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Getting Rid of Books: A Heresy
December 2, 2010 - 9:01pm

Libraries are often in a tricky place when it comes to removing books from the collection. It makes some people think we we are so enamored of shiny new electronic toys that we have turned our backs on the traditional purpose of libraries, or that we want to devote space to trendy espresso bars and gaming rooms for adolescents who should be writing papers instead of goofing off. Sometimes we are so eager to demonstrate how hip we are, it makes some people think we hate books and the people who love them. And when we actually throw books away, those awful suspicions are confirmed.

The truth of the matter is that I love books. And I love getting rid of them.

Why do we weed the collection? First, we don't have much choice. We're running out of space and building a wing onto the library to make room for more books just isn't in the cards.It would be an irresponsible use of funds.

But there's a more positive reason to weed the collection. Not all books age gracefully. Some weren't much good to begin with, and they haven't improved with age. Lots of them confidently state truths that are no longer true, if they ever were. Most of the books we remove are benignly bad - like advice books for executives on how to use computers to improve payroll management circa 1975; they aren't dangerous unless large numbers of them fall on your head. But others are recklessly bad, such as state-of-the art reviews of how to treat mental illness or how to deal with juvenile delinquency published in 1970. I'm not talking about classics, about books that shaped our thinking and continue to be cited. I'm talking about books that weren't all that great when they were published. And libraries are full of them.

Going into the stacks and taking the books off the shelf one at a time is instructive. Today, I pitched a handbook for secretaries published in the 1980s and career guides from the 1970s. I ditched a shelf of how-to books for budding executives published in the 70s and 80s. (Really, how many of these do we need?) I eighty-sixed software guides for dummies stupid enough to run software that's generations old. These books will not be missed. Even in their prime most of them were never checked out, not even once.

What's even better is that removing books can lead to adding them. When an entire subject area turns out to have no books with a publication date newer than 1975, and we are offering courses in that subject area - or it concerns a region of the world or a topic that is not in the curriculum, but is in the news - it's time to track down book reviews and acquire some more current material.

Loving the process of weeding may make me sound like a philistine. I realize there is a need to preserve our past, to offer opportunities for the serendipitous discovery, to honor the odd and the offbeat. I realize that someone, somewhere, may be deeply interested in how payroll management was computerized or in how mental illness or juvenile delinquency was treated decades ago.

But not every library has to preserve all books, just in case. It's not feasible; we can't all build additions to store everything. And for libraries like mine, serving undergraduates, the likelihood that someone will conduct that historical study someday is outweighed by the fact that too often novice researchers use out-of-date sources in their research. If the library's shelves have 100 bad choices for every good one, they may never find the good ones. They may, indeed, conclude that libraries are where ideas go to die, that they are museums of mothballed information, jars of formaldehyde preserving curiosities.

There are many reasons to simply avoid the problem. Weeding takes time, and it's politically risky. Even when the library makes every effort to involve faculty and make the process as consultative as possible, it rubs some people the wrong way. Big time. Books are precious; they carry enormous symbolic weight; they are sacred. Disposing of books is tantamount to holding a book burning. It's unthinkable!

But it's necessary, and like weeding a garden, it's a way to make sure that the plants you've nurtured, the books you've selected to represent knowledge in a particular area, can thrive. Today I loaded a book truck with tomes that have not been checked out in decades and will never be missed. And what's left is better for it.

But the true reason I love weeding is that for an hour or two I get to be in the stacks, holding books in my hands. Sadly, that's a rare treat for a librarian. Yes, some of those books will leave our library. But the ones that remain, they've been chosen all over again.

 

 

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