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Inside Annoyed Librarian

A Different Kind of Weeding Complaint

Two different articles about school librarians got my attention last week.

The first is really more about the nonexistence of school librarians, at least in the Chicago public schools. School librarians there are becoming an extinct species almost.

According to the article, Chicago has over 600 public schools, most now without a full-time librarian.

Two years ago, Chicago Public School budgeted for 454 librarians.

Last year: 313 librarians.

This year? 254.

At that rate, in a few years the schools won’t have any librarians at all. Of course, given the precarious state of the Chicago schools budget, maybe there won’t even be any schools for the librarians to go to anyway.

One might think that with school librarians under siege all over the country that the remaining ones would feel lucky just to have jobs, but some of them do like to complain.

In Racine, Wisconsin the school librarians had their union complain to the school district when they found out books were being weeded from a couple of school libraries.

Usually when there are complaints about weeding, the complaints are from non-librarians who panic at the very idea of a book ever being removed from a library, usually people who don’t realize that libraries aren’t like Dr. Who’s Tardis. They don’t just keep expanding to accommodate all the new books.

But this time, it’s the librarians.

For some reason, I really liked this quote from the head of the union:

The librarians were unaware that the weeding process was going on until it started happening. There were rumors, and then the librarians went to the buildings where they were going to start in the fall, and saw that the weeding process was either underway or it had been finished.

I imagine the librarians lounging around poolside hearing vague rumors that some people actually have to work during the summer. Then they took time away from their gin fizzes and croquet to head to the library and verify that such a horror was indeed happening.

That might be true for some, but in this case it seems the libraries were temporarily without librarians, although the new librarians complaining still weren’t going to start working until school started.

My other favorite quote is obviously the reporter regurgitating what he had been told:

Librarians have previously said weeding of library collections is an ongoing task that has always been the responsibility of the librarian, who is trained in graduate level courses to do it properly.

I’m sure we can all recall those multiple and no doubt rigorous courses in weeding library books. It’s not like weeding a school library can be reduced to a checklist or anything, right?

Well, the spokesperson for the school district “explained that the procedure for weeding libraries includes generating a list of possible books to remove from a school library from various criteria, including copyright date, providing that list to the librarian for input and sending staff from the district’s Instructional Media Center to assist in the weeding process.”

So, yeah, the weeding is pretty much reduced to a checklist, and the librarian’s responsibility, if there is a librarian, is to look over the list, which I’m sure is something they do carefully and diligently, because it’s not as if everyone in the world doesn’t pore carefully over every line of a spreadsheet.

But let’s say they do. I don’t know the size of the libraries, but let’s say for example that 100 books are on the list to be weeded. If the books were already selected based upon the relvant criteria, how many would be saved from the weeding pile? One? Five?

If it was many more than that, then the weeding criteria for the checklist is seriously flawed. If you’re routinely removing 5% or more of the books from the weeding checklist, you need to tighten your procedures some.

But assuming that the lists are well constructed by the librarians, there might not be many books at all that need to be removed from them. Done right, the lists should pretty much generate themselves, and the books can be weeded with minimal effort from the librarians once they’ve set up the criteria. That’s how weeding should work.

I suspect that’s what’s happening here, and even though the books will be held for review, few titles will make it back into the collection except as a protest. It’s not like that library in Illinois last year where the staff were just pulling books off the shelves willy nilly while the head of collections was on vacation.

And if that’s true, then the librarians don’t really have much to complain about.

However, that might not be what they’re really complaining about. Reviewing a weeding list doesn’t take that long, and even if it’s not reviewed by a librarian the chances of losing some precious or necessary books is slim.

Those librarians might be looking at Chicago, which isn’t that far away. They see what happens when school districts think they don’t need librarians.

The weeding fight could just be a proxy fight for their livelihoods.

From the outside, a couple of school libraries being weeded according to standard checklists while the librarians are gone for the summer doesn’t seem like a big deal.

If you’re the librarian who suddenly realizes that the school can have pretty much anyone with a computer generated checklist do part of your job, panic probably ensues.

My god, if they’re weeding the books without me, what will they be doing next?! Buying the books based on reviews in standard library publications?!

Book weeding might just be the canary in the coal mine, and once it dies as part of the librarian’s duty, so goes the rest of the job.

Or maybe the librarians really are just upset over some book weeding two schools that hasn’t even gone awry. In that case, they should take deep breaths, calm down, and tell themselves it could be a lot worse. They could be working in Chicago.



  1. I’ve followed your posts about weeding for quite a while, and I think you’re incredibly arrogant about the task. No one says that libraries have to keep everything, but when research libraries like UCLA are tossing pre-1980 humanities books like it’s Christmas in July then there’s a problem somewhere.

    Why are you folks so gleeful about it, and worse, do you have any idea the kind of contempt people will have for you in 75 or 100 years, knowing how much you’ve discarded?

    Laugh if you want, but it’s true. This is a terrifically destructive age.

    • Jim, repositories are there for a reason. I’m a public librarian, and we are tight on space with our collection as is. Where do you suggest we put the new books, or should we stop ordering them altogether if you want to hang on to those books? If the books aren’t going out, they serve no purpose other than taking up space. Let the repositories be the repositories, and let the other libraries weed as they need.

    • Aside from the term “weeding” what you posted has absolutely nothing to do with this story. Maybe your unbridled weeding rage is best directed at another post. School libraries aren’t exactly known for housing tomes of irreplaceable knowledge (unless you want those tomes covered in snot & peanut butter).

  2. Jim C. ‘s post helps us understand more fully how we are perceived. People think that libraries exist to make knowledge available by preserving books. They think that because, at least in part, that is what we have told them. Book destruction is widely vilified and librarians participate in that portrayal. Book burning is immediately associated with NAZIs and other disreputable persons. It’s difficult for many people to reconcile the idea that books are sacred with the idea that books are garbage in need of disposal. We should be very careful with the language and processes we use to manage our book collections.

    As an aside, most school library collections I’ve seen needed more weeding, not less.

    • That Thing says:

      Exactly. That’s why so many people donate those sacred paperback tomes that have been through their basement flood to the library. They can’t bring themselves to throw them in the trash and think we can magically save that moldy Daniel Steel novel.

  3. Allison says:

    I’m not crazy about weeding guidelines. I start with a list of books with low circulation, but I don’t weed everything on it. I use other criteria too, of course, but I’d disagree that if one keeps more than 5% of the books on one’s list of possible weeds, that’s a problem.

  4. I actually have no problem with libraries weeding out books. Mine does it all the time and quite often will put some of them out for sell to help supplement the slush fund that the local Friends of the Library org maintains.

    Having worked in a library a few decades ago (albeit a state library) I can tell you that from personal experience, space is finite and battles over who controls space have been legendary. The library I worked at had no problems donating books, newspapers, etc. to worthwhile organizations that had use for them.

  5. dan cawley says:

    a bit off topic..but not really…our county has three school districts and zero certified librarians. this is a travesty.

  6. Hyperbolic Commenter says:

    I am shocked, scandalized and sorely disappointed in the Annoyed Librarian’s clear lack of research regarding the situation in Wisconsin. As everyone ought to know, anyone in Wisconsin enjoying a cocktail is required, by important laws, to drink only brandy old fashioneds. Thus no one in the state would ever think of drinking a gin fizz, even by the side of a pool.

  7. I’m from Racine and I think AL missed the point here. The problem wasn’t the “weeding” in itself. The problem was that non-librarians were removing large numbers of books based simply off of a checklist–many of which included classics and novels using only their copyright dates as criteria.

    • And if it was also condition-based, one wonders about the possibility of replacement copies. There’s a lot we don’t know about this situation.

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