Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

Yet another weeding controversy


Obscure and popular books part of Berkeley library weeding process | Berkeleyside.

This article describes yet another controversy over a library director’s attempt to weed the collection.  Going beyond the he-said-she-said aspects of claims & counter-claims (which are stacking up in the director’s favor, if you ask me), I wanted to look at the methods, the problem of time, and communication.

Most librarians probably view the task of weeding with mixed emotions.  We know that it is necessary, but it leaves a bad taste in our mouths.  And the recent experiences at such institutions as the San Francisco, Urbana Free, and now Berkeley, have added yet another reason to put this task off.

The director claims to be using the CREW manual adopted by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.  This manual provides general guidelines for reviewing the quality of a collection, as well as specific recommendations for general subject areas (by Dewey Decimal range, no less).  The manual was developed in 1976 primarily for small to medium sized public libraries, and has been updated as recently as 2012 to take into consideration changes to resources and technology.  Examples of the general guidelines for de-selection include:

  • outdated or inaccurate information
  • superseded editions
  • materials in poor condition
  • items not circulated in last 3-5 years
  • duplicate copies
  • titles in subject areas that are less frequently used

These can be summed up in the acronym, MUSTIE:

  • Misleading
  • Ugly
  • Superseded
  • Trivial
  • Irrelevant
  • Elsewhere available

The recommendations for specific call number ranges (very broad) include a “formula” or code that includes the minimum age of a work and the most recent years used to be considered for de-selection.  For instance, for 306 (Culture & Institutions), works older than 5 years old and last used more than 2 years ago should be considered for removal.  Of course, these are recommendations and not hard-and-fast rules, and each library should take into consideration interests of the community.  But this manual provides a starting place for librarians evaluating a collection.

Of the examples of titles that were and were not removed, I noticed these examples that clearly reflect the above recommendations.  There are over 500 libraries which already owned the work, Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century, while there were only 4 other libraries which held A Guide to Shrubs for Coastal California, which also is relevant to the community.

Now, another issue of contention is who is actually making the decisions.  Formerly, up to 25 librarians with different areas of expertise were involved.  This makes sense…it ensures that the work is evenly distributed and that those with experience and knowledge of the specific topics make the de-selections.  However, the director states that the librarians claimed to not have the time to attend to their routine weeding tasks; so he assigned the task to just two librarians.  Of course, you could argue that the director provide that time, through elimination or suspension of other responsibilities.  However, librarians are not soldiers…we are often an independent sort.  Being professionals, we take pride in having a certain amount of flexibility in deciding what we do on a daily basis.  But this can be frustrating to management, who often view their job of management as herding cats.  Again, weeding is a distasteful and difficult task…I can easily imagine how difficult it would have been to get all 25 librarians to attend to it when there were other more enjoyable jobs to do.  But this is getting back to the he-said-she-said aspect…Ideally, the director would have enabled all 25 librarians to attend to their weeding responsibilities with the same enthusiasm as their reference, instruction, and other jobs.

Finally, there is the issue of communication.  This is likely the most important part of any weeding project – routine or not.  The community needs to know that weeding is a necessary aspect of managing a library, and that their needs are being addressed in the process.  Too often, we attempt to hide it, or at least not disclose it to our patrons, for fear of just such a reaction.  The director did release the spreadsheets of the works that were removed, but only to the reporter and only after the kerfuffle.  But what is lacking from these sheets is the reasons for the decisions.

What if we do the opposite – market the idea of weeding much like we market our services and programs.  It is a service, after all.  We provide the books that our patrons want, and research has shown that older books, worn-out books, outdated books, etc. are not used, and thus not wanted.  The word itself can provide the advertising campaign theme – tending the garden, removing the weeds, making room for the fresh flowers, the newer, more wanted books.  Provide the community to opportunity for input…perhaps a “second-chance” shelf of books that are not clear-cut decisions.  And finally, work with the parent institution (state or local government, academic institution, whatever) to enable all books to be re-distributed (re-sale, or donations) and not “pulped” or destroyed.  Destroying books is most likely to raise the ire of people.

If we harken back Ranganathan’s 5 Laws, we may be distracted by the 2nd & 3rd laws – every reader his book, and every book its reader.  This may suggest that we need to keep all books just in case there is a reader looking for it.  But such principles must be kept in context of the others, including the 1st (books are for use), the 4th (save the time of the reader), and the 5th (libraries are growing organisms).  Retaining all books requires greater and greater amounts of space, making it more and more difficult to find and access the right books.  And community needs change over time, rendering the collection of 1940 much less relevant to community of 2010.

What I believe could be learned from these experiences:

  • Promote weeding as a service to the community
  • Provide the time and positive incentives for librarians tend to this task.
  • Allow the community input (without acceding to unreasonable demands).
  • Use a structured method and document decisions.
  • Keep the 5 Laws as principles guiding the process.
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This entry was posted on August 9, 2015 by in Collections, LIS Profession, Public Library.
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