WEEDING LIBRARY COLLECTIONS
By: Belinda Boon, MLIS, PhD
Assistant Professor, Kent State University School of Library & Information Science
Today it is more important than ever for libraries to maintain their relevance in the age of instant access, electronic databases, and Google. But while our print collections continue to grow, many library collections are drowning in obsolete, unused, and unwanted materials. Most libraries keep up with deselection by weeding systematically all year round, but many of us run into obstacles ranging from dwindling materials budgets to long-term administrators and governing officials reluctant to let go of materials. Others understand the importance of weeding but are reluctant to cull as many items as they should because their budgets won’t allow them to replace the weeded materials. But consider this: if your library contains shelves of useless books that are of no interest or use to your patrons, why not just put up wallpaper with a book pattern on it? Chances are it would look better and it would be no less useful than what you already have. The best way to avoid this problem is to weed continually.
In case you fell asleep in library school or you are a support staff member that does not work with collection management, here is a definition of weeding:
Weeding is the process of removing books and other materials from your collection that normally fall under the MUSTIE Guidelines outlined in CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries (available online at http://tsl.state.tx.us/ld/pubs/crew/). Although the MUSTIE factors are only guidelines—and do not take the place of your professional judgment—they might prove useful if you are new to the weeding process.
M for Misleading : The information is inaccurate or out of date. There are many classic examples of these types of materials, such as the book with a 1959 publication date assuring readers that “one day, man will go to the moon!” (I actually weeded this very book from the children’s department in a rural public library in Kentucky during a workshop in 2005.) Aside from obviously dated titles like these, library staff should be on the lookout for older editions of medical, financial, and travel books, information which goes out of date very quickly. A ten-year-old book on Cancer treatment will not supply the library patron with the accurate information they need, nor will a five-year-old book on U.S. tax law. In cases such as this, circulation statistics do not tell the whole story. People who have been diagnosed with a serious illness, or who have loved ones suffering from that illness, will check out anything they can find—even books with inaccurate information—just to have something on the topic. Chances are they won’t bother to check the copyright date. It is the responsibility of the library staff to ensure that accurate and timely information is available to patrons who need it. For the most part, the removal of books and materials in this category also is easy to justify.
U for Ugly : The materials are worn, tattered, or mildewed. These materials are easy to spot and their removal from the collection is easy to justify. The most obtuse of county commissioners can be persuaded that a book covered with mildew or damaged by water should be discarded. Rule of thumb: if it looks like you need to put on latex gloves to pick it up, chances are no one else will want to pick it up either. When dealing with collections that have not been weeded in five or ten years—or in your lifetime—consider going through the entire collection and pulling out all the ratty looking books. Once this is done the collection will immediately take on a fresher, cleaner look.
S for Superseded : When a title has been replaced by a newer edition, newer format, or newer title. Note that many reference titles—among them Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary—are not superseded by later editions. Instead, the newer editions supplement the older works.
T for Trivial : The material is not well written. This is often the case when sudden world events occur, such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Publishers will scramble to put out something on the topic because of the high interest from the public. Six months or a year down the road they will issue another title that has been thoughtfully written and researched. At this point, the library should discard the older work and add the newer title.
I for Irrelevant : If the library owns a book on Learjet repair and no one in the community own a Learjet; there won’t be any need for it. This is an exaggerated example, but this idea reflects the need for library staff to be familiar with the needs of the library’s community of users. Something of great interest to one community may fall flat in another. Books and materials in this category can be difficult to spot. They may be brand new books with accurate and up-to-date information and attractive covers, but for some reason these items aren’t of interest to the library’s community of users. This is a common occurrence in school library collections. A young and enthusiastic teacher may work with the librarian all year to build up a collection in her area of expertise; when she leaves at the end of the school year another teacher is hired to teach that subject—one who uses a completely different approach to the topic and needs different titles to support her teaching. Library shelf space is valuable real estate, and few libraries can afford to let unused materials languish in the stacks. Happily, in cases such as this, teachers are almost always happy to receive books for their classroom collections, freeing up needed space in the library.
E for May be obtained Elsewhere : The same information is available in another format or title OR if you belong to a consortium, you may not want titles that are readily available in mass quantities at other libraries–you can interlibrary loan.
General Weeding Criteria
General weeding criteria provided in CREW include publication date, author, publisher, physical condition, additional copies available, shelf-time, replacement expense, relevance to the community, and other resources available. Publication date can be a vital criterion in areas like science, medicine, finances, and travel, but is not as crucial in areas like literature, self-help, crafts and hobbies, or poetry. For these topics, shelf-time—the amount of time an item has not circulated—is a much more critical weeding criterion. A well known author can be an indication of interest among library users, but the library should not be expected to maintain every title by a prolific author (I’d venture a guess that no library owns all of R. L. Stine’s books). In most instances, the MUSTIE Guidelines also should be considered.
Children & Young Adult Materials
Juvenile and young adult materials should be weeded with additional criteria in mind, including format, reading level, current interest in the subject matter, and jacket art and illustrations. Outdated illustrations and cover art can be the kiss of death for juvenile materials. Remember that to your young patrons, 15 years is a long time ago—before they were born. Anything that looks dated will continue to sit on the shelves until it gathers dust or is pulled by a dutiful children’s librarian. Fortunately, the covers of classic titles like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and A Wrinkle in Time continue to be updated periodically by publishers, presenting a contemporary face to current readers.
Children and teens are marvelous resources for clues about what topics are currently of interest to these age groups, but even topics like break dancing, which recently has enjoyed resurgence in popularity, won’t attract teens to books published in the early 1980s depicting dancers wearing short shorts and knee socks with hair wider than their shoulders. They’re far more likely to request a DVD showing the latest dance steps. Likewise, perennially popular topics like sports will suffer if your collection still retains books featuring unknowns (to today’s youth) like Joe Namath, Gordie Howe, Rudy Tomjanovich, and Dr. J.
Format is a particular consideration for children’s and YA materials. The library may get more bang for its buck by purchasing three paperback copies of a popular fiction title rather than one hardbound copy, or by acquiring the downloadable audio version in addition to the print.
Periodicals & Magazines
Periodicals and magazines should be evaluated on current use, available indexing, available space, and alternative formats. At one time, “Current use” meant something published within the last five years, but the advent of the Internet has changed what we think of as current information. In the past libraries routinely maintained five years of magazines for students to use in research projects. Today, current use for print copies of periodicals covers no more than two years, given the widespread accessibility to online databases. Space for housing periodicals continues to be a concern for most libraries, another reason for reducing the number of years maintained.
Available indexing also factors into the decision to keep more than one or two years’ worth of periodicals and magazines. If the indexing is not available, the chances of a student finding an article relevant to their research topic simply by browsing through a magazine are almost nil. On the other hand, there is no need to maintain print indexes for date ranges of magazines the library does not own. A better use for that outdated print copy of Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature might be to support the missing leg of the couch owned by the librarian’s college age son or daughter. Still, some school libraries continue to maintain print copies of periodical indexes to teach search skills to students, which is a valid reason to keep these books on hand.
Ideally, a library’s entire collection should be weeded every three to five years, but the larger the library, the longer this process will take. Instead of tackling the entire collection all at once, library staff may find it useful to break down the process by subject areas or to schedule weeding activities based on the time of year. For example, there’s no point in trying to weed the 500s while local elementary school children are working on their science projects, and who would dream of trying to weed the picture book section while the Summer Reading Program is in full swing? And while it makes sense to assign staff to different areas because of their expertise, librarians often find it difficult to weed areas of the collection they feel attached to, either because of their expertise or because they helped build that collection over a number of years. I always had trouble weeding the 398.2s because I love reading fairytales and folktales and hated to take any of them out of the collection.
DO NOT WEED!
Every library houses some materials that will be kept for as long as they can be maintained, regardless of publication date or physical condition.
Local History Items: Small libraries in particular often house one-of-a-kind materials relating to their local community or region that cannot be replaced. The small community library where I worked in the early 1990s was fortunate enough to have in its collection a notebook put together by a historian who had visited the local cemetery and painstakingly mapped all of the gravestones, including some from the nineteenth century that had been grown over with weeds. He also recorded the names and dates from each headstone and presented the library with a neatly typed copy. As far as I know, it was the only one in existence at the time and I trust it has long since been digitized. Another example of irreplaceable items might be microforms of the local newspaper maintained by a rural library.
Local Authors OR Local Settings: These usually are not world famous authors like Zane Grey (although the public library in Zanesville, Ohio no doubt retains copies of all his works); rather, this category includes limited print runs of books written about a particular region. For example, if the mayor’s son wrote a book about his great-great grandfather who founded the town in the early 1800s and only 300 copies were printed, the library would certainly maintain several non-circulating copies.
Gifts & Donations: Often, libraries receive donations of materials—usually several bags or boxes at a time— that have been buried for years in a basement or garage and have no use or relevance to the library’s collection. Some well-meaning donors may not be able to bring themselves to throw these items in the trash, but don’t mind passing the responsibility onto library staff. Others may become irate when they find out the library does not intend to put their “treasures” in the collection. A good way to head off misunderstandings, as well as unwanted and unusable donations, is to implement a clear policy stating that all donated materials will become the property of the library and may or may not be added to the collection. Many smaller public libraries rely on donated materials to supplement the main collection or even build smaller collections, such as audio books. In any case, libraries may want to detail parameters for donated materials to give donors a clear idea of what materials will be gratefully and willingly accepted and what will not be accepted. For example, the library may stipulate that donated children’s books must be in good or new condition and no older than five years, or that textbooks and magazines cannot be accepted. In every case, the gift policy should reflect positive public relations language (“we’re so glad you thought of us!”) while providing enough explanation for the public to understand why the library accepts or does not accept certain kinds of materials.
Memorials: A more delicate matter when weeding is what to do with books that have gift plates and memorial notices prominently displayed in the front. Librarians are reluctant to part with these, even when the item have obviously outlived their usefulness, because they fear the donor will find the book in the Friends’ book sale and become offended. (In all probability, the donor’s neighbor will find the book first and rush over to tell them the horrifying news.) Gift books are no more sacred than the rest of the collection but they should be handled sensitively so that donors will not be unduly offended. One librarian in a small community library shared a marvelous technique with workshop participants several years ago. Since their town was small, everyone knew everyone else and library staff always knew if the donor’s family still lived in the community. When they weeded a book with a gift plate from the shelves the librarian would call the family and explain that the book they had given in honor of their loved one “had just been loved to death” but now was outdated/worn and had to be pulled from the collection. She then asked the family member if they’d like to keep the book as a memento, and invited them to drop by the library the next time they were in town to select another book from one of their new arrivals that would receive a new gift plate in honor of their loved one. Not only did this head off any hurt feelings, the family members generally were so grateful for the librarian’s thoughtfulness that they made an unsolicited monetary donation to the library. Even libraries in more urban areas should take the time to remove or cover up any gift plates in weeded materials to avoid negative perceptions from the community.
Rare Books: What if a weeded book turns out to be a signed First Edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or an out of print item worth thousands of dollars? While it happens only rarely, an occasional library will discover a valuable treasure among the discards and sell them for a tidy profit. Usually, library property stamps, glued book covers, and barcodes detract from an item’s value. But although the task of selling rare finds on eBay or Alibris more expensive in staff time than is worth the small profit gained, some libraries may be able to utilize volunteers or members of the Friends to list items on used book websites like Alibris , Bibliofind ,and BookFinder.
In every instance, someone within the library should have the final say on what will be discarded from the collection. Ideally, the person who determines what will be weeded should be the same person responsible for collection development in a given area—reference, children’s and YA, adult fiction, and so on. Sadly, it is not always possible for a library staff member to remove materials permanently from the library’s collection. In some cases the board of trustees or county commissioners have this final authority; in others, the library director may be so tied to the collection they have built up over the last 20 or 30 years that they forbid any items to be weeded. In situations like this, staff usually bide their time until the old director retires or dies, then gleefully dive in to clear the deadwood and debris.
Online Sites & Continuing Education
While onsite continuing education opportunities are offered frequently by library consortia, regional library systems, and state library associations, many of these events are not accessible for volunteers, trustees, and part-time staff. Fortunately, there are several outstanding resources are available online to new and seasoned weeders.
One of the best sites in my opinion is the Sunlink Weed of the Month Archive, a website compiled by the Florida Department of Education from September 1997 to December 2005. The site is geared for K-12 library media specialists and features a colorful, user-friendly interface. The Archive lists hyperlinked subject areas by their Dewey classification number. Each link takes users to a page of helpful information that includes the headings “Why Weed [the topic],” “Suggested Dewey Numbers to Check,” “Specific Criteria for Weeding,” and “Consider Weeding Titles Like These.” Other links for each Dewey area include “How to Weed and Feed Your Collection,” “Things We’ve Dug Up While Weeding,” “Weeding Guidelines,” and “Reader Comments.” The information is brief but thorough and provides clear, commonsense instructions making this a good choice for weeders of all levels of experience.
Another terrific website for new or inexperienced weeders is the Weeding tutorial developed by the Arizona State Library as part of a larger tutorial on collection development. The tutorial features an easy-to-use interface that allows users to click on particular topics or links as they read through the brief but interesting explanations. Topics are arranged sequentially with headings like “Overview,” “The Importance of a Weeding Policy,” “Why Weeding is Necessary,” “Why it Doesn’t Get Done,” “Planning Your Approach,” “Getting Down to Business,” “Now What?,” and “For Further Reading.” This tutorial provides a condensed but thorough introduction to the process of weeding and is suitable for Trustees, volunteers, new library staff, and others who will be weeding for the first time.
Librarians working in small community or rural libraries may be interested in the online tutorials developed by the Idaho State Library for its Alternative Basic Library Education (ABLE) program. Weeding is but one of the tutorials “designed to help library staff members who have no formal education in library science to acquire the basic knowledge and skills needed to operate or work in a library” (Idaho State Library). Unlike the Arizona State Library tutorial, users cannot navigate freely through the pages of the ABLE tutorials. Instead of hopping back and forth between topics of interest, users must read sequentially through each topic within an ABLE tutorial and complete a short quiz before moving on to the next topic. The advantage to this type of navigation is the ability for an accrediting agency such as the state library to determine that users have actually gone through the entire tutorial from start to finish, allowing them to grant continuing education credit for completion of the course. The user interface is not at all intimidating and instructions and icons are distributed liberally throughout the tutorial. All in all, it provides an excellent introduction to weeding for anyone who is new to library practices and procedures.
Weeding is not for the faint-hearted. It requires perseverance, determination, thoughtfulness, diplomacy, a good sense of humor, and, more often than not, ruthless efficiency. To be successful, weeding projects must have the support of library staff and administrators, trustees, and the public, and it is up to the librarian to oversee the education and inclusion of these stakeholders in the process. Weeding is both a solitary and community effort. It may be carried out by only a handful of people, but the way it is carried out can affect the perceptions of the entire community. Whether a weeding project turns out to be a positive or negative event depends on the attitudes and professional behavior of the people involved. Yet ultimately, thoughtful weeding can only result in brighter, more interesting, and more useful library collections. And this is a Good Thing.
** If you cannot bear to weed out books and then throw them out, here’s a cool use for them…