on weeding

Library Packrats:  Come on, folks. It’s time to let go. I know you spent a lot of money on some of those books. I know you may not be able to afford to replace everything. I know you are busy. I know that you can’t keep up with everything. But I don’t want to hear you complaining about “no shelf space” if you have a collection full of old junk. Throw it out.

Then there are those of us who want to react in the opposite way. I’d just as soon throw out almost everything that’s even the least bit outdated. And maybe that’s not the solution, either. But there must be a balance between keeping it all and pitching it all. In theory, that’s what we are trained to do – make intelligent decisions about the collections we cultivate and the information we make available.

Hurrah to that, from Emily Clasper at Library Revolution.  Today my library hosted its semi-regular luncheon for emeriti librarians and retired staff, and I was asked to speak briefly about our new initiative to weed.  (See Throw It All Out for my most recent presentation on the subject.)  One of my colleagues said in a tongue-in-cheek way before I joined the luncheon that I shouldn’t talk about weeding, I should talk about anything else instead, because did I really want to tell a group of dedicated retired professionals that I was throwing out everything they ever bought?


Well, no.  But… what we’re doing is important.  So I stood up and smiled and equivocated a little bit, but really did get down to it eventually:  We’re in a zero-growth library — 40 years, and we’re full, and still buying books.  We have to make room for new materials, and no one envisions a future in which a library renovation or expansion will create more space for stacks.  (We can envision a future which has a renovation or expansion, but it’s much more likely to be for multi-functional collaborative study spaces, offices to bring together a more integrated learning commons, and other modern administrative and organizational concepts for teaching, learning, and research.  Not for books, and double-not for remote storage facilities, which do nothing but hold books.  I got a few blinking, confused looks when I made that statement.  Talk about rate of change — that’s NOT the vision of libraries that our emeriti have.)

So.  We have to have room for new books.  We’ve reached zero growth.  There’s no movement for storage.  That means weeding.  I emphasized that it also doesn’t mean dumpstering books; there are options.  (See presentation, above.)  I also emphasized that it’s an imperfect science, and we’ve had to come to terms with that.  Emily points out a truth above:  We’re going to make intelligent decisions about our collections, because that’s what we’re trained to do, it’s what we believe in, and it’s what we can do better than anyone else at our institution can.  What’s harder to say to yourself, your colleagues, and your users is that we might be wrong.

And I think that’s what stops a lot of librarians dead in their tracks about weeding — they might make the wrong decision, and throw out the best book ever.  And, as Emily points out, they (and their predecessors) put a lot of time and energy and money into building the collection that they’re now taking apart.  So it’s a big emotional and financial investment, and there are no hard and fast rules to follow, so what’s right and what’s wrong?  No one can say.  Instead, we each have to rely on our understanding of our institution, our policies, our users, our curriculum and programs, our history, our long-term plans and needs, and our context in the community, region, consortium, and state.  That’s a lot to hold in your head when what you’re doing is looking at a dusty 80 year old book on analyzing race and class in America.  Is it relevant to the curriculum?  Should it be kept for historical reasons?  Is it the last copy in the system?  Is it a classic in the field?  Does it meet our collections policy?  Is it circulating?  Does it need updated cataloging in order to be truly useful?  Are there 40 other questions I should be considering, as well?

That’s a lot to think about, and to track through when what you need is a Yes Or No Answer about the fate of a book.

But here’s the thing I come back to:  This is our job, and we have to trust our instincts.  Those questions are questions that we have to ask, and we know how to ask, and we know we should ask.  Most people wouldn’t even know to ask them, let alone how to find answers or trust their instincts.

Will we be wrong sometimes, even trusting our instincts and using our best professional judgement to make decisions?  Of course we will.  We do it when we weed, we do it when we buy books (you can’t tell me that everything a library buys turns out to be a high-circulating item of much demand), and we do it when we implement, change, or discontinue services.  We’re just not always right.  But we do the very best we can, and that has to be good enough, else we’ll never move forward.   We have to be brave, and trust ourselves.

Which means, yes, we have to weed.  C’mon, it’ll be fun.  The only other option is to start building office furniture out of old journals, and that’ll be wickedly uncomfortable.

Now playing: Rooney – Paralyzed
via FoxyTunes


  1. Great post! Everyone needs to weed to stay current, otherwise the entire collection will remain current for the year 1998. (will it become an archive next year?) However, weeding is always a sticky subject.

    Plus weed increases circulation, big time. Think about buying a house. If you see a house that has a bunch of weeds in the front yard what do you think? Nobody takes care of this thing. Same for libraries.


  2. We have a weeding plan and rotate through part of the collection each years so the entire collection gets looked at every 5 years. I’m really very proud of the way we handle it and the policies and procedures we have in place. We’ve also gotten good responses from faculty because we’ve educated them and given them a place in the process.
    Weeding=good. If we’re not evaluating our collections we’re not doing our jobs.


  3. I have mixed feelings about weeding. One possibility to make space is to use of technology. An encyclopedia can take up a whole shelf, but in ascii format, it might fit on a single disk a few millimeters thick. My mom has “The New International Encyclopaedia, 2nd edition”. It has information in detail not to be found anywhere. As time marches on, newer editions paraphrase, condense, and finally eliminate. It was published in 1928. Back then, the contribution of Sir Sandford Fleming to the time conference of Oct 1, 1884 and the French holdout until 1911 were detailed. Today it has been forgotten. Weeding can do that.


  4. I agree that things are lost when we weed — but, for example, it’s not my institution’s mission to keep information on Sir Sandford Fleming’s contributions to the time conference of 1884, because that’s not a part of our curriculum, and we’re not an archive or a research library. It’s absolutely valuable information, but it’s not best suited to my libraries’ collections. And so, in the interests of adding seven new books to a shelf of books on death and dying in America, I withdrew a dozen others that were undoubtedly full of valuable scholarship, but which were a) out of date, b) marginal to our curriculum (at best!), and c) not usable at the basic undergraduate level.

    All information has an intrinsic value, but we have to get rid of that which does not serve our users, particularly in a zero-growth library that doesn’t have on-staff technologists who can digitize, index, archive, and make accessible in a user-friendly format the materials we can’t keep on the shelf.


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