On weeding

I’m challenged to focus this morning, so I’m going to try writing as brain-organizer. The two things on my mental agenda to write about are our website launch and our weeding project. I’m going to start with weeding, but the website is coming.

On Friday, I hosted this semester’s luncheon for the faculty who serve as departmental liaisons to the libraries, and there I announced our upcoming weeding project. Late on Monday an all-faculty email went out, describing the projects and processes.

We don’t fully know the scope of the project, yet, but we do know that we need to move 12% of the collection out of the basement where it’s currently housed, and we need to make additional (as yet uncalculated) reductions in collection size in order to reset our stacks to ADA compliance. And 11% of the stacks are in spaces the architect intended for user space. I also know that we have 13,000 monographic records that show no use in the last 9 years but also were published before 1950, and that we’re starting with those. So those are some numbers.

The whole project and our process is described here, and is linked off our website. I’m aiming for transparency and collaboration, but I’m also struggling to ensure that we’re efficient and thoughtful about our professional obligation to curate these collections.

So far, I’ve gotten minimal feedback. A single request for more information from a faculty member who is a long-time engaged friend of the libraries, and a single “oh my, discarding books. Yikes.” response from another member of the faculty who admits to being “old school about libraries.”  Expected, and expectable, and both have received responses from me thanking them for their interest and opinions.

That said, I have quiet dread that this is going to get very hard as we move forward. Possibly hard because the voices of grave concern simply haven’t chosen to speak yet. Possibly hard because information and how we maintain it is at the core of the academic enterprise. Possibly hard because the librarians don’t think this is easy, and it’s not going to get easier as we push through the process. Possibly hard because we’re setting some other work aside in order to accomplish this, and prioritizing is complicated. Possibly hard because I’ve committed to being transparent, which often means people can ask smarter, more challenging questions based on the data you offer. Possibly hard because I’m conjuring unseen demons made of smoke and flame out of my own anxiety about doing something that is, as noted, challenging to the core of the academic enterprise.

But I believe in it. All logical and factual reasons based in construction schedules and space use data and collection use stats aside, one thing that we also know as service professionals in a library is that sometimes you help a student find the book they identified in the catalog and you think, “Why are you using that one? Is that the best we have?” and the answer, after you search, is No. No, it’s not the best we have. The best we have is two shelves away under a slightly different search, and that crappy one is just cataloged in a way that led the student to it faster. So if we want our users to identify, locate, and use the very good stuff that we have and to do it with ease, we have to ensure that the collection is healthy. We have to ensure that we’ve gotten rid of the “you’re using that?” stuff. We have to hone the last 100 years of collecting decisions down to the core of excellence lying underneath layers of decades of occasional bad choices.

It’s hard work.  It’s challenging, unpopular, sometimes controversial work. But it matters. So we’re going to do it.


  1. So we’re weeding here starting with the professional programs first. None of your pressure, thank goodness!
    We defined a group of books published before 1990 that had never circulated (goodbye 1945 Aircraft Production Yearbook!) and have had success with the business school and now the education school. We have made the point that all of these materials are available on ILL, and that the University of Rochester is right around the corner and things have gone calmly. I spent time talking about the teaching mission of the library and how this collection is meant to be used, which helped a bit as well.

    The Dean of the Business School said that we had much more data than the last time we did this project in the early part of the century and people felt calmer about accepting our recommendations this time. Hopefully this will be the case for you as well.


  2. Thanks for this–it really resonated with me, even though I’m a new librarian in a completely different type of institution: a tiny boarding school with a tiny library. When I started my librarian life here last year, I had to start weeding immediately. The mission of the school had recently changed, the curriculum had changed, the youngest grade level had been dropped, and we had a library full of the Wrong Thing. I didn’t even get to say “you’re using THAT?” because nobody was using anything. People laughed about how irrelevant the library was.

    So I weeded. I knew how and why, and I was able to articulate what was happening. But given a reconfiguration of the library space, I had to reduce a collection of over 8,000 books down to a collection just under 5,000. You can imagine the reactions: “You’re throwing out half the library!”

    Well, yes, I am. Take a look, and tell me a mission-driven reason to keep any one of those discarded books. (For that matter, tell me how you would even FIND them, given how they were crammed on top of other books already crammed onto overcrowded shelves.)

    My weeding took almost an entire year, partly because of my non-library responsibilities but mostly because it just takes a long time to evaluate thousands of books, even superficially. It was an amazing experience though… I was able to carve out a smaller collection I could be proud of, and saw immediately where new additions needed to be made. Halfway through my second year, I can now show any faculty member how the library supports their work with students.

    Weeding is like refining an internet search. All those irrelevant hits just need to go away. Thanks for reminding me that I wasn’t wrong, and that even a research library needs to weed.


  3. Yes, exactly yes–especially to your last big paragraph. At a big ARL institution where we were driven by collection numbers for a loooooong time, I still find it difficult to convince TPTB in my branch to do more aggressive weeding.

    But I try to empathize with the patrons…do I want to have to wade through 100 books on a topic when the ones I am really going to need number in the low double digits? No! It’s hard enough to navigate our complex systems, but more is not always better (not a popular opinion around here).

    We’re lucky to have offsite storage–we could chose to ship a lot there–they’re still available w/ 24hr turnaround.


  4. I’m so glad this resonates. I actually wondered to myself as I typed if we’d stalled long enough, here, that this kind of conversation isn’t relevant or interesting to most academic libraries anymore… guess not. 🙂


  5. I weed. I weed a lot. I try to weed every month, since it’s easier when it’s an ongoing thing. But that’s a much different proposition in a public library — academic is a whole ‘nother thing.

    People don’t like to do it (or know that their librarian is doing it), but they’re grateful when it’s easier to find things on the shelf. And they find more use for focused, well-organized collections that are geared to their needs. They just don’t want to know that the Great and Powerful Oz librarian is regularly stacking boxes by the back door for pickup by Better World Books.

    Weeded collections circulate more. If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what mine will say.


  6. I think that most of us have been told that we’re not getting any more space for book storage and that we’re going to house a wide variety of support services as well. So weeding is with us to stay, especially if we want a working collection that serves the needs of our students and faculty. And I call it “right-sizing the collection” which doesn’t sound as negative to the faculty.


  7. As an archivist who loves reading your posts, I was particularly glad to see this issue addressed somewhere other than “the literature.” In the archives field we are still somewhat conflicted over weeding (sometimes for good reasons, more often not.) So, it’s nice to see information professionals embracing the need to curate a collection, and be transparent about it, despite the demons (real and imaginary).


  8. I’m about to start a new job where I’ll be head of acquisitions at a medium-sized university library, and my first project is a weeding project to accompany a renovation. So I appreciate your insights. I was previously director at a community college, so I’ve dealt with weeding projects, albeit on a smaller scale (that and inventory were biennial summer projects for us). I’ll be very interested in seeing how your project progresses. Good luck to you!


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