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Why People Hate Weeding Books

What is it about book weeding that gets library patrons so panicked? I can sort of understand the furor over that weeding project gone awry in Illinois last year, but it seems to happen all the time.

A late example is the library at Emporia State University in Kansas, which has had its weeding project halted until an internal auditor can examine the situation. Some people were complaining, and it must have been bad considering this sentence: “the library has slated a good amount of books to take out of the library, but not in the book burning style that many have imagined.”

Were people really imagining book burning?

I know it’s Kansas and all, where just like Arizona conservatives proposed anti-gay legislation and then voted it down when they realized how much like pre-Civil Rights Era southerners it made them seem, but hating gays so much you want to deprive them of civil rights isn’t necessarily the same thing as burning books.

Well, maybe. Anyway, this isn’t the Kansas legislature, but a bunch of librarians doing the weeding, and librarians are about as fond of burning books as they are of wearing uncomfortable shoes.

The librarians even provide all the standard and irrefutable reasons why a place like Emporia State should weed books: it’s not a research library, space is finite, etc. This isn’t weeding gone awry. It’s just weeding that people notice.

I would think the faculty could figure out that if the library keeps buying physical books and doesn’t have more physical space, something has to go. University libraries aren’t like faculty offices. You can’t just start piling books in random places and hope for the best when finding them.

And although it’s called a university, and even has the prestigious honor of having an ALA-accredited MLS program, it’s not a research library. The only ARL library in Kansas is the University of Kansas.

Therefore, it has no special obligation to keep materials indefinitely, or to build the offsite storage that makes this possible. Heck, maybe even the U. of Kansas doesn’t do that, but it’s still the sort of thing big research libraries do.

Now it could be that people fear they won’t get the material they need for research. That’s a possibility, although since it’s not a research university, they likely don’t have the funding to support everyone’s research.

Instead I suspect the panic is driven by one thing, bibliofetishization. I thought I’d coined that term, by the way, but it got 13 hits on Google, so I guess I didn’t.

Anyway, bibliofetishization, or having a fetish about books if we want to sound less pretentious, seems to be a universal phenomenon, at least among people who read books at all.

How many libraries have had to deal with people offering to donate hundreds of worthless books they found in their granny’s attic because the potential donor couldn’t just throw them out?

“I just want the books to have a good home,” they’ll say. The librarians are thinking that a dumpster is a good home for garbage. Leave them in the dumpster on the way out. “Impossible!”

People who don’t work with books professionally don’t think of them as commodities. Every book is sacred, and every magazine, too, judging by the old sets of National Geographic people are always trying to donate to libraries.

Thus, while it could be that there’s something alarming at Emporia State, I somehow doubt it. Rational explanations about space and such aren’t working well, either.

It might be time to sit down individually with everyone who hates weeding in the library, offer them a cup of tea and a biscuit, and tell them in a sorrowful voice that the librarians are terribly sorry for making any changes at all, but sometimes, every once in a very long while, we have to make a few changes or else things get chaotic, and nobody wants that.

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Comments

  1. feldspar says:

    A little chat over tea and cookies is an eminently sensible suggestion.

  2. Z39.50 says:

    “And although it’s called a university, and even has the prestigious honor of having an ALA-accredited MLS program, it’s not a research library. The only ARL library in Kansas is the University of Kansas.”

    Hold on AL. Emporia KS was a small city with a very large impact in the muckracker era. William Allen White operated from Kansas, bringing the populist agrarian angle to McClure’s. Traveling frequently between NYC and Emporia this little town became one of the most important small cities of its era. So yes, not an ARL library, but they could have some real treasures to take care of, perhaps more important to american history than what the ARL institution may have. I’ve never been to Kansas and know this.

    • Annoyed Librarian says:

      I would think they won’t be weeding their treasures, only older books that haven’t been used in a while..

  3. Back story:
    http://esubulletin.com/16597/opinion-columns/guest-columns/looking-for-answers-among-tens-of-thousands-of-lost-books/
    We failed to be surreptitious and the column above ran with the comparison to cruelty to animals. The next week a letter to the editor ( http://esubulletin.com/16704/opinion-columns/letters-to-the-editor/letter-to-the-editor-10/ 0 moved the discourse to Hiltler and Orwell. A local bookstore’s Facebook comments joined in. I decided to ask the Internal Auditor to give our process the once-over.
    An irony is that student government presented a formal resolution to the library this week that included that it “additions the new additions and development of a 24/7 library to accommodate students with a better learning environment.”"
    We are planning a panel or two during National Library Week to air interests and concerns about the direction of academic libraries, including ours.

    John Sheridan, Dean of Libraries, William Allen White Library, Emporia State University
    C.B.L. – Certified Book Lover

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      So what I’m getting from your comment here is “I’m an Orwellian fascist who hates books, students, teachers, and learning, and I probably spend my weekends choking puppies with shredded Shakespeare folios.” Got it.

      I think you really hit the nail on the head with the “failed to be surreptitious” bit. People don’t notice weeding for years at a time, but all it takes is one bad optic for an extremely weird firestorm to erupt.

      I also don’t think most people realize how expensive and time-consuming it is to process a large number of library books for resale. If you don’t remove or deface almost every identifying mark linking a book to your library, helpful folks will find it and return it to you. My boss has a book in her office that was weeded, sold at the booksale, and then found in Hawaii eight years later. It ended up in our ILL office with a concerned note and moderate water damage from its slow-freight return trip. A good box cutter would have saved everyone no end of trouble and postage.

      Also, after reading that student’s letter, I’d get that snake tongue problem looked at by a medical professional. Sounds troubling.

    • Andrew says:

      Cruelty to animals and Hitler, eh? That’s pretty good for a weeding controversy. All I ever managed to get was a few “You’re destroying my childhood!” speeches while weeding some children’s “classics.”

    • me says:

      It’s not a real controversy until someone makes a Hitler comparison.

  4. Carla Tracy says:

    Having recently managed a controversial weeding, I have so many reactions that I barely know where to start. I think you have identified one of the key issues when you say, “People who don’t work with books professionally don’t think of them as commodities. Every book is sacred, and every magazine, too….” And the student reporter at Emporia State illustrates a related issues when she writes, “However, when I think of a library, I don’t think of the internet, I think of books. There is nothing that compares to the musky scent of a decades-old book as you flip through the rough pages, looking for that one specific page or chapter you referenced in the index.” Many horrified reactions to book weeding arise from a view of libraries that is entirely different from that held by librarians. This view is based on the individual’s personal book collection, their past experiences with libraries, and extremely powerful emotions. All of these are fairly immune to arguments based on facts. Yet we must try to point out those facts and move forward, anticipating these reactions. Of course, prior support from higher administration is essential.

    For a short version of our story and a longer version of my thoughts, see https://chronicle.com/article/On-Mistakenly-Shredding-a/128366/#disqus_thread. And whether or not you look at the story, please note that the final comment was posted a year after the it appeared–and finally brings up the obligatory comparison to Hitler and Mao. Who knew that being librarians would obligate us to fight both this league and the censors?! ;-)

  5. Strider63 says:

    Having gone through this process a time or two, I can relate to those who are the ones weeding. I was replacing a set of encyclopedia’s with a new set (previous set was 10 years old) and about to throw them out the back door when one of our Board of Trustee members came looking for me. She saw the books in my box about to go into the trash and began to berate me for throwing away perfectly good encyclopedia’s. When I explained to her they were 10 years old and no longer contained relevant information, she still insisted there was nothing wrong with them and I was being wasteful of county money. I tried to further explain to her that it would be more damaging to keep out of date information on our shelves than to throw the books away and she still insisted that I put them back on the shelf and before I weeded any more books the Board was going to have a meeting about me. In the end, I had to keep the books on the shelf and if I wanted to throw anything away I had to do it after hours in another dumpster across town. You just cannot explain the need to weed a collection to those who think that every book is sacred. To this day, that library has one of the worst collections I’ve ever encountered and the saddest looking books on the selves you have ever seen. Thankfully, I don’t work there anymore.

    • Haley says:

      Strider63,

      You have my deepest sympathies. It saddens me whenever I hear of ‘powerful’ people being so irrational and unreasonable; threatening to use their power to make people do as they say; not wanting to hear any reason at all.

      I fully agree that it would be more damaging to keep out of date information on our shelves than to throw the books away. Users should have access to current, accurate information. Ten years is a long time. On one hand, we are told to weed the collections because space is running out. On the other, every throw-out seems to be an unforgivable crime. How do they expect us to do our jobs this way? Geez.

      You made the right decision to leave.

      Best wishes,
      Haley

  6. Jim C. says:

    Most of the time weeding involves throwing out many things that should not be thrown out. That’s why we patrons don’t like it. Anything old or less popular is gone.

    Why?

    This new philosophy too that shelves should only be half full is pretty nutty. It used to be that you guys would weed for space. Now you weed for an ideology of sorts: less is more. And it’s crazy, too, because with fewer books libraries become less interesting places to visit.

  7. Jim C. says:

    “Many horrified reactions to book weeding arise from a view of libraries that is entirely different from that held by librarians. This view is based on the individual’s personal book collection, their past experiences with libraries, and extremely powerful emotions. All of these are fairly immune to arguments based on facts.”

    How about the fact too that it’s a good thing to have a rich collection of books? You know, so that people might find things?

    I really detest the kind of condescending attitude seen above, in that librarian’s comment. It has nothing to do with emotion, except maybe the disgust of seeing a good collection get tossed out the window. When libraries insist on having a weak and mediocre collection of materials they become a useless resource, little better than an newsstand, except maybe as a place where you can plug in your cellphone.

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