“Weeding” Good for the Library

When my wife and I started packing before we moved into our current house I used to think we had a couple boxes worth of books. I was wrong. When we finished packing everything, I discovered we had 39 boxes of books, books, and more books.

These days I try not to buy so many and, if I want to read something, I get it from the library. And if I can’t find it on the shelves here, I get it through interlibrary loan from a bunch of different libraries. Otherwise, I know that sooner or later I will once again have to carefully select those I truly need to have in my life to fit the available space. I hate that. I get enough of it at work.

Deciding which books not to keep is the most painful task a librarian faces. Most of us got into the profession out of a basic desire- our love of books. But unlike most everyone else, we don’t presume that once a book makes it to library shelves, it will be there forever. Our experience has taught us libraries not only collect books, but they have to get rid of them too.

We call this process “weeding,” and we do it for the same reason a gardener weeds. We need to make room for fresh, healthy growth. Just because a book makes it to the library shelves, doesn’t mean it stops getting old. Over time, and despite our best efforts, the paper yellows and turns brittle. The binding begins to deteriorate. Dust collects. The lettering on the spine starts to fade. Old books eat up shelf space. After a while, they actually scare people away from the new books.

Particularly in the non-fiction areas, we can’t afford to keep books more than 5-8 years. In some areas, even five years is pushing it. Old books, particularly medical and technical books, have outdated information in them.

How do we decide what goes? Well, it’s kind of like the electoral process- the people decide. Every time someone checks out a book, it counts as one vote. Popular books get a lot of votes. So whenever we weed, we re-elect them to our shelves.

But sometimes we find that a book hasn’t been checked out in a long time. And in the public library, as in politics, a book that hasn’t gotten a single vote in awhile gets kicked out of office. It’s democracy in action.

Even when the “People Have Spoken,” it doesn’t make it any easier on librarians. Some books – classics, for instance – we may choose to replace with newer copies. In our innermost hearts, we still believe that every book has its reader, and every reader his or her book. It’s sad when one of our books goes unloved.

But here’s the other thing, verified by countless libraries around the world. When we get rid of the older growth, the use of the newer material takes a big jump. Now patrons can find what they’re looking for.

So where do new books go when they’ve been weeded? Often, they wind up in library book sales. From there they pass to precisely the places that please us most. They find good homes, with people who will love them.

Ronald W. Shaw