Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Books in the Stacks

‘Tis the season for weeding woes, it seems.

A Kind Reader sent in this article from Slate about moving books out of college libraries that makes some good points and at least one weird one.

Part of it is about a brouhaha at Colby College, where the librarians moved 170,000 books out of the library and into offsite storage, leaving about 165,000 books. In the planning process, “no faculty input was sought or welcomed.”

Understandably, people are upset, and if you follow the links in the article to the Colby College newspaper you can see the only person defending this is the library director. The faculty and students are all protesting.

Part of the protest should definitely be about the process. If you’re going to do something that has a major impact on the faculty and students, talking with them about it is probably a good idea.

A couple of months ago, a branch library at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to move its book collections offsite. After protests from the faculty and students, most of the collection was kept, and they decided to build a smaller classroom than planned to accommodate the change.

It doesn’t seem like that’s a possibility at Colby, because part of the lost space is already taken up by administrative offices, including the Center for the Arts and Humanities, which isn’t a library department, but which is taking up library space that used to belong to books.

Besides the process, the mere fact of removing half the collection raised protest. One student complained that if the books were outdated, then why not move them out and replace them with newer books.

People like books, people like to browse, etc.

But Colby might be an exception, since most library renovations aren’t driving out more than half of their libraries’ print collections.

The Slate article goes further than reasonable objections, though. Why must books be saved, even old or useless ones?

“We must also save the stacks for another, more urgent reason altogether: Books, simply as props that happen also to be quite useful if you open them up, are the best—perhaps the only—bastions of contemplative intellectual space in the world.”

This one probably resonates with a lot of academics and book lovers. Books do furnish a room, after all. But it’s the kind of sentiment impossible for anyone who actually runs a library. Who can say if the books as props happen to be quite useful? Books always have to go, and someone has to make tough decisions.

It’s one thing to protest moving out half the collection partly to house non-library administrative units, but the “books as props” argument seems to imply that books as physical objects in themselves have some academic value, to create a “bastion of contemplative intellectual space,” because nobody can contemplate intellectually while sitting in a cafe or on a college green.

Even the student at Colby argues that libraries are for books, and if more study space is necessary, people can study in other buildings.

One doesn’t have to be a cold, heartless administrative bean counter to reply that library space also has value, particularly new library space. For every book as prop in the library, something actually useful has to go.

That something might be non-library units. It might also be study space, classrooms, anything that isn’t books, but something has to give. Just because Colby seems to have made a mess of things doesn’t mean the books as props argument goes very far.

Let’s pretend the option was to build more accessible book space. How effective would it be to lobby for more book space? To really keep most of their books handy, libraries need to expand over time, but nobody wants to pay for it. Are they just being cheap?

Here’s an estimate for the cost per square foot of building a library in the U.S. in 2013. The minimum cost was $145.71.

At Demco, I priced a 78” high, 6 shelf unit of single-faced steel cantilever library shelving at $399.99. That’s a popular kind of shelving. That was 3’ wide, so a square foot of it would be about $133.33.

Based on those two estimates, it would cost $279.04 to build a square foot of a library covered in shelves. At roughly 10 books per shelf foot, that would let us put 60 books per square foot.

Except that bookshelves need about three feet in front of them to be truly accessible. So that’s 279.04 plus three more square feet of just space in front of the books. That brings us to $716.17.

If my math is holding out, and I’m not sure it is, that would mean that to build new accessible space for books would average about $11.93 per book.

Let’s say that instead of shipping out books to make room for lesser things, a college wanted to make space for 170,000 books as props. That cost would be about $2,029,148.

If there’s a college anywhere in the country that would be willing to spend that kind of money just to keep books around regardless of their usefulness, you should apply to work at that library immediately. They’ve got money to burn, so they might even burn some on you.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. When are we going to stop giving attention and page views to “weeding outrage” articles written by people who have no knowledge of how libraries operate and thus should go right about something they actually DO know about?

  2. Oh dear, I meant “write”. After the grammar conversation earlier this week, can’t let that typo go unfixed!

  3. The Librarian With No Name says:

    Just as soon as those articles stop providing us, the library insiders, with that heady mix of contemptuous amusement and self congratulation. And I don’t know about you, but I’m nowhere near mature enough to give up that particular endorphin jolt yet.

  4. Regardless of whether or not these protesters and writers are knowledgeable about how to run a library is irrelevant. Faculty & students are stake holders. Their protests will be heard by administration more so than just the library director.

    Same thing goes for public libraries. Local government officials are much more concerned with what their voters think than what library staff thinks. It’s a sad and inescapable truth.

  5. Bonegirl06 says:

    Never, because they are usually amusing and it’s always nice to have a chuckle at the end of the day.

  6. College library director says:

    Having been down the “weeding woes” path myself, I feel–perhaps unwisely–that I know what I’m talking about:
    1. This season of weeding woes is going to last for a very long time. First-world libraries have reached the point of having too many books rather than too few. We have run out of space and almost no one has money to build new space to house books. We will need to rely on major research libraries and digitization to “archive” our books.
    2. To quote Ranganathan: “The library is a growing organism.” This does not mean that it just keeps adding books. This means that libraries change. Growth is sometimes, even often, very painful.
    3. Regardless of extensive efforts to inform and work with stakeholders, no amount of information or consultation will be enough for some (or even many) people. They will protest. They have very deep emotions and convictions about books, their own libraries, and–by extension–all libraries. Others will, at best, be cautiously optimistic–and usually silent.
    4. With no disrespect intended, I have to say that reactions such as “that heady mix of contemptuous amusement and self congratulation” are the luxury of those who have not been through the experience of a “deep weed” and the creation of a new direction for a library. Librarians who have been through this experience feel a combination of deep empathy for their colleagues who are now on the receiving end of all the disapproval and a fair share of remembered sadness and anger. They also wonder how many times they will have to read these stories.
    5. Faculty and students are stakeholders, but librarians are the educated professionals when it comes to libraries and college administrators are ultimately in charge of strategic decisions for the college as a whole.
    6. Discussion of “deep weeding” and library re-visioning can be valuable, but when one is directly involved and has to *act,* the real depths of complexity and charged emotions are revealed. Let us all assess others’ projects with compassion.

  7. The math is at least a little off: presumably the shelves are facing another set of shelves, so the three square feet of space is split between the two. So, 1.5 square feet in front of each shelf.

  8. I'm obsolete? says:

    I took a weeding break this year. The books seemed so dear after I’d been evaluating eBook prices, or rather “rentals”. The books we have, we own. We’ve moved to a renters market with eBooks. An over-simplification, but it seemed like publishers everywhere were saying never again will they sell a book to remain on the shelf for 10, 20, or more years. Books are now a revenue stream.

  9. David Suchoff says:

    faculty members know something about “weeding.” we understand space concerns but don’t think librarians should treat books that don’t have “circulations” (new library noun) as “weeds.” We consult them on the shelf and don’t check them out. Or: they sit until a new paradigm makes a former weed the fruit or blossom of a new point of view. Part of the problem is librarians who don’t speak enough with faculty, read the research we do, or understand the way it’s done. That destroys the trust needed to make decisions together. Books are not weeds to faculty and treating them as such gets you off on the wrong foot, and takes you down the wrong path.

  10. David Suchoff says:

    The idea that Colby faculty react with “emotions” rather than the reasoned, critical views of scholars is demeaning and patronizing. No wonder the bond of trust between scholars and the library gets broken. The more librarians are exposed to the “emotions” of faculty on “weeding” the better: they will discover critical perspectives on resource management, scholarship, and why offices that replace academic resources on former library shelves are not the way to go for a first-rate liberal arts college. Calling those perspectives “emotions” or saying they deserve “empathy” is dismissive. Faculty teach the students and do the research. And at Colby, no “extensive work to inform the stakeholders” was done.

  11. I am dismayed at the replies from librarians here. It’s disturbing that so many are dismissive of the people who are the end-users, especially in academic libraries. From the comments, I can’t help but deduce that librarians think patrons are irrelevant and ignorant.

    The patronizing, condescending attitude doesn’t seem fitting for those who have chosen a noble profession. I hope these attitudes are the minority of librarians.

    Is there any room in this conversation for thoughtful dialogue between librarians and teachers/patrons? I would be interested in providing a platform for this conversation on my blog: Endangered Libraries

    I am working on a series of articles with the aim of presenting honest, comprehensive, and informative posts for both librarians and non-librarians about critical issues facing libraries today. I would be interested in interviewing librarians and students, teachers, etc. about their concerns.
    Rahma Krambo

  12. What you seem to be missing here is a bit of empathy. You have to look at it from the librarian’s perspective. I’ve worked in academic libraries in which the faculty won’t give you the time of day. You may liaise with their department, try to attend departmental meetings (that they never tell you about), try to obtain their syllabi (which they often won’t give you) to make sure you have all the required readings in your collection.

    Then after all of the hard work you put in to liaise with faculty they moan and complain when you didn’t consult them about weeding. Really? I’m not saying that’s the case at Colby and I’m not leaving out the possibility that it was a misstep on the libraries part. But the people replying to this don’t work at Colby. We’re coming from situations in which we aren’t treated like our opinions and assistance are valued. It’s only when it’s time to complain that your 1982 computer manual was discarded that you want to chat with us.

  13. You say you understand weeding and space concerns but you’ve said nothing to back up that claim. What is your weeding criteria than? If outdated items or items that don’t circulate don’t meet weeding criteria than what does?

    How is keeping every item going to alleviate those space concerns? Circulation by the way is far from a “new library noun”. Also if you know that circulation is a criteria for weeding why wouldn’t you check out these books that you are consulting in the stacks and seemingly value?

    You say part of the problem is librarians who don’t speak enough with faculty. I say part of the problem is faculty who don’t engage librarians until it’s time to complain.

  14. Dear Annoyed:
    Thank you for sharing your perspective. There are plenty of valid points from the librarians’ POV that patrons and academicians never consider, probably because we (non-librarians) don’t hear them. What I was objecting to in my comment was the arrogant and dismissive tone, which makes it harder for us ‘outsiders’ to be understanding.

    There’s always plenty of blame and misunderstanding to go around from both ‘sides’. I would hope that there would be more effort to find solutions.

    However, the reference to discarding a 1982 computer manual is dismissive of the growing evidence of extreme weeding which leaves shelves emptied of everything that hasn’t been checked out in the last couple of years.

    I have to wonder if public libraries are using the book store model as their new prototype, rejecting their traditional role as our most valuable resource for reference material (as well as non-reference books). Living in the Google age, a large majority of the younger generation believe everything they need to know is online.

    As librarians you know this is not true. Please don’t be so quick to throw out books with information that is irreplaceable.

  15. To clarify I’m not the AL. She will typically respond as “Annoyed Librarian” if she is speaking to a commenter. I am but a simple commenting rube. I’d be interested in any actually data on this “growing evidence of extreme weeding.” I see that when it does happen it gets a lot of press. But I’ve yet to see any hard data that it’s this widespread epidemic that you purport it to be.

  16. Dear ‘me':
    The kind of evidence I’m referring to surfaces in newspapers, not spreadsheets. ‘Extreme weeding’ refers to the volume of books and rapid speed of the weeding process. I personally observed it happen in both of our county libraries and began noticing similar news stories. I’ve bookmarked these stories but that’s about as hard data as I’ve gotten.

    I address my concerns in a post on my blog: ‘Extreme weeding leaves shelves half empty’ and another post on the related trend of Warehoused Libraries.

    The most famous book culling was in the late 80s and early 90′s in San Francisco where 200,000 books were dumped even though they’d built a new larger library.

    More recently, on a smaller scale, but just as disturbing is an article ‘Alameda County Trashes Library Books’, where library employees themselves made these comments:
    “Everything the library bought before 2001, regardless of its merit or the significance of the book is sent to the discard pile.” As a result, he said there are noticeable gaps in subject matter across a wide range of sections, including music, philosophy, religion, biographies, and more. The fiction section, too, has suffered a noticeable disappearance of major authors.”
    “… library employees contend that there has been no careful balance in deciding what books to toss during the current weeding process. “We are not opposed to weeding as a general thing,” said another employee whom the Express agreed not to identify because the person feared retribution. “But when you are doing it arbitrarily … that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it. … We’ve got these librarians running around trying to rescue books.”

    I didn’t refer to it as epidemic. I don’t know how widespread it is. Maybe a librarian could enlighten me.

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