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The Horrors of Weeding in Buffalo

If in fact I don’t work for the Buffalo and Erie County Library System, I sure am glad about it. You may remember it from last fall, when the upper administration of the financially troubled library began their staff day by asking how people would like to be notified if they were fired. Inspirational management at its best!

The administration seems to be stirring up controversy among the staff again by an aggressive policy of…wait for it…weeding books, and in a public library no less! Shameful!

I’m going to let part of the news article speak for itself, because it’s a well balanced, informative article.

Librarians say the Central Library is moving away from its commitment as a research library, hastily discarding thousands of books and degrading their professional roles within an increasingly demoralized workplace.

This would be tragic news if the Central Library was actually committed to being a research library. Is it? Not according to the mission statement. None of those principles require a research library. Though considering one of the principles of the mission statement is to“Create and maintain an environment that attracts, develops and encourages a diverse and skilled staff,” the mission statement might not be a cherished document (as a kind reader noted when sending it to me after the last time I wrote about this library). Still, point.

However, administrators say they are weeding large numbers of books to largely make way for a new tagging system while undertaking prudent changes in collections and needed staff restructuring during a period of great change.

Counterpoint. Hmm. Is this new tagging system so large that it will displace the stacks? No, it turns out they don’t want to pay extra to RFID tag so many books, so the answer is weed the books. On this logic, if they weeded everything, they wouldn’t need a new tagging system at all. On the other hand, how many old John Grisham novels do we need to tag?

“We’re looking at changing the Central Library from a combination research collection and popular materials collection to more of the popular, at the expense of a more complex and diverse collection,” said Tim Galvin, president of the Buffalo and Erie County Librarians Association.

Are they getting rid of their rare books collections? Other than that, is there much that couldn’t be gotten elsewhere?

“The policy seems to be diminishing the role of the Central Library as we know it.”

Oh, it’s diminishing the role of the Central Library. Is that good or bad? Good for administrators, bad for librarians, but what about the public? We don’t hear much about the public.

Galvin said the discarding of “thousands and thousands” of books from the library’s collection since October has borne that out. “They are greatly diminishing the size of the reference collection,” he said.

My goodness, we wouldn’t want to diminish the size of the print reference collection. This would go against the best practices of all, no, wait, that’s pretty much what every library is doing these days. Not much of a comeback there, but it might play well with the masses.

But the Central Library has been steadily moving away from being a research library for the past dozen years because academic libraries are fulfilling that role, said Bridget Quinn-Carey, director of the library system.

Oh, sure, she would say that. On the other hand, it might be true. I checked, and the University at Buffalo library allows anyone willing to pony up $50 to be a “friend of the library” and get a borrower’s card, and some libraries in western New York can get special borrowing passes for their patrons (though not the Buffalo & Erie County Library patrons).

She said she was not aware whether a disproportionate number of books removed in the ongoing weeding process were from the research collection. But she said the print reference collection is shrinking as more content becomes available online.

Ouch, she’s got the librarians there. Focusing on keeping the print reference collection isn’t good library policy.

Both librarians and administrators say libraries must weed their collections for books that are in bad shape, contain outdated material or are rarely checked out. The library maintains a “dusty book list” for books that have not circulated in five years.

If this is true, that is, if both agree on weeding and the 5-year “dusty books” list, it looks like another point scored for the administrators. Many public libraries weed books that haven’t circulated for five years; most research libraries don’t. Research libraries ship those books offsite so they can sit untouched for another century, at which point they’re not weeded because everyone has forgotten about them.

But what has happened since October goes far beyond that, with thousands of books winding up in bins marked Metro Waste Paper Recovery (now owned by recycler Cascades Recovery), said a librarian who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

Far beyond that? I wish there were details. Thousands of books are being weeded, but are the books being weeded worth keeping? Being in fear of reprisal, if true, implies that there’s something worse going on than book-weeding. It’s depressing.

“One of the things we’re concerned about as a union,” Galvin said, “is that if you dumb down the collection, and dumb down the position of librarians, then you push us toward irrelevance.”

And here’s where we get to the crux of the argument, because he has a good point. Research libraries need higher level experienced librarians in ways that contemporary infotainment centers do not. If your library just provides the most popular books and magazines and DVDs until they don’t circulate, then you don’t need curators, preservationists, bibliographers, original catalogers, or much else besides. You just need Baker & Taylor and someone to run circulation stats. But is the public concerned with the librarians, or with the public?

Quinn-Carey said the entire library profession is struggling with redefining the role of libraries and librarians as public libraries continue to change in the 21st century.

Cliched, but true.

So, where do we stand? With the administrators who want to reduce research collections and the librarians who staff them significantly? Or with librarians who want to preserve print reference collections and their own jobs regardless of need? There doesn’t seem to be a good side, and maybe there isn’t. Given the shenanigans there for the past few months, I’d probably side with the librarians, but right now everyone seems to be talking past one another.



  1. AL…kudos on giving a balanced analysis on an issue that has always been dicey and one that is getting even dicier. The easy answer to this one is that an on-going weeding program based on some sort of defined criteria is the best way to go. When you weed, say, 5 to 10 percent of your collection every year, the disappearance of dusty books is not noticed so much. But when you neglect the ongoing approach and have a great big cleanout every ten or fifteen years (for whatever reason), folks get upset. Best to do that one in the middle of the night. Generally, librarians don’t weed enough for a variety of reasons (books are sacred, books go out of print quickly, and library staffs are being cut back), but when weeding is neglected, the results are sometimes disasterous. Probably the worst result is that the local pols will say “Why should we support your library when you are throwing good books away?” Good luck Buffalo. So glad I’m retired. Wait, does that mean I’ve been weeded?

  2. I think one point you’re missing is that books are being weeded and thrown away instead of re-distributed to branch libraries that have had their collection development budgets cut.

    Also, when management is so obtuse that they send a survey asking how employees would like to be laid off, is it any wonder changes that indicate how little value management places on librarian have demoralized the people who work there? They know they’ll be “weeded” soon enough and replaced with machines.

  3. snigglefritz says:

    AL, will you marry me? muah.

  4. Froggies Froggies Everywhere! says:

    These people are ridiculous. An administrator does not value their staff based on the scope and size of their reference collection. They value their staff on their ability to question the patrons, review the resources and the guide the patrons to find the information they are looking for. Whether that information lies in a reference book on the shelf or in an online library database, it makes no difference to the patron or the administrators. Being a librarian is not about saving books, it is about connecting people with information from the resources that are available. If I get rid of the print version of a resource because we already pay for the digital version, then it is not because want to devalue my librarians, but because I expect them to be able to do their job regardless of what format the information is in. I expect them to adapt to the needs of their community and the capabilities of the library, and I try my hardest to make sure that we make those changes at the right times with as little friction as possible. Whether or not the Buffalo administration is just foolish or entirely incompetent is another matter, but for people to equate their sense of professional pride with the size of their out-dated and dusty book collections is a testament to the fact that this profession is full of people who prefer to go through their life with their heads in the sand, butts in the air, praying that no one will come along to make them slightest bit uncomfortable. If librarians choose to go to work with that attitude, then it is little wonder why they assume every time a change is made, it is to replace them with convenience store clerks.

  5. Hmmmm, that does not sound like a very robust collection development policy. Institutions that make broad changes with little context, planning, and preparation usually are the stinkers out there. Everyone has to weed, they have that on their side. I sense they will be e-reader cannon fodder. Maybe I’m wrong though. Hopefully they have a strong local history project, or something else unique to offer the community.

  6. Redistributing old reference books to branch libraries? Seems like a bad idea. Even our Friends groups doesn’t want old reference or gov docs for their book sale–it’s because they aren’t wanted or needed.
    I’m finding more and more that reference librarians aren’t grabbing reference books, but manuals and online help to assist people in navigating their way to electronic resources. It’s definitely time to focus on the teaching role of librarians–for this we need access to training, as well as a variety of gadgets and mobile devices–tools libraries and municipalities are even more reluctant to pay for.

  7. Randal Powell says:

    I hope they are not tossing out “good” old books to make way for “bad” new ones. A book’s publication date is certainly no measure of quality.

  8. @5: “Hopefully they have a strong local history project, or something else unique to offer the community.”

    Archivists may have a future. Libraries, not so much. How many more years before e-readers are as cheap as pocket calculators? Before they are issued to school kids instead of textbooks?

    Librarians are living on borrowed time.

  9. @Karen – There is a very strong market for federal documents (mainly the departments of interior and agriculture). Hopefully they are selling those online.

  10. A School Librarian says:

    Great to see Will Manley comments.
    I use your quote from Booklist, March 1, 1996 when I do weeding workshops – “Next to emptying the outdoor bookdrop on cold and snowy days, weeding is the most undesirable job in the library. It is also one of the most important. Collections that go unweeded tend to be cluttered, unattractive, and unreliable informational resources.” Oh SO true!

    I am in Western New York and I know that they have not been doing a regular program of weeding and here we are with this discussion – if they maintained a continous weeding program – we would not be here.

    As far as sending the books to branches or town libraries – I can tell you that the town that I am in needs a huge weed!! – One time I went into the library and took out some of the worst books to show at a meeting of other libraries (I did not tell them what I was doing – not to offend anyone) BUT – the clerk at the desk thought I had brought up books from their ongoing book sale to buy. I said no I am taking these out – so if you think the books being checked out of your library belong in a book sale – then please, please weed them.

    Thanks for the good luck comment – Will –
    We really need it!!! Enjoy your retirement adventures.

  11. Guybrarian says:

    Certainly, there are some classics that should be kept, but the assumption that a book is good because it is old and a book is bad because it is new shows faulty logic.

    Reference materials must be authoritative, but they must also be up-to-date.

    Fiction more than 5-10 years old or so will not circulate until the author dies, unless it is one of the aforementioned classics.

    While a book’s pub date is indeed not an indicator of quality, it IS an indicator of relevance.

  12. Randal Powell says:


    I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that a book is good just because it is old. My comment was directed at faulty logic in the reverse case (which I think is more common) – people who think that a book is good (or better) because it is new. Certainly, all reasonable library workers and users can agree that reference and science books have some kind of a shelf-life, but I do not agree with you that fiction (or non-science nonfiction for that matter) should be tossed after 5-10 years.

    I suspect that in some libraries you are correct that older material will not circulate, regardless of how good it is. However, I would err on the side of caution when tossing older material outside of the science and reference sections, especially if there is plenty of shelf space available.

    Weeding should not be mechanical. I think that libraries have a responsibility greater than to provide popular fodder for the masses. Should formative, intellectually stimulating books from the 60s, 70s, 80s, ect., that are not classics be tossed? I don’t think so.

  13. Randal, I totally agree with you. Weeding should not be based strictly on a computer print out of check-outs per book in a defined period of time. If we do that then we are just abandoning traditional librarianship and letting machines do all our thinking. I’m impressed with the Shelfrenewal blog here on LJ. The two librarians who write that blog seem to understand that older books have value beyond mere popularity. They recognize lasting quality. Trained librarians should do weeding, not machines.

  14. Elena1980 says:

    I am in the midst of weeding my science section, which has not been weeded in….oh a few decades. And yes it’s bad, and yes it should have been done ages ago. And yup it is the worst job. When I went to library school I never thought I would be fighting myself deciding if I should/shouldn’t keep a decades old computer programming book,the only copy left in the whole state!!

    And anyone in need of a series of Mathematical texts,auf Deutsch,from 1955? This 2.5 shelvings-worth of books will be sent off maybe to Better World Books, if they are lucky, or to the Recycling center down the street.

  15. I used to work for the BECPL, and I used it a lot. I’d have to know more about the issue. The library *is* a research facility–whatever its current mission statement says; if it’s moving away, that’s a bad thing in an economically strapped area like that–and it has a lot of very valuable materials. I’m quite certain that no one has checked out Mark Twain’s handwritten manuscript of Huck Finn ever, let alone in five years, so I’m presuming that they don’t mean that in terms of their rare book collection. Buffalo has a reputation as an unlettered blue collar town, but it actually has a strong cultural presence, in both the libraries and the art galleries, and I’d hate to see them move toward the stereotype of know-nothings and away from the reality of the city and the region. Research should never be limited to people who can afford to pony up $50. Libraries should be stressing the research function, not saying, “Pish-posh, let them read Grisham.”

    They also have an extensive local history collection, and local genealogy. I certainly hope that hasn’t been on the chopping block; it’s a brilliant resource, and I haven’t had a chance to go back and finish my research. Unless they can get it all available online (and I’d totally be willing to pay for access to it online!), then they have no right to remove these publicly owned treasures.

    If, on the other hand, they’re just talking about getting rid of the Reader’s Guide, maybe ditching a few print encyclopedias and atlases to be replaced with databases, and so on, then that’s another story.

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