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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Weeding Woes in the Prairie State

I guess it’s the week for small town library drama, although I’m not sure this one would make a good movie of the week. Maybe a brief spot on 60 Minutes.

A kind reader sent this article criticizing a weeding project at a public library in Urbana, IL. The title gives a good indication of the tone: “Do you ever read any of the books you [weed]?”

Apparently, that would be a “no.” The money quote from the library director:  “I probably haven’t looked at the collection for thirty years because that’s not my job; somebody else beneath me does that.”

You can read the article, but here’s the gist. The library director wanted to weed as many books as possible to prepare for a project to insert RFID tags in library books. After all, you don’t want to tag books and then have to weed them later just because they might be popular at the moment.

So she created a spreadsheet of every non-fiction book in the library that hadn’t circulated for ten years or more.

No, wait, that might have been the sensible move. Public libraries often weed based on circulation data. If it’s not popular, it’s out of there!

Instead, the spreadsheet was of every book published before 2003, regardless of circulation.

Then while the Head of Adult Services was gone, the director had twelve part-timers hired to do the RFID tagging start early and pull the books from the shelves, where they were then boxed up and sent off to Better World Books.

According to the article, “more than half the collection was weeded in one day.”

Well, that’s efficient. It seems that thousands of books were shipped off before anyone official could or would do anything about it.

According to one letter,

Shelvers today are weeding the 700s — the art collection. About 70% of art books from 700–740 are gone. The $300 two-volume Art of Florence is gone; the Pritzker prize winners in architecture are gone; the History of Art by Janson is gone. Deb does not care if they circulate or not. She decided without staff input or support to do this.

On Monday (June 10), the gardening, home repair and remodeling, and foreign language areas went. So we lost lots of international language-English dictionaries as well. The gardening collection was one of the strongest in the state.

That’s a well chosen list. It’s not like language dictionaries are out of date in ten years. And unless you’re living in a space pod, those gardening and home repair books are probably still pretty useful, and might even circulate. And Janson’s History of Art? Blasphemy!

Apparently, the date of publication of the book was but one of seven “criteria for weeding” that are the official criteria for the library:

  • Physical condition
  • Frequency of use
  • Date of publication
  • Duplication within existing collection
  • Availability through interlibrary loan
  • Long-term, historical significance or interest
  • Cooperative collection agreements or collection strengths

That seems like a sensible weeding policy. Pity it wasn’t followed.

Or was it? There’s a follow up article as well in which we find the director bravely accepting responsibility for the problem and promising to correct it blaming everyone else in sight.

She’s the Captain and  everyone else in the library is Cool Hand Luke. The message: what we have here is a failure to communicate!

Despite a dozen workers she hired removing books from the shelves willy nilly, apparently she “didn’t know that was happening.”

The proper political response, of course, is to answer every question with, “I have no recollection of those events,” and then you don’t get caught when your statements contradict themselves.

She probably won’t be fired, since unlike the director in Round Lake she didn’t fire anyone, and since according to the follow up article the books are being shipped back to the library for a proper review.

But based on that performance, I’d say that if there weren’t ill feelings in that library between the administration and the librarians before, there probably are now. What a mess.

The good news is that’s where the University of Illinois library school is, so the MLS students there can have fun examining this controversy and its aftermath for years.



  1. Kathryn La Barre says:

    A _small_ percentage of the books are being shipped back for review – 120 cartons to be exact – the cartons that Better World books had not yet opened when the furor broke. These represent culled books from a small range of call numbers from (approximately 640 to 730). Books from the 100s-500s are gone forever. It isn’t clear if any other cartons will be returned. We are promised that the books in the returned cartons will be subject to the full weeding criteria and properly assessed. Those that fail to make the retention criteria will be sold at the Friends of the Library book sale. Note – not all weeded materials went into the cartons – some were given away to the public or sold to staff for $1 a volume (though the director has asked these to be returned for assessment as well).

  2. Guybrarian says:

    How does one become (and remain) a director by flubbing up something this simple? I am currently being roundly rejected from open positions for not having a J.D. to decipher copyright issues or knowing every metadata standard under the sun, yet this high ranking (and most likely, highly compensated) person can’t execute a job that any first year MLS student could do. Makes sense to me.

    • rodrigo says:

      Perhaps burnout and general complacency leading to rash decisions made on the spot without planning? Maybe the director forgot the schedule of the big purge and ended up in charge, and since only people beneath her oversee library minions, refused to manage the project in a reasonable way. Either way the director should be demoted or fired, there are too many good people willing to pay attention and do good work. I say the humane thing is to have the director demoted to a public services position. Sink or swim, re-discover your love of the profession, or find a new job or career. However I have seen disorganized, hapless public library directors before. One in particular could not figure out how to use an ATM machine. That is my wild conjecture.

    • Joneser says:

      The Peter Principle has WAAAAYYY too much to do with it.

      But the current 5-year meme in libraryland is “Everyone’s a Leader!!” Yeah, right – just try it.

    • Shameful! says:

      After becoming convinced that Libraries aren’t just about books anymore and reading the recent polls showing how much people want to have libraries be their third space/community living room – I making room for that comfy seating probably seemed to require drastic action.

  3. Despite a dozen workers she hired removing books from the shelves willy nilly, apparently she “didn’t know that was happening.” The proper political response, of course, is to answer every question with, “I have no recollection of those events,” and then you don’t get caught when your statements contradict themselves.

    Now just who does that remind us of, hmmmm? Any recent news events come to mind?

  4. Now this is just appalling. Age-based genocide against books! It’s ironic that the situation is taking place in Urbana, since the town houses supposedly the nation’s best library school. Guess the intellectual trickle-down effect is as ficitious as the economic one is.

    • “Age-based genocide against books!”

      Please tell me you are being facetious or I will lose all faith in humanity.

  5. free2read says:

    Half the collection?! Art books, poetry, history? So many of these books are long out of print and irreplaceable, to say nothing of potentially very valuable (the plates in those oversize art books are often worth a fortune to resellers and collectors!) She hired a “bunch of workers” (i.e., not librarians) who had no experience evaluating the true worth of a book to a library’s overall collection. This woman has no right to call herself a librarian, let alone manage a library. Shameful and very sad.

  6. Free2read, I completely agree with you… talk about extreme incompetence!

  7. Sarah Last says:

    Anyone who cares that little about books, should not be working in a library in the first place.

  8. Ninja Librarian says:

    Hey! Multiple copies of books that are always checked out are GOOD! I am tired of getting flack for the multiple copies I buy. It’s called giving the kids what they want and is an effective use of library funds. Jeez! Our children’s department circulates more books than adult’s every single month, yet I still get lots of static. Give me 3 copies of a great book that are always checked out vs 3 just OK books that are sometimes checked out any day! Where are the Children’s Collection management experts when you need them?! (Since what I know to be true and what the statistics say are evidently meaningless.)

  9. Sean Taylor says:

    So, I see that true to any other organization incompetence is no longer grounds for termination. It’s a pity that a director who hasn’t “looked at the collection” in the library she’s directly responsible for “in more than 30 years.” is still allowed to remain on the job after such demonstrated ineptitude.

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