On the Weeds: Deselection in the Library

This article is for three groups of people: those who are acquainted with weeding in the library, those who get upset about discarded books, and the plain curious ones.

Weeding. For a librarian, this word means something completely different than from a gardener. Yet they both mean the same thing: to discard what is no longer healthy for an area, be it a book collection or a flower bed.

Perhaps, the thought of weeding your library makes you cringe. Perhaps, it delights you. Or even reading this article suddenly jogs your memory to the last time you weeded and you realize, Oops, it’s been way too long.

I belong to the delighted group. Weeding, or to use the classier word deselection, brings me great satisfaction. It is one tool in collection development that really helps to make my collection my community’s. And if you silently or vocally freak out when you see deselection is going on, bear with me and read on.

I remember the first time I encountered the concept of deselection. At my first library job, I was helping someone and came across a copy of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. As someone just getting her hands wet in children’s literature, I opened it up to look at it colorful pages. However, it soon became apparent that this copy wasn’t the best specimen: its spine was broken and countless pages were ripped. I grabbed this book, rushing to my supervisor, aghast. She, in turn, was, too. She had recently begun the job as children’s librarian. Once she saw that book, she went to look at the stacks (the shelves where the books are kept). My innocent discovery began a very thorough weeding endeavor my supervisor undertook with the rest of the staff and me.

Through that experience, I learned the timeless adage “a garden’s best soil is one in which the tender walks” can definitely be applied to library collections. It is something I do regularly at my job. I especially encourage new employees to begin looking at their collection, seeing how well-tended or neglected it is. Then, start tending it.

Well-used metaphor aside, I am a huge supporter of weeding collections, not just when you first begin a new position, but annually. Many, many libraries do not weed. Their reasons may range from indifference to laziness to “We are so poor and we have to horde everything!” (not to belittle libraries with a lack of funding) to plain ole librarian biases.

However, the benefits outweigh the negatives when it comes to deselection:

The books will shine. What you have, especially newly purchased items, will stand out more because people can find them.  Deselection allows for more room on cramped shelves. Shelves are cramped because a collection hasn’t been tended. We all have limited funds, limited space, and limited readers. We want to have every book ready and available for every patron, but the reality is we can’t. By careful and thoughtful deselection, we can make sure what we have is easy to access and is relevant to our service population.

It will keep your collection up-to-date. Sometimes I think people only pick certain books because that’s all we have on a hot topic (these hot topics will be unique to your particular library). If we had a newer copy or a more up-to-date version, then surely folks would check it out. I believe in having as much up-to-date materials as possible. I know some feel that certain topics never go old, ergo history. This thought is completely accurate. However, are there newer copies of the same currently beat-up copy? Are there newer thoughts on this topic?

Look at the simple difference in a buying a reprint of an old children’s book. Yes, people love old books and it’s nice to show your kid how old and loved a book is (legit: a lady complained about me weeding a few Tasha Tudor books because of that exact reason). But in a circulating library having tons of brittle books taking up so much space on the shelf is not practical. Let’s just be honest about the fact that books have “shelf lives.”

And, most important to proper collection development habits:

It lets you know what your community is and is NOT into so you can spend those tax dollars wisely. Strangely enough, deselection is also intrinsically historical. After going through your lists, you get to see an overview of the trends not only in the publishing world, but of your preprocessor(s), of reviewers, and of your community’s preferences. Have they changed? (You betcha! Surprisingly those horse novels sure went stagnant over the past few years!)

So just ask yourself, do we really need all of those 1990s craft books or are we just keeping them because they recently checked out? If you need the space, then you have to ask: can we do without 10 of those 60? Or 20? Deselection is a very thoughtful activity and should be done thoroughly, with your hands all in it.

I end with another personal anecdote:

When I first arrived at my present library, I met something shocking to me. My preprocessor did not weed. She applied to like every grant ever and got more books, but didn’t do a thorough weeding in her almost 4 years here. Her preprocessor was one of those hording types. She would just tape up books and keep them circulating. Colored in? No problem! Water-damaged? Bring it back! When I walked the stacks my first time, I nearly cried. We have a huge homeschooling population and the non-fiction dated back to the 1950s and 1960s. I felt I couldn’t do anything until I tackled my collection. I was so embarrassed. No, I was EMBARRASSED. Over the course of 3 years, I single-handedly weeded well over 10,000 books.

This all leads me to plead with you: weed annually. Not only does it take less time to do, but it isn’t as evident to the public. Not trying to deceive anyone here, but it is hard to explain why we weed, especially when you start to discuss currency. Honestly, if I never worked at a library it would never cross my mind to get rid of books so it makes sense that people get upset over deselection! But it is healthy and necessary for your library, your community, and your budget.

Do you weed at your library? How do you feel about getting rid of books? What do you do with discarded books? (We ship ours off the Better World Books or put them in the booksale…but if they are that damaged, we either give them away or recycle them.)

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