weeding (de-selection) is an art. Just as selection (collection development) is an artful process. Know your audience and select resources that support that audience whether that is a public library, school library, academic library or special library. What drives de-section often is the lack of stack space. Overcrowded stack space tends to motivate library administrators to reduce collection size or (wait for it) to build larger libraries. Funds for a building project are often harder to find than reducing the size of the collection. Thus your library staff are trying to fit an ever growing collection into a finite space. Something has got to give. But if you are weeding a collection because of content, make sure you have adjusted your collection development policy accordingly.

  6. kamlesh vyas says:

    Sir Ian:

    I find really interesting about weeding policy. At the present our library going work for stock taking. But like in our institute it is not possible to apply this policy due to financial problem is one reason and some faculty are supporting and some are against due to subject collection. Therefore, it is difficult for the library what to do. I welcome any advice or criticism. My thanks for nice article.

  7. The How To Weed tips are okay, but the discussion of public reaction to weeding falls short of the mark. Because the article appears in Library Journal, it bends over backwards to praise the profession. Libraries that come under fire from the public are portrayed as “embattled,” their players having “taken one for the team.” This fosters an Us and Them mentality that shelters public librarians from legitimate criticism of those funding their collections: the patrons.

    As journalism, this piece sentimentalizes patrons and disempowers them with words like “well-intentioned.” On the other hand, it props up librarians and keeps them addicted to self-praise, sheltering them from a Public calling for restraint, accountability and the reciprocity of ideas (aka Democracy!)

    What is behind Over-weeding? While they are posting photos of “Awful Books” and posing for selfies by their empty shelves, these “renegade” librarians are allowing for-profit schemes (and their consultants) to stomp through the front doors of libraries and tell us what to do. Corporations want to dumb down and empty libraries so that more docile consumers will emerge. Docile consumers become doormat citizens, the kind who are too busy to protest or notice the disappearance of democratic principles. (Read Feed if you need a fictional analogy.) Americans love to find intellectual repression in other countries and condemn the use of Minders and Self-Censorship. We ignore our own willingness to be Led and Silenced. Perhaps the new Minders in our midst are the librarians mis-managing our collections.

  8. Your article about “weeding” downplays and even omits the direction that apparently the American Library Association condones which is a fast move toward digitizing the public library collections without the input of the public. The public in Alameda County was never consulted as to the direction our library was taken when they threw out almost 400,000 books over a two- year period. Records of the books thrown out were never kept, despite the fact that the library software is perfectly capable of keeping numbers, titles and dates of discards. When we requested this information we were stone -walled. Librarians should not operate the library as a fiefdom without responsiveness to the public. No organization, let alone a public institution that has guarded democracy for us by supplying us with all kinds of information, including that from the past, should be above accountability and transparency. The current library Administration of both Alameda County and Berkeley are turning our libraries over to corporations who decide what books they will make available to us based on what sells best. The library administrators are now donating our public property, the books, to Discover Book Corporation a for- profit company that will sell them for a profit on Amazon and EBay. Those of us who support the libraries with our tax dollars object to the further enrichment of for- profit corporations by our tax dollars. The “weeding” that has been done is not traditional, legitimate, weeding. We believe that libraries should be repositories for older books and places where the public can do research: spaces for storage should be created as they have done in Marin County, Ca. Public libraries are the university of the people. The current direction of the library administrators, to the horror of traditional librarians and many patrons, have become the hand maidens of corporate interests in violation of this principle that FDR clearly stated:

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned us of the dangers of limiting access to information in public libraries “by certain types of self-constituted leaders who decide what is best for them. (the public)” He writes that: “To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people … to learn from the past so that (they) can gain in judgment in creating their own future.”

    • Joneser says:

      It’s also a management issue. From 6/30/15 reader issue of Shelf Awareness about the new book on the NYPL you-know-what:

      In Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate and the Fight to Save a Public Library, Scott Sherman chronicles the twisted path of the New York Public Library’s proposed Central Library Plan, a “wide-ranging reconfiguration of services” that “had been born in June 2007 and was announced to the public nine months later at a little noticed press conference.” Some of the most critical decisions, which Sherman first exposed in a 2011 piece for the Nation magazine, were reached behind closed doors.

      Did CLP backers assume the deal could be railroaded through as long as the public–and NYPL’s staff–was kept in the dark? “Yes,” Sherman told me recently. “This is not in the book, but an NYPL staff member told me in 2012: ‘We were made to feel old and against change.’ A few trustees did call for open discussion at the start, but they were greatly outnumbered. The mission was to stifle discussion and get this thing done before anyone could stop them.”

    • Joneser says:

      And then there’s this, from a comment on an AL blog post:

      Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle people: If you’re one of those gurus that knows exactly where the library is headed, you probably have no clue what it’s doing right now.

  9. Stephanie Chavez says:

    I work in a prison library and although we face different issues, I have spent a lot of valuable time weeding our collection that had an average copyright of 1996. We receive many donations per week and have a almost decent budget, so we could do much better than that almost 20 year old average. Many of our donations were boxed up and forgotten about for years because there was no room made for them on the shelves. Sometimes book just have to be trashed. Many don’t want to admit it, most people don’t want them in THEIR space, they just want the library to be an archive or museum.

  10. Georgia Librarian says:

    There’s a new book out by Rebecca Vnuk of Booklist on weeding that I can’t recommend highly enough, The Weeding Handbook, A Shelf-by-Shelf Guide. It discusses collection development policy, criteria for deselection, and managing public perception. And surprisingly it is a very fun read!

  11. Having Centralized Selection staffed mostly with Librarians who may have never purchased for a particular subject area should not be weeding.