March 17, 2018

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Dust | Editorial

Outside my office is a dark corridor lined with a bookcase that contains 127 bound volumes of Library Journal, from 1876 to 2002.

No one uses them much. I’ve had Volume 30 (1905) open on my desk for a while, and its thick binding and yellowing pages with Gothic subheads have led any number of people sitting opposite me to raise their eyebrows and curiously crane their necks.

I don’t know the ultimate fate of this particular collection. I know it’s been digitized. But I do now feel responsible for the actual books, to a degree. I like the smell. I like the dust.

When it comes to weeding decisions, how do libraries account for such odd sensations? Such an accounting may be an impossibility, an overly sentimental task, a romantic fetish for the codex, and yet old, physical volumes can become imbued with a moral, if not practical, quality that explains in part the deep allegiance that many private individuals feel for their local library.

For example, in a recent visit to my hometown library in Meriden, CT, I went in search of a mathematics book called Calculators Cunning: The Art of Quick Reckoning by Karl Menninger (a 1964 translation of Rechenkniffe: lustiges und vorteilhaftes Rechnen) that I had first read about 45 years ago. I didn’t use the catalog to find the book, because I remembered its approximate position on the shelves and wanted to see, in my ridiculously Quixotic way, if it was still there: not only in the collection but in the same spot.

It wasn’t.

However, the book, with all its clever Teutonic number manipulations, had only shifted slightly over to the next aisle. I was very thankful that the library had preserved this intriguing volume, because, for me, it was not only about numbers but also memories.

Weeding is often ruthless, driven by space constraints and the ubiquitous pressure to stay current. Yet currency can be a narrow view. To a surprising degree, a patron may value the library today just as much for its willingness to stand athwart the convenient present and harbor the awkward past. Many patrons will stir when the local library is threatened because the library has entwined itself with intimate intellectual experiences in a way that matures and clasps the physical. A cavalier weeding, then, can seem like a ripping away of sensations that animate their love of the library.

Weeding is imperative. I know. And different kinds of libraries face different demands. Still, weeding of any sort is a large responsibility because you can never know exactly the complete freight of a particular book.

Which brings me back, as an example, to LJ, Vol. 30, 1905, and its coverage of the “Dewey incident.”

Melvil Dewey, the founder of this magazine, was the subject of a petition brought by 11 “prominent Hebrews” dated December 20, 1904, that sought his removal as the New York state librarian because he was the leading spirit of Lake Placid Club and in such capacity had “participated in an unjust discrimination against Jews….”

I was curious how LJ had covered this event, which ultimately led to a reprimand for Dewey and his resignation. LJ, disappointingly, defended Dewey for the most part, extolling his “exceptional powers and dynamic energy” and opining about “the rather surprising course of reprimanding the state librarian officially for the exclusion of Jewish citizens from his private enterprise.”

Often the most interesting history is found in shadows like this. In addition, reading about it in pages that I turned, rather than scrolled, pages that past editors of this magazine had worked on and consulted (perhaps even Dewey himself), pages that had coexisted with the events they describe, and pages that persisted through all this publication’s subsequent peregrinations and ended in my hands, gave the reading an ineffable atmosphere that I savor.

So, please, weed carefully.

Michael Kelley, Editor-in-Chief

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

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley ( is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.



  1. carolyn manning says:

    Thank you for writing about an issue dealing with librarianship and not about your political or social views.

    • Yeah, because our politics and social views stop at the door when we walk into the library.


    • carolyn manning says:

      Andy Eye Roll- I have my opinions and you have yours! When I open my Library Journal, I want to read timely and authoritative issues pertaining to librarianship, not political and social views such as gun control. You can blog all you want to on whatever social issues you care about. Feel free to do as many eye rolls as you please!

  2. Melinda Belles says:

    Thank you Michael Kelley for your witty and keen perception of current ‘professional library’ thinking regarding weeding. Librarians seem determine to destroy the past and focus only on high circulating best sellers. I wonder what future librarians (50 years from now) will think about the current library mindset. Your editorial gives me Hope!