There’s a new trend in libraries and I’m not sure I approve. It stems from the idea that libraries need to market their materials much like stores do. Their funding, after all, is often tied to circulation numbers. If they can entice more patrons to check out more materials, perhaps their funding will increase–or at least not decrease. Part of the advice being offered to circulate more materials is to reduce “browsing fatigue,” the feeling of being overwhelmed by looking at rows and rows of books and not knowing which one to pick. To do this, libraries are advised to weed (take out of circulation) books until their shelves are only halfway to two-thirds full. The remaining space is then used to place books face out on display. The books on display are supposed to be more eye-catching, causing patrons to grab them for check out, without feeling like they have to look through all the titles on the shelf.
What I do not like about this advice is that it assumes that there is one primary type of library patron and that libraries exist primarily to serve that one type of patron. The library patron being assumed is that of the browser, a person who does not come to the library knowing what they want and who must be guided to the right books as a result. To help streamline this process, the library must initially lose one-third to one-half of their collection and then keep weeding aggressively to keep their shelves half-bare. As a result, the library is not necessarily serving another type of patron: the one who knows what they want before they walk in.
Patrons who research books before stepping through the doors of a library often assume the library will have specific titles because they envision the library as serving as a sort of repository of knowledge. It has accumulated books over the years and has carefully guarded them for future readers. But the new marketing model means that they have a smaller chance of finding what they want unless it happens to be popular or otherwise deemed of value by the librarians (this could mean books of local interest, books that are diverse, books on specialized topics, or books that otherwise fill in a gap in the collection). If they are looking for a mid-list book or a book published years ago, and the circulation numbers have not justified keeping it, they may not find it at all. They will have to try interlibrary loan or perhaps attempt to purchase it.
Weeding half of the library’s collection seems like a pretty drastic measure to take when there are so many other ways to guide patrons who may be suffering from browsing fatigue. Libraries routinely put books on display, provide lists of recommended titles for various age groups and genres, get patrons to write out reviews and do reader advisories, and make librarians available to guide patrons who have questions like, “What can my son read after Rick Riordan?” or “Do you have more books like Tolkien?” And, yes, many already place books face out on their shelves when they have some extra space. Because there are so many options available to guide patrons through the shelves, and because most libraries do already weed their collections anyway, I just do not see why librarians now think they must save the poor readers from all those books.
At the heart of this debate lies the fundamental question of what role the library serves. I like to think that the library is serving as a repository of knowledge and that it will still house that semi-obscure or somewhat niche title I want to read. I do not want to see my local library turn into an Amazon store imitator, so desperate to increase circulation that it must lose half its collection. Libraries feel the need to change, the need to do anything to get people in the door and to get them to check materials out once they’re there. I understand that. But it also feels like libraries that weed half their books are losing half their souls.
*Note: I am not arguing against the general practice of weeding in the library. I understand that librarians routinely weed books that are in poor condition or that have not circulated. I also understand that books determined to be of value in some way are often saved even if they are not circulating. My post is not a criticism of weeding in general but about the practice of weeding one-third to one-half of a collection at once because librarians assume books full of shelves are automatically overwhelming.