Why We Weed: Book Deselection in Academic Libraries

Weeding – withdrawing books from the library’s collection – is one those dreaded librarian tasks. It usually sits on the back burner – other projects are often more pressing, or it’s simply being avoided. However, it’s an important task and one that can be fraught with controversy.

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Public libraries which frequently need to refresh their collections to offer bestsellers often pop up in the news when it comes to weeding books – mostly for not doing the job well – see Urbana Free Library in Illinois, Fairfax County Libraries in Virginia, and Davenport Public Library in Iowa.

For academic libraries, the process seems to be a taboo subject. News about book weeding occasionally bubbles to the surface (see Emporia State University in Kansas, the University of North Dakota law libraryNicholls State University in Louisiana, and the University of New South Wales in Australia). After all, the library is the academic heart of the institution. Why would you purge the library?

Why Do We Weed?

  • To remove books that are not being used
  • To remove books with outdated or obsolete information/philosophies (that have no historical use)
  • To identify books that are damaged or in poor condition
  • To identify gaps in the collection and make new purchases
  • To align the collection with the university’s goals, mission, and curriculum
  • Limited space for the collection

It boils down to this: Weeding is simply the selection process in reverse. Librarians, using their knowledge, institutional interests, and professional tools, decide which books to purchase. We use that same skill set to decide what books to withdraw.

Libraries are Not Warehouses
For most academic libraries, our mission is not to collect the whole of human knowledge. We have limited space, limited resources. We are not a warehouse for books–a warehouse is a storage facility. Books are for using–not for sitting on a shelf for years on end.

Seek Input, but Use Your Expertise
Communication is key. Consult with professors in the weeding process. Outline the reasons for weeding and why the project is important for the library. Offer professors the chance to review books slated for withdrawal, but remember that the librarian should use his/her skills and tools to make a final decision.

The Space Race
Most academic libraries aren’t seeing a brand new library building – or even a remodel – anytime soon. Space is at a premium. We investigate how students spend time in the library and use its resources (see: University of Rochester study, ERIAL Project, Project Information Literacy, Pew Reports): How to do students use the facility? What do they not do that they would like to do? Stacks and stacks of bound periodicals generally do not make sense anymore in the off-chance a student might browse the section. It can’t compete – nor should it – with 24/7 perpetual access to resources such as JSTOR – available from the library website from anywhere in the world.

Curriculum Counts
Particularly with smaller academic library collections, the mission is to support the courses taught at the university–not necessarily a professor’s own research interests (although the two often match up). As the curriculum evolves, some programs are phased out and new programs implemented. The library collection will change based on the curriculum. It’s a “growing organism” (Ranganathan’s 5th law of library science).

Bad Circulation
We strive for a high-quality, high-use collection. Librarians look at circulation statistics (usually both check-outs and in-house browses) as just one criterion for deciding which books to withdraw – but it’s an important one. Will we keep “classic” items essential for each discipline? Of course. But a non-essential book published in 1975 that hasn’t been checked out since 1985 (that’s 29 years ago–older than most college students!)? Probably not.

Seeing Double
Gone are the days when libraries would purchase multiple copies of the same book to go into the circulating collection. Are those multiple copies getting checked out? Probably not. Even with a “classic” book, multiple copies are likely not warranted and will be weeded. Same goes for most superseded editions.

Waiting for ILL?
Will withdrawal of books lead students to waiting for materials through interlibrary loan? If the books weren’t being used in the first place, then probably not! Generally, lower-level undergraduates will be fine. Upper-level students may need to resort to interlibrary loan regardless of your weeded or un-weeded collection. ILL is also faster these days. If it’s absolutely central to students’ research, then they will wait. On the flipside: If books slated for withdrawal were so “important” – then your library would probably be receiving ILL requests for them. Guess what? They’re not!

Print v. Electronic
In some cases, print copies may be replaced with electronic copies. Will print books be going away anytime soon? No. Opinions on print v. electronic will vary by discipline. Seek input from faculty and students. However, electronic versions may hold an advantage for certain items: Think of digitized historical primary sources – accessible to anyone from anywhere – that’s a better scenario than one book checked out to one person.

The Mini-Library Problem

Often when books are discarded, professors want them for their collections. Policies will vary from library to library on this. I’ve worked at libraries that struggled against historical practices that lead to unofficial “mini-libraries” on-campus. Library staff worked hard to amalgamate library collections for the campus to provide centrally located services and ease of access. The idea of burgeoning “satellite” libraries is one that a lot of smaller academic libraries do not want to repeat.

Book Fetishists
I like books. You like books. I get it. But not every book is precious for your library. And not everyone is willing to come to an agreement on this. Librarians need to communicate and educate. Try to avoid the dumpster scenario if at all possible. Hold a book sale, offer to a used bookstore, or use outlets such as Better World Books. Make an effort to find a new home for these books.


A candidate for weeding - Where the Jobs Are: The Hottest Careers for the '90s and Beyond - according to WorldCat, this 1995 ed. is still available in over 300 libraries.

A candidate for weeding: Where the Jobs Are: The Hottest Careers for the ’90s and Beyond. According to WorldCat, this 1995 ed. is still available in over 300 libraries.

44 thoughts on “Why We Weed: Book Deselection in Academic Libraries

  1. Pingback: Why We Weed: Book Deselection in Academic Libra...

  2. As a non-librarian this was kind of fascinating to read. Half a lifetime later I still remember the outrage my friends and I felt when a new school librarian got rid of a bunch of books from our high school library. I wish someone had given us an explanation like this rather than just distracting us with other things.

  3. Thank you for writing about this! I am a new librarian at a mediumish academic library and am grappling with weeding and collection development/maintenance in general. It’s nice to have some reasons to present to the powers that be why I am deselecting “so many titles” from my departments!

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  5. Good post – and thanks for including the links. One of my summer projects is to get a better handle on collection analysis. I’ll be referring back to this!

  6. The library smiles when the weeds are gone! Thank you, now would you call my librarian friends and tell them I am not the only one who believes weeding is part of the job?

  7. The library at the university I work at has ‘annexes’ which are warehouses of books a student can check out by request.

    I suppose a library is like a garden, where it needs to be trimmed in order for it to truly grow.

  8. That is such a shame! I hate the thought of books being ragged. I have a blog on fiction, check it out guys

  9. I’m taking a collection management class this summer, so perfect timing on this post! I’d rather not have any books on a subject, and provide electronic access or ILL instead, than cling to materials that are potentially misleading to users (thinking of 1999 legal manuals and 2008 GRE study guides).

  10. I dislike the concept of weeding and with technology weeding should be put on the back burner. I love the feel of books, the smell, the turning the pages and the visual of a book. Maybe I am old school but books are important to me and deleting them is a crime.

    • I went to the Library at the state college where I work yesterday. This is my sixth year at the institution and the current collection of paper books is a quarter of it was then. On the stacks are SQR codes directing one to the ebooks available. While I understand the ease of electronic access as both a faculty member and as a college student, I must admit that I still enjoy wandering through the stacks exploring. I guess that I will have to wander in a large bookstore….

  11. This was extremely interesting. Although I know that shelves and shelves of bound back issues of journals are a prime target for weeding, there is a certain wonderful serendipity in using those volumes. When looking through bound journals for particular articles, I have come across other articles that have been extremely useful in my research and teaching – articles I never would have encountered in an online search. While I recognize the value and accessibility of online journal databases, I’m also sad that we are losing that element of unexpected opportunity and excitement that bound journals offered us.

  12. I worked at an academic library. One thing we had to do each summer was “shifting” which was moving books around on increasingly over stocked shelf space so students, professors and community members could easily pull books on and off shelves. When books were in too tight, not only was it a safety hazard, but it discouraged use. We had an entire floor full of printed magazines in book form. They were almost never used because students would go directly to JStore or Google. Our history books and social science books would go out fairly regularly but the 100 year old science texts, next to never. Libraries aren’t museums, they’re meant for use. We did have a floor dedicated to very valuable, unreplacable items and things of special interest to the university’s history but there was good reason to reconsider books like outdated computer science texts. Some books have a limited shelf life, literally. It’s better to free up space for things that patrons would browse through like art books and historical texts that are more evergreen then keep every copy of every outdated and updated science or computer course. Patrons wanting those books want to know they have up to date material anyway.

  13. That’s interesting. You make libraries sound like living organisms, ingesting what’s useful and expelling what’s not. Wait, I love books. I hope I didn’t just make them sound like poop.

  14. Pingback: Why We Weed: Book Deselection in Academic Libraries | Innovation

  15. Just like our homes, libraries too need to be cleaned of unwanted items. We remove unused stuff from our houses regularly to make room for new ones so why shouldn’t libraries do the same? It is unnecessary for libraries to keep materials that are of no use to the general public when they can simply make room for materials people actually want to use. After all, we do want people in our libraries and not just books. In the end though, it all comes down to keeping what is useful and getting rid of what is not.

  16. It is also difficult to clean up a high school collection. We have renovated in the past year and are, this year, adding middle school level titles from a middle school which is closing. OY!

  17. I read your entire post and one thing I would really say is that the concept of digital library is very appealing.
    An entire section of library, or for that matter an entire library can be stored in a hard drive and it would still have space to store many more books.
    Inexpensive, easy to distribute, and best no need of deselecting.

  18. I used to work at a library, and even though I understood that we had to weed books that weren’t being checked out and were just taking up space, it still made me a bit sad to be taking those books off the shelves.

  19. I know some libraries do not weed their books and what I find to be amazing is that when they receive new books they don’t take them out of the boxes. Now when a patron come to the library, they search the catalog and find a title that they are interested in but then when they go to the front desk they are disappointed because the library staff don’t know where to find the title. Meanwhile it is somewhere in the back of the library in a box in storage collecting dust.

  20. Pingback: Why We Weed: Book Deselection in Academic Libraries | MALACHI ONLY

  21. An entire section of library, or for that matter an entire library can be stored in a hard drive and it would still have space to store many more books.
    Inexpensive, easy to distribute, and best no need of deselecting.

  22. The question is often asked by many, why do libraries get rid of books? The answer to this question may not be of importance to you if you have no interest in the library world. Nonetheless, Librarians and library paraprofessionals understand the importance of weeding, much better than others in the library field. In academic libraries especially, it is important for weeding to take place, it helps librarians to see where there collection is lacking and the need to keep it updated. The weeding process is also good, in that it seeks to withdraw damaged items in the collection that would no longer seem fit to circulate. With the growing needs for information, the evolution of library 2.0 and the increasing results of electronic versions on books, journals, ect. Many paper based information are being digitized, which makes some books become obsolete. I think that libraries should weed their collection at particular intervals, so that their collection will always be updated, and in so doing meeting the needs of the user and getting rid of obsolete items, except in the case of “rare books.” As the article rightly said, “Books are for using–not for sitting on a shelf for years on end.”

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  24. Reblogged this on Always we begin again… and commented:
    Hi, since I am a volunteer at a primary parochial school library, I thought I would post this interesting article. Generally what I do at the library is classroom support, check-in and check-out, cataloging, accessioning, and weeding. This pretty much sums up the logic behind weeding except for mentioning books withdrawn due to damage and overall condition.

  25. I used to work at a public library, and we’d just throw out whatever hadn’t been checked out in a year. I never thought about what academic librarians go through. Thanks!

  26. I’m not a librarian but I do know the importance of weeding. I still feel bad whenever I part myself from my own collection. What I tend to do is find a new owner that would either enjoy or academically benefit from them. It isn’t easy to find these new owners but it eases our separation. I must sound cheesy right now but my books have been my great companions in times of solitude. Your post is definitely a good read that whether or not you are a book junkie, it helps to understand how and why you do what you do.

  27. Reblogged this on they let me play with markers and commented:
    This is a great explanation of weeding. I have never needed to do this in my career as a librarian but I definitely need to start doing it at home. At least 80% of the (huge) number of books in my house will never be read again but It’s still hard.

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