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.
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 library, Nicholls 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- To remove books with outdated or obsolete information/philosophies (that have no historical use)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.
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).
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.
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.
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.