The Case for Weeding

The Library Staff and Committee welcome Library Intern, John Chagaris, as guest blogger.

When libraries weed or remove resources from their collection, they can often be met with backlash from the community they serve. In 2015 Jeff Scott, the library director in Berkeley California, was forced to step down after the community challenged his choice to “purge” (as they put it) over 50,000 books. Scott tried to make an appeal to the community, stating that the weeding allowed for the collection to grow by 18,000 books in the end, but his appeals for sanity fell on deaf ears.

Libraries are often seen, especially today, as endless repositories of information. While part of that statement is true, “endless” is the operative word here. Storage space, be it physical or digital is at a premium and can easily go beyond the often a libraries modest budget. How then, is a library’s collection able to grow when storage space is so limited?

In order to prevent building addition after addition onto an existing library to house the ever expanding written word, a library has alternatives. A library could purchase offsite storage to house works that aren’t often requested, but that brings additional managerial responsibilities and the burden of purchasing and maintaining an extra facility. Safeguards against fire, flood and theft need to be put in place, not to mention a climate control mechanism for books at various levels of deterioration. Another alternative is the library staff can weed the existing collection to make room for new material.

That’s where I come in. My name is John Chagaris and I’m a second year Masters student at Pratt’s School of Information. For the past few months, I have been working on weeding the biography section with the help of our Librarian, Christina. Our biography section suffers from physical condition issues, redundancy issues, classification errors, and, of course, space issues. Many of these issues could have been minimized if a regular, recurring weeding plan was in place, but unfortunately there hasn’t been one until recently.

Weeding is a crucial component of any library’s mission to maintain a well-curated and current collection. Weeding is the process of making educated decisions about which books should be kept on the shelf and which should be taken off the shelf and discarded. Weeding can either be aggressive or more conservative based on established criteria of the library staff.

While it may sound like weeding opposes the development of a collection by taking books out of that collection, we have to remember that physical shelf space is at a premium while books continue to publish at a steady rate. Because of this, space needs to be made periodically to allow the collection to develop and grow.

The process also allows our librarians to perform quality control on their collection by making sure books are labeled correctly (with author and barcode number, for example), are classified in the correct section. It also gives librarians the opportunity to weed out duplicate copies of a book. For example, a book of correspondence or book of diary entries could be incorrectly as a biography because it’s usually a book about a specific person or a relationship between two people. But a biography it is not; a biography should be a detailed description of a person’s life. The books of correspondence and diary entries are snapshots of a person’s life and are used to research a biography, but they are not biographical alone. On this note, in our library we had all of James Boswell’s personal diaries (eight volumes) classified as biographies in the biography section. These books don’t need to be discarded, but they certainly make room in the biography section when they are moved to Scottish authors in the 800 section.

Weeding also allows for reevaluation of a book’s currency and accuracy. For example, our biography had a book called the The Spy Went Dancing by Aline Griffith, Dowager Countess of Romanones. The book was part of a series and recounted the authors work in espionage and foreign intelligence, and is presented as fact. After the book’s publication historian Rupert Allason found that although there is no doubt that Griffith worked for the CIA during World War Two many of the fact presented in her book was fabricated. In fact, she was a low level cypher clerk, not a high level clearance holding mole catcher. While books like this could be amusing or considered an artifact of the time it was produced, the library is not a place for outdated or misleading materials.

In order to keep a library’s collection vibrant and current, weeding, just like acquisition, is crucial. Without weeding, new acquisitions wouldn’t be as visible to patrons as the older, outdated books flooding the shelves. Without weeding, a library’s staff is doomed to repeat the same mistakes in acquisitions and even book classification again and again.

As we can see, weeding not only keeps the collection vibrant and current, it also gives great insight to the librarian on the needs of the patron base as a whole.

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