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by Jessie Bach
Library Twitter exploded last month when American philosopher and Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger tweeted that “Librarians who destroy books are power-hungry gatekeepers. Their job should not be to choose, cull, and destroy, but to collect, warehouse, and make available. There I said it.”
Sanger was responding to the practice of “weeding,” which is library-lingo for the removal of books from library collections. This tweet prompted thousands of librarians from across the world to join the Twitter conversation to defend the practice of weeding and dispute the misconceptions about it. This uproar was only the latest in a long history of concerned folks speaking up against the practice of weeding.
In this post, I’d like to join the conversation—in a space with a higher character limit—to detail why weeding is actually an integral part of maintaining a healthy library collection, how libraries in Alberta decide what to weed, and what they do with all those books!
Books are weeded from library collections for several reasons, including condition, age, relevance, space, and popularity. Some library books are so well-loved, they literally wear out from repeated readings. A book that has a broken spine, pages that are torn or falling out, yellowing edges, extensive markups, or any manner of nasty smells are no longer suitable to loan to library patrons. Books like this will be weeded from the collection and possibly replaced with a new copy of the same title. On the other hand, a library book may be a few years old and appear to be in mint condition—if that’s the case, it’s a good sign that no one is reading it! By weeding this book, space is created in the collection for something that will be more popular or useful. Content matters too. For example, a fiction classic may stand the test of time and remain popular in the library even if it was published decades ago. Alternately, a non-fiction book about the latest in climate science or how to use Instagram becomes obsolete within a few years of its publication date. Books like that are weeded and replaced with more up-to-date publications.
Another huge consideration when weeding is space. Libraries are not the same as archives; they generally have no mandate to simply collect and warehouse materials, and their buildings are not designed for this purpose. Space in most libraries is finite, and the thousands of new books that are published every year need a place on the shelf. One library can only hold so much, and too many books can become a barrier to use and even safety. For example, when books need to be stored on the highest or lowest shelves they can become inaccessible to many people, and books that are packed in too tightly become an avalanche risk to patrons trying to dislodge a particular title. If the books in a library’s collection are physically difficult to access, it will soon show in their borrowing stats. In order to continue acquiring the new and hot materials that library patrons want to read, some of the old, under-used books simply have to go. In 2014, for example, Calgary Public Library weeded about ten percent of its entire collection, around 300,000 books at the time, all in an effort to create more space for the people who use the library. By removing the material that is in poor condition or isn’t circulating, libraries are able to make more room for the good stuff, which ultimately leads to higher use.
Decisions about what books to weed from the library collection are not made lightly, or at the hands of a single power-hungry, gatekeeping librarian. They are based on statistics and data, observed usage trends, and established processes and procedures as laid out by each library in policy. In Alberta, the Libraries Act requires each municipal library to have a policy that addresses the “selection, acquisition, purchase and disposition of library resources…” Most libraries address weeding in these policies—laying out the parameters, frequency and philosophy they will use to remove titles from their collection. Here’s an example statement from the St. Albert Public Library’s Materials Selection Policy:
“Staff use criteria including use, duplication, age and damage to determine items for withdrawal. Replacement of items depends upon the demand for the title and the availability of more current or better materials on the subject.”
Despite the outraged claims on social media and letters to the Editor from disappointed book lovers, libraries do try to ensure that as many weeded books as possible have a chance at a second life. Many of them end up for sale in library book sale fundraisers along with community donations and other materials not suitable for the collection. Library book sales, like this one in Cold Lake, are incredibly popular across the province—libraries love the opportunity to provide affordable reading materials to the community, and customers love the chance to score some new-to-them books!
In the case of a title weeded due to low use that is still recent, relevant, and in good condition, it may be sent on to another library to see if there is more interest in a different community. Some weeded titles may also be donated to another cause or organization. Better World Books, for example, is an organization that accepts donations of discarded library books that they sell online or donate directly to communities in need. In Sherwood Park, the Strathcona County Library has donated quality books that have been weeded from their collection to a public library in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. At Marigold Library System, where I work, staff have facilitated donations of gently used books to the library at the Drumheller Penitentiary.
Weeded books may also be used for library programs and crafts. Black out poetry, like this activity from Medicine Hat Public Library, requires blacking out words in an old book to create a poem. Book folding and other crafts, and bookish Christmas trees are all popular uses for re-purposing old books. I’ve even heard of a library that donated the hardcovers removed from weeded books to a local Hutterite colony who used them as shingles for a chicken coop. Of course, when all else fails, books that are damaged beyond usefulness are simply recycled.
Weeding can be a touchy subject, and it’s understandable that the practice often triggers an emotional response from library users and library staff alike. People like books—personally, I’d go so far as to say that I LOVE them! For many, books are special, even sacred objects and it hurts a little to think of throwing them away. The most important thing in a library though, isn’t the books at all—it’s the people. And research has shown that people borrow more books from well-curated library collections receiving regular weeding.
Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.
Jessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta, and is a life-long library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Bibliographic Services Manager at Marigold Library System where she manages the team that does acquisitions, cataloguing and processing of library material for Marigold’s thirty-six member libraries. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, four cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.
Feature image credit: Photo Book with heart-shaped pages on white created by AndrewLozovyi