Library Operations and the Perception of Weeding

Library management can be tricky.  There is a sense that, if you have a library card, you understand how the library works.  This is true in special libraries as well: I am a lawyer, therefore I know how a law library works.  There is a kernel of truth there.  People buy their own books.  Lawyers license online subscriptions for themselves.  But there are many other aspects to library operations that, due to scale, may not be obvious to the typical user of a library.

One aspect of this that surprises me is the deselection or weeding of a collection.  Our family library collection is over 1200 books but we occasionally get rid of books.  Usually they go to the public library but sometimes they’re just ready for recycling.  A public or special library collection has the same fundamental activity – removing items that are no longer used or that no longer have a purpose – that is complicated by the scale of a library collection.  Given a fixed amount of space, a print collection can quickly fill all available shelves.

There has been a lot of consternation online recently about the weeding of collections.  Alameda County residents were outraged when 100,000 books went into the dumpster.  The Annoyed Librarian shared his/her thoughts about a similar reaction in Hawaii.  A library friends group in Fairfax County struggled with the loss of 440,000 books from the collection and the perception of a decaying library.  It’s not just public libraries.  Academics and special libraries make the same choices.

And, on one hand, it’s understandable.  Why would a library throw away new or expensive books?

It gets to the heart of a difference in perception of the role of library staff.  If we are just book herders, then our role is to keep everything and manage an ever-growing collection of items.  But I think of collection development like a garden, which works nicely with the professional term weeding.  Books aren’t all equally valuable and the same books won’t even have the same value in similar libraries.  Each library needs to make determinations based on what its users actually use and what they are likely to use.

The only way to keep a collection healthy is to get rid of texts that no longer play a role.  This function is a bit easier in many law libraries.  Texts that are dated because they no longer reflect the law are obvious discards.  Sometimes the local bar stops practicing in a given practice area (or, more commonly, it shifts to large law firms or boutiques that buy their own books) and a set isn’t kept any longer.  Piecemeal discards like these can be sold to lawyers or given away free, ensuring they get to a good home.

But what about law reporters?  These tend to be a century or so of books, many of which aren’t used any more because online databases have rendered them superfluous.  Libraries have been among the last people to continue to buy these artifacts because they were expected to, not because of value.  It is common now to find law libraries that only keep law reporters from jurisdictions in which their users practice (state or province + federal courts).  Lawyers may expect to see nice orderly rows of reporters on the shelves but they eat up space and, at prices that can be $300 per volume or more, limited dollars.

It’s not just shelf space and dollars, though.  Law libraries and others are under increasing pressure to use their limited physical space for other purposes.  Academics are shifting to the information or learning commons concept.  Public libraries are adding maker spaces and loaning everything from seeds and gardening tools to network appliances.  Reducing the collection in a planned and thoughtful way can free up space and dollars to do other, more relevant things than book herding.

Users should definitely have an opportunity to inform the work of the library.  At the same time, the library staff need to inform its users – students, public, lawyers, whomever – about operational decisions.  Library directors need to navigate this mine field, using collection development policies created with feedback and other notifications of large collection changes.

When weeding leads to negative reactions because of waste of public dollars, or perceived undervaluing of a subject matter, the result may end up tying the library’s hands for future operations.  Both the library and the users will lose in that situation.