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Weeding Collections

by on June 12, 2014

Recently, I was placed in charge of a weeding project of the non-fiction collection at Meredith Public Library, where I work as a library aide. This task, combined with a recent discussion at New Hampshire Library Association’s Annual Conference and a news story out of the University of New Hampshire, have gotten me to think about the importance of curating our collections. Also, it has brought on the realization that perceptions about weeding, both within libraries and in our broader communities, tend to be pretty negative.

It is rare when a story out of New Hampshire reaches a national audience, but this is exactly what happened—at least within library circles—when a local news station ran the headline, “Thousands of UNH library books found in dumpster.”1 This news coverage led the Annoyed Librarian to write a response article in Library Journal.2 The central argument of the first piece seems to be that libraries should do a better job disclosing their collection development decisions. The latter piece contends that as professional librarians it is within our purview to determine how best to use the space and collection of the library.

From my own experience, though I am responsible for pulling titles off the shelf that have not circulated for a number of years, other librarians are allowed to veto my decisions. I also temper my decisions based on discussions I had while receiving my MLIS. For instance, though books on sexually transmitted diseases may not circulate, they may be used within the library by individuals who might be too embarrassed to check them out. Also, recipe books may see a page copied without the book ever being checked out. Once books are withdrawn from our collection they are not destroyed, but added to the Friends’ of the Library book sale. In general, I would say the library is conservative in its weeding decisions. Even still, hundreds of books have been removed from the shelves in this most recent set of withdrawals.

It seems that some within libraries, as well as those in the broader community, view withdrawals as an admission of wrongdoing: We have misallocated public funding on items that are no longer of any worth. Worse still, they may view this as a move against intellectual freedom, evoking images of Nazi book burnings. I believe both ideas are inaccurate on a number of levels.

First, I do not believe that libraries should be risk-averse in their collection development policies. It might seem like a wiser policy to purchase multiple copies of all the bestsellers instead of a wide range of texts, but this only serves a portion of the population who enjoys these mass market texts. Also, bestsellers may not have great staying power than other texts. After six months, will this policy actually lead to an increase in the number of titles being weeded?

Second, some texts, particularly those in the medical and scientific fields, are constantly being updated, and it is highly likely that older versions will be full of inaccuracies that might even have dangerous implications to their readers. Another article on Public Libraries Online, “Spring Weeding—Progress Should be Reflected in Your Collection,” focuses on this issue.3

Third, a library not having a particular text no longer means that a patron cannot access that material,. It may be in a different format or take a bit longer to receive.  Advances in Interlibrary Loans and increases in materials available digitally has greatly expanded what community members can access without it necessarily taking up a library’s limited space.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, communities change over time. It is essential for libraries to reflect their community’s changing needs, both in their collection and how they use their space. If, for instance, non-fiction only accounts for a tenth of total circulations, should it be stored in a room of equal size to that housing the fiction collection, which sees much greater circulation? Could relocating create a programming space that has been lacking in the past? Many years ago, it may have been entirely appropriate to have an entire room dedicated to public access to maps. Does this mean, however, that this space should still be dedicated to this use, now that all the maps are available digitally?

If these ideas about weeding are true about print texts, do the same principles also apply to audiobooks, DVDs and the plethora of unique materials that are now being circulated at libraries around the country? I had the opportunity to discuss this latter point with fellow librarians at a recent NHLA conference, and honestly, I was surprised by the answers I received. If a library has a collection of knitting needles, stamps, pans, telescopes or fishing poles that are not circulating, should they be disposed of? The general answer I heard was no, they would likely try to promote them in different ways, or move them, but not ultimately get rid of them.

I am all for promoting collections in novel ways. If a large portion of a given selection looks like it is not seeing much circulation, I may well try to include it in a future display before weeding it.  This was true of a number of books on photography. I learned that May was National Photography Month, so rather than weed out our photography books, I put them on a display where they might be more likely to get checked out. Come the end of May, however, I will see what books still have not circulated and determine whether they need to be withdrawn or not.

I feel that the importance of assessment and ultimately weeding are of particular value when working with novelty items, particularly if they are high in space requirements. For those who believe the library should be exclusively focused on texts, having space that is taken up by low circulating items—already of questionable value to them—can provide such opponents with political ammunition. Also, and this may seem counterintuitive, by not weeding these collections, you may make your staff more risk averse. Since the space taken up by yesterday’s novel idea is sacrosanct, new ideas are forced into an increasingly shrinking amount of free space. Perhaps even more compromising, before suggesting an idea, a staff member will have to feel it is worthy to stand the test of time.

I believe a library’s collection is a reflection of the values and aspirations of the community it serves. I understand how this view could lead some to the conclusion that weeding was a devaluation of the community’s past, but I disagree. To bring about the future the community strives for, weeding plays an essential part, and we should embrace this important role even as we remain cognizant and empathic towards those of differing opinions.

Resources

  1. Sexton, Adam. “Thousands of UNH Library Books Found in Dumpster.”  WMUR New Hampshire.  Accessed May 14, 2014.
  2. Annoyed Librarian.  “The Weeding Problem Solved.”  Library Journal.  Accessed May 14, 2014.
  3. Simons, Ellie.  “Spring Weeding-Progress Should be Reflected in Your Collection.”  Accessed May 14, 2014.

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