Image: Egon69/iStock/Getty
Image: Egon69/iStock/Getty

BooksFebruary 4, 2020

‘Weed in the dead of night’: A librarian shares the secrets of book-culling

Image: Egon69/iStock/Getty
Image: Egon69/iStock/Getty

Librarian Rebecca Hastie with a crash course on the fraught task of “weeding”, the systematic removal of resources from a library collection. 

Writer and reviewer David Larsen wrote an article the other week conveying his immense displeasure and concern that the National Library is removing 600,000 books from its collection. David’s piece, along with the inevitable Nazi book burning comparisons in the comments section, is very much par for the course when a library begins a weeding project. For librarians, though, weeding is a crucial aspect of our professional duty to maintain collections that best serve the needs of our communities.

The fifth law of library science is “the library is a growing organism”. Fundamentally, a library collection shouldn’t be static, it must evolve and shift to best meet the needs of library users. A well-managed collection will both bring new materials in and remove materials that no longer benefit the collection. No library has the unlimited space, staffing, and budget that would enable the storage of everything forever. Even if circumstances allowed, a library that never removed anything would just bloat into an off-putting, unmanageable mess. Borrowing rates frequently increase after a weeding project: browsing the shelves or online catalogue without having to sift through older, irrelevant material means library users are actually more likely to find something they’re looking for – or something they didn’t know they were looking for. As an American librarian put it in a post for The Coil, without weeding “people would enter a library and be swallowed by a wave of disorganized hardcovers and paperbacks. Almanacs and dictionaries from the 1920s would pile up to the ceiling. Doorways would be choked with computer manuals written before the Internet existed”.

So why do books in the bin send shivers down our spine? There are a few theories out there on why humans love books as objects. Some of the more interesting include the theatricality of physically interacting with books, the personification of books, a sentimental nostalgia for a simpler screenless time, a fetishistic attraction to books, or just the fact that books are a way to show others how smart and well-read you are. American director John Waters put it bluntly: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” Maybe we can blame Fahrenheit 451, or maybe it’s just #toosoon after the ancient Library of Alexandria burnt. Whatever it is, we all understand how George feels here. They’re … BOOKS!!

It’s no surprise then that weeding announcements evoke a flurry of sad and angry face reacts. In response to the disposal of books and newspapers by his local public library, novelist Nicholson Baker became so riled up that he wrote the book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. Weeding projects can encourage the rise of passionate library vigilantes: individuals on a ‘save libraries from the librarians’ mission which usually includes scanning dumpsters and rescuing discarded books. Collective public anger can quickly get out of control; in Berkeley, two years ago, weeding of unused books – and the library director’s poor communication about same – caused patrons to petition and stage protests until the director was forced to resign.

However, it’s not just library patrons who feel strongly towards weeding. Rebels within the library system have emerged at times to fight the power. The Berkeley protestors included retired librarians. A few years ago two plucky librarians in Florida went rogue and created fake patron accounts to which they issued thousands of titles, attempting to save books with low borrowing rates from being weeded. According to the 2017 academic text Emotion in the Library Workplace, even librarians in full support of a weeding project report that weeding is their least favourite part of the job, associated with high levels of distress and discomfort. Can’t blame them, given the seemingly inevitable conflict with library patrons and the ensuing publicity firestorm – just see the comments under David Larsen’s article!

Facebook comments on David Larsen’s Spinoff article about the National Library’s book weeding

It makes sense then that many libraries have approached weeding as a dirty little secret that must be hidden from the public wherever possible. The academic literature around weeding is full of suggestions of different ways that libraries can disguise their nefarious weeding activities – the most common of which boils down to “WEED IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT, BURY THE BODIES, HIDE THE BOOKS UNDER A PILE OF LEAVES”. Seriously, there are multiple articles written about the best way to tuck the books away in the bottom of the bin. Another common solution is to cosy up to your patrons and then ask them to do the weeding – they can’t hate you if they do the chucking! One university library tried hosting wine and cheese parties for their academic staff. Once they had everyone feeling good and merry they handed out copies of CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries and set them loose on the shelves. Results were underwhelming. Turns out people don’t want to perform jobs that they’re not hired or qualified to do, even if the metaphorical pill is covered in literal cheese.

The fact is, there’s just no escaping weeding. Like a garden, weeding is essential to cultivate and maintain the health of the entire collection. There’s good news though: in the majority of cases, many books are rehomed – Nicholson Baker, of Double Fold fame, became the owner of thousands of volumes of old newspapers which he later homed at Duke University. In one heartwarming story, garbage collectors in Turkey founded their own library consisting of discarded books found on the job – their library has a thriving membership with more donations than they’ve found time to catalogue. Closer to home, the National Library has found “more positive interest in this collection than expected and more options to rehome these books. Rehoming rather than secure destruction is now the most likely outcome.”

Although rehoming is the best-case scenario, we must remember that often books are weeded because they are no longer fit for purpose. They may be in a state of physical disrepair (an article in American Libraries shares some juicy weeding horror stories from librarians: “I’m not exaggerating … fully half were more than 100 years old and full of insects and dry rot”) or contain outdated and potentially dangerous incorrect content. A common solution suggested is to donate the masses of weeded titles to developing countries, because it’s fine for those kids to grow up thinking the USSR is going strong, right? A ‘gift’ of old, damaged, culturally irrelevant pile of books is really just shifting the disposal problem to someone else’s doorstep. These libraries require current titles, primarily in their language and relevant to their educational requirements, and it’s unlikely that weeded books will meet their needs. To demonstrate this point a great blog, Awful Library Books, shares the particularly bonkers titles that have been removed from library shelves. I can kill a lot of time on that blog. A personal favourite post is Knitting with Dog Hair (1997).

“Woof-to-warp” and other zingers, via the blog Awful Library Books.

So far I’ve been speaking about libraries in general. I’m not affiliated in any way with the National Library, but it makes perfect sense to me that is is weeding out a collection of overseas material (that hasn’t been used in over 20 years!) to make space for more New Zealand/Pasifika taonga. As National Librarian Bill Macnaught says on the library’s website, “A significant part of our role as stewards of Aotearoa’s documentary heritage is to preserve the memory of New Zealand and our place in the Pacific. No library elsewhere in the world is going to collect and preserve our stories, that’s our job. We now need to make more room for these stories.”

The National Library explains that the overseas collection was formed to serve information needs in a time when it was much harder for Kiwis to access information from other countries. These days, with worldwide interloan borrowing schemes and increased digital resources, it’s easier than ever to access the most obscure materials. Of course our National Library should focus its budget, space, and staff on preserving and protecting Pasifika, Māori and New Zealand content for future generations. Bill’s right – that’s its job!

In short: it’s time to turn over a new leaf, and that starts with trust. Librarians, let’s stop creeping around in the dead of night, hiding discarded books in the bottom of the bin. We should trust our patrons to understand why weeding is a necessary part of maintaining a healthy collection. Library lovers, let’s agree to trust our librarians. Librarians are trained professionals working to protect, preserve, and enhance their library collections in order to best serve their communities.

We love books as well.

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