Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

The Secret to Weeding

Goodness, someone needs to tell librarians about the proper way to weed. The weeding complaint news article has become a regular appearance these days. This time it’s the Boston Public Library.

The headline reads, “Unpopular books flying off branch libraries’ shelves.” I expected something much more dramatic after that headline, but it’s just an article about weeding. No books are actually flying off the shelves, so they won’t have to call Ghostbusters.

But books are being weeded, in the branches at least, which might see a reduction of as many as 180,000 volumes by the end of the year. These are “little-used” books, apparently. One branch will weed 40% of its collection, others close to 30%.

That’s a lot of books to get rid of at once. It makes the shelves look bare. People don’t like bare shelves, because that’s a sign that books are being weeded. There’s a solution to that problem that I’ll get to in a bit.

But first, the complaints.

Supposedly, a lot of books related to the African American experience are going, because even though people look at the books they don’t check them out. That complaint is based on a comment by one library employee unhappy with the weeding project. Apparently, diversity isn’t something a weeding list should have.

A member of the Friends group at another library says, “I can’t begin to imagine what their thinking is in this wholesale removal of books.” The news article should help that person, because the president of the BPL says the reason is for people to talk and laugh, and “about doing our part in the digital divide, and some other stuff. That should allow someone to at least begin to imagine.

“You have students in the branches — high school students, junior high students — who are coming in to do reports. You’ve got to have a certain number of books, a certain number of hard-copy sources,” says another librarian. I don’t see how having a particular number of books helps there. Seems like having the right books is more important, but what do I know.

Then we come to some more rational complaints. One student went to look for five books for summer reading, and none of them were available at that branch. On the other hand, that branch is “undergoing exterior renovations and is being considered for further improvements, a new, colorful mosaic outside the entrance greets visitors.”

Because who needs books if you have a new, colorful mosaic to greet you.

Librarians should learn an important lesson when it comes to weeding: most of the time, people don’t care about the weeding. What they care about is noticing the weeding. They see bare shelves. They see dumpsters full of books. That’s bad.

Time and again we’ve seen people being totally irrational about this. It’s the same urge the causes people to want to donate their grandmother’s 50-year National Geographic collection or that 1968 Worldbook encyclopedia set to the library.

“Someone might want these, even though I absolutely don’t,” seems to be what’s going through their minds.

But just because people have an irrational love of old books doesn’t mean wholesale weeding of old books is any more rational. If you know library patrons are going to be upset – and you should know that about massive weeding projects – then do things differently.

Here are some tips.

1) Never throw books in dumpsters openly. Box the books up in unmarked boxes, carefully place them in the dumpsters, and then slowly walk away whistling like nothing is happening.

2) Don’t leave empty shelves. This can be achieved by weeding fewer books, my weeding the books but then shifting them to the end of the collection in an area for “special” books, or by removing the shelves simultaneously.

3) If you must get rid of the books, wait until nobody is looking, remove the books, remove the shelves, place a comfy chair where the shelves used to be, and slowly walk away whistling like nothing is happening.

4) Repeat step 1.

This really isn’t that difficult to do, except maybe the whistling part since you’ll have a dry mouth from the nervous anticipation that a library patron will see you and call you a barbarian.

So you can skip the whistling. But do everything else the way I suggest, and you won’t have articles in the local paper full of complaints about you, because no one will ever miss the books they weren’t checking out in the first place.



  1. Walter Lessun says:

    “Don’t leave empty shelves”
    Hmmm. Back in the days before I was an adminiflake I believed that the perfect library was one where all the shelves were empty because all the books were checked out and all had a hold for the next patron.

  2. I’m starting to think we should model ourselves off the old sumerian priest castes (who were the first librarians anyway). It’s not about DOING things, it’s about SUSTAINING THE ILLUSION that we do things our patrons imagine we can do (contain infinite books indefinitely with a finite space and budget, provide nebulous benefits to the community no one can precisely define, ect). Cultivating these illusions will be the #1 talent and task of the librarian of the future. Less process, less product, more PR.

  3. Mmmmmmmaty says:

    Libraries could also just have a flood or a burst pipe, or some such ‘catastrophe’. And one could still do that wink and walk thing AL mentioned. It could be a class in library school- ‘Weeding and Other Such Necessary Subterfuge’.

    • As a librarian who’s dealt with pipe issue that water-damaged hundreds of books, I can guarantee this is no way to covertly weed. People will stick their nose in to find out all the details about an accident like that.

    • That Thing says:

      Truth. We lost a large chunk of the 900s that way. A patron actually asked me why we were censoring books on Japan.

      “Because we hate that counrty sir.”

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      @That Thing: “They know what they did.”

  4. Peter Ward says:

    Enough about weeding! The dumbest-common-denominator will never understand how library collections are developed and maintained. Be a pro and just do it.

  5. dan cawley says:

    I saw the original article on three separate newsfeeds. The headline alone makes me want to pluck my eyes out with rusty pins.

    however, there was a decent comment from the movie “rollerball:”

    Now, we’ve lost those computers with all of the 13th century in them. Not much in the century, just Dante and a few corrupt Popes, but it’s so distracting and annoying!

  6. I have to say: the president of the BPL is really tone deaf to answer that it’s about room for laughing and talking. This is, um… not the way to address the issue.

  7. Oompapa Maumau says:

    Can’t believe anyone from BPL would say that..
    Don Saklad is never around when you need him.

  8. Nice to find some intelligent librarians in this era of book burning. I can’t wait until the Chinese decide to turn off our computers. Then where will we be?

  9. I actually agree with you, Lisa.

    Libraries used to weed because of lack of space. That was always the claim. Now they weed because they like the shelves to look half full. Or, they take it upon themselves to decide what is and is not timely and relevant.

    Every public library I’ve been to the last couple of years has barren shelves. When you ask them about this.the answer is always, “Because that’s the way people want it.”

    Who are they talking about? These same people would also probably love free hamburgers and cokes at the site, too. Why not hand those out while you’re at it?

    Why are we letting the people who are so obviously uncomfortable with seeing lots of books in one place make policy? When there seems to be room, why weed so much.

    It’s nuts. Librarians now love throwing stuff out. There’s no other explanation.

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