Part of librarianship is understanding of the purpose of your particular library. Libraries range from those with extremely specialized collections like museum, medical, and research to those with broader appeal like academic, primary school, and public. There are also archives, which can be described as a cross between a museum and a library. Knowing who your library, and therefore the collection, serves is paramount to staying relevant in your community. Public libraries, for example, exist to serve a broad cross-section of any community. It includes everyone from new moms to retirees, young professionals to the homeless. The bulk of a public library’s collection should then reflect that community and what they want to read, which is why it isn’t likely that you’ll find a rare treatise on religion on a public library’s shelf.
One of the thorniest tasks that all libraries must perform is withdrawing books, called weeding. An essential part of broader Collection Care, weeding the collection is the act of removing damaged, out-of-date, and non-used items from the library’s collection. There are two reasons that this is essential to responsible collection care: space and quality. First, libraries have finite space and have to make room for new materials. For example, my library adds around 15,000 items per year to the collection. If we don’t withdraw (or weed) a similar number of items, we run out of space for books on the shelves within a matter of years. Second, libraries have a responsibility to provide the best information and materials available to their patrons. This especially applies to the non-fiction collections where libraries want to be sure the books aren’t extremely out-of-date. Books about planets that still include Pluto as the 9th planet, for instance, will need to be replaced. Similarly, responsible stewardship of public funds is important. A well-funded library with a lot of community support should not have damaged, ratty, or unsightly books on the shelf. Those need to be pulled off the shelves; the patrons deserve the best in fresh, clean, new books.
It’s important to note that weeding and reordering items are two sides of the same Collection Care coin. When library staff pulls an item off the shelf to withdraw it because it’s been read so many times the cover is falling off, that book will more-than-likely get reordered. A new fresh copy of Fifty Shades of Grey will be on the shelf in a matter of weeks. This is, in small part, where those 15,000 new items are coming from.
Unfortunately, all libraries struggle with weeding. Because it requires a massive amount of staff-time and is relatively boring, the task often gets moved to the back burner. Some libraries require that Titled Librarians be the only ones who can weed or withdraw items from the collection, which really limits the amount of staff time devoted to the task. Other libraries haven’t had anyone in charge of their collection – like a collection development manager or a materials selector – in years, and therefore no one to direct the massive, never-ending project that is weeding. Some libraries are on a budget freeze and don’t withdraw any books for years. When the freeze lifts, these libraries find themselves in a state of emergency weeding. After years of not performing steady Collection Care, they are without room to shelve new items, so staff must quickly — and sometimes frantically — withdraw huge numbers of items without the careful care and consideration to each individual item they would normally perform.
Ideally, when performing a thorough and responsible collection weed, a team of library staff will pull every single item off the shelf and examine it individually. The item will be considered on a number of factors that usually include circulation stats (the number of times the item has been checked out of the library in the past year and in the lifetime of the item), condition, and relevancy or accuracy. Lists of items that need replaced will be sent to the materials selector and the books will be stamped “withdrawn.” Those books are typically then simply recycled.
It can seem counter-intuitive or shocking to see recycle bins full of books at the library being hauled away, especially for those people with a deep passion for collecting and books. Nevertheless, weeding is a crucial part of responsible collection care and it is not undertaken lightly. People will tell libraries to donate their withdrawn materials but, donate them where? If they weren’t good enough for our patrons, they’re not good enough to send to retirement homes, veterans services, schools, poor-kids-in-Africa, or wherever the Do-Gooder thinks we should be donating them. Libraries will try to sell their better condition weeded books, but used book stores and online book retailers don’t want them. We could put a Little Free Library in every front yard in America, and there still wouldn’t be room for all the weeded materials.
I wish there was a less wasteful way to dispose of thousands of poor condition or barely used items, but for now, this is the process. It’s part of maintaining a relevant and responsible library’s collection and it’s how your library is able to have space for fifteen new copies of Where the Crawdads Sing for your bookclub.