pulling weeds

I just spent forty five minutes weeding in the PS3505 section.  Willa Cather and e e cummings, and their contemporaries who’re quickly drifting off into the mists of literary awareness.

Weeding is cathartic in its own way; some of my colleagues struggle to throw away books, but I think there’s something extremely apt about using the word ‘weeding’ to describe this kind of collection maintenance.  Weeding.  Pruning.  Tending.  Collections need all of that to thrive and grow productively.

We actively collected the majority of our material on Cather and cummings in the era in which they were most talked about in academia. The collecting patterns of those days were very different than the ones we’re building now, and the materials on the shelves from that era are distinctive.   What we now no longer have on the shelves are:  copy 2s of their major works, print bibliographies, single pam-bound critical essays, and seriously wounded books.  What’s left is a much leaner and much more fit collection — the best copies of their works, volumes of thematic criticism, and biographical material, reduced by about 25%.  It’s easier to visually sort through, it’s more appropriate to research in a modern information environment, and it’s closer to being the right collection for this undergraduate institution’s curriculum.

None of which is to say that having four copies of My Antonia was wrong, when the extra three were purchased.  Or that those bibliographies weren’t extremely useful at the time.  Or that those single critical essays weren’t gorgeously and valuably cataloged on the day they were pam-bound.  It’s just to say that this collection, today, needed to be pruned and tended to best serve today’s users.

That 25% isn’t hard for me to do, when it’s appropriate.  It’s hard for some librarians, appropriate, needed, or not.  The 32-year-old part of me wonders if that’s because I didn’t work in this gorram library on the day the books were bought, so I have less personal attachment to them.   The analytical part of me wonders if it’s because some librarians wish that they worked in research institutions with preservation and collection mission very different from their own.  The skeptical part of me wonders if it’s just that, culturally, librarians believe that all books are good books and good books should be in libraries.

Whatever the case, I’m not suffering for weeding.  My hands are a bit dirty, my knees are sore from kneeling, and my cart is full of weeds.  And the garden’s a lot nicer.

I can live with that.


  1. Of course I’ll allow it. I’m glad it spoke to you — use at will!

    And every time I think “who on earth would ever want to read *this*?”, if it’s poetry, I think, “Amy.” And I usually put it back on the shelf. 🙂


  2. I tend to agree, Karin — I wouldn’t wholly strip them from the collection, by any means, but when there’s such extensive supporting and primary documentation available online, I don’t feel as compelled to keep dogeared volumes of marginal interest. They’re *not* irreplaceable anymore, and our print collection isn’t the sole indicator of the richness of resources we’re providing.


  3. Amen. I currently work at an institution where ARL numbers were (are) king–so goodness forbid we ever weed anything. I’ve always said (to no one in particular) that I’d rather have 100 of the best items that 1000 hit-or-miss items. Once again you’ve said it beautifully.


  4. Kirstin, I have the luxury of working at an institution that wants to judge worth by measures of success, not measures of stuff. And I do know it’s a luxury, and appreciate the ways that it allows me to focus on doing it *right*, not doing it because we’re counting.


  5. Well said. I just spent months weeding through my share of 43,000 items returned from a remote site that couldn’t hold them anymore. My area is business. Those items had been there over 10 years, some with little or no use before they went. I puzzled over some of the items I withdrew, wondering what were they thinking at the time. One librarian was aghast at all my withdrawals, another was rooting me on. One title was about doing business calculations with a pocket calculator. I kid you not. In my area, items definitely age out and I was happy to let them go.

    I particularly liked that you addressed the collection patterns of yore vs today. They do change as does the direction of the programs.


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