April 3-9 is National Library Week! We’re celebrating all week long with library-related posts. Today we explore an ever contentious topic: the practice of libraries periodically removing books from their collections (a process called “weeding.”) The Twittersphere gets outraged over this practice every few months, decrying libraries as monsters who destroy the Sacred Books instead of storing them indefinitely. The anger is so intense that library twitter has reported the need for clandestine book weeding and disposal, so the public does not unleash their wrath upon hapless staff members. However, weeding books is actually a library best practice, one that every library engages in, and one that has good reasons behind it. Here is why your local librarians weed certain books out of the collection.
The Book Contains Outdated or Inaccurate Information
Non-fiction books need to be weeded regularly because information changes. Health advice from a few decades back could actually be harmful if followed, so librarians are not going to leave outdated texts on the shelves for unsuspecting individuals to consume. But this idea applies to other nonfiction books, too. Would you want to read a book about how to use computers from ten years ago? What about a book on social media marketing from even five years ago? How about a travel book that has not been updated with new locations and information? An SAT prep book that has information on test questions that are no longer used or a format that has changed? It is crucial for nonfiction to be up-to-date, or it is not useful. Some books just have limited lifespans, and so they need to be weeded. But non-fiction titles relevant to the community’s needs will likely be replaced by newer versions; they have not just disappeared forever!
The Book Is in Poor Condition
Moldy or mildewed books will spread their mold to other volumes in the collection, and ruin them, as well. There is no way to save a moldy book, and any such book has to be thrown in the garbage. That’s true even for private individuals who have mold on their books.
However, books might just be in general poor condition–they could be dirty, torn, bent, and even odorous. Most people probably are not going to want to check out a book that looks like it has been thrown in a mud puddle and run over by a truck, so there is little reason to keep it on the shelf. But rest assured–if the book is popular, staff will probably replace the damaged, weeded book with a nice, new copy.
There Are Too Many Copies of the Book
Libraries often buy several (or many) copies of books that are projected to be bestsellers or that have many holds on them (in an effort to keep the wait time for a book somewhat reasonable). Eventually, however, all 20 copies of that book will stop circulating and they will congregate on the shelf. In this case, staff will usually weed the bulk of the copies, but perhaps leave one or more if there is still interest to justify that.
The Book Has Stopped Circulating
The reality is that not every book circulates. Some books might have been popular years ago, but their time has passed. Or a book might not have ever been checked out at all. Library policies usually specify that if a book has not circulated in a certain time frame, it should be weeded to make room for books that the community is interested in and will use.
This is the type of weeding that seems to rile the passions of book lovers the most. Many people seem to see weeding as libraries desecrating the very books they are meant to honor and preserve. However, there are a couple of factors at play here. One is that public libraries serve a specific function: to provide materials of relevance to their community. They do not serve as archives or specialized libraries or academic libraries–other places may likely keep the niche, specialized types of works that people are not looking for or checking out at the public library. The other factor is space. The building is only so big. Libraries literally cannot keep every book they ever bought, because there is nowhere to put them all. The most judicious use of their funds and space, then, is to keep the materials people are actually using.
The public should also be aware that most libraries do not weed solely on circulation stats alone. Most libraries have policies that explain how weeding should be done. These policies often clarify that books that fill a gap in the collection should be kept, even if they are not circulating. In other words, staff will likely keep a book if it is the only book on a certain topic currently in the collection, or if it is difficult to find a lot of new books to purchase that fill a need in the collection (for instance, holiday books that are not about Christmas, fiction books featuring protagonists from diverse backgrounds, etc.). Good weeding is not done indiscriminately, but with an eye on the needs of the community.
What Libraries Do with Weeded Books
Contrary to popular belief, most libraries do not just throw weeded books into the trash can, but instead find ways to pass them on so others can read them. Here are just a few ways libraries might try to keep weeded books being read:
- Selling them at their book sale to raise funds for the library (and to buy more books!)
- Sending them to Better World Books (a business that says that they may then generate funds for the library while also passing on profits to literacy initiatives)
- Stocking Little Free Libraries
- Donating them to schools, day cares, & other partnerships
Books may have to be recycled or thrown away as a last resort. However, libraries do truly try to keep books in the hands of readers whenever possible!