It’s the time of year when rumors start flying about the future of libraries and people start getting worried. And I think we have to be honest that we are at a real nadir in national, local, and state funding for schools and for libraries. So I think our best bet for surviving and thriving is to be proactive and make sure we are at the top of our collective game.
In SLM’s March 2011 issue, Marcia Mardis makes a case for leadership via outstanding collections. I want to offer a corollary to her case: Weed Old Stuff.
I know that most librarians are busier than they have ever been before, but many libraries have suffered from literally decades of lack of culling and weeding. Getting rid of old, musty, outdated, worn, inaccurate information has always been part of our job. Now more than ever, if we want to stand up to, “We don’t need libraries because we have the Internet/Kindles,” we have to get real and make sure they aren’t saying, “We don’t need libraries because they are full of books about how man will someday go to the moon AND because we have the Internet and Kindles.”
Let’s not let collection obsolescence lead to our professional obsolescence.
A collection full of new and/or well-maintained, shiny, accurate materials beckons the reader. An aged collection broadcasts that the collection has not kept pace with societal changes and reinforces stereotypes that “libraries are dead.”
Here are some general tips to consider:
- Designate a box, empty cart, or bookshelf behind the circulation desk where you can stash books you’d like to delete. That way, when a free hour pops up, you can quickly delete them from the system and deface them for discard. Whenever you’re in the stacks, take a second to scan the shelf for aged titles. Tuck them under your arm until you can leave them at the circ desk. Encourage your volunteers to help you seek out these aged titles while they shelve. Make weeding an everyday task instead of waiting for a rainy day. You’ll be amazed at what you can get done when you build it into your normal in-the-stacks routines.
- You can download your records and upload them into Titlewise.com and other online collection development analysis tools that can generate an “aged titles list.” Highlight the titles from the list you want to consider getting rid of. Ask an assistant, student helper, or volunteer to pull those titles and put them on a cart. Once you see all the old stuff gathered into one place, it’s easy to decide to let it go.
- Save your ten worst weeds so you can show them if someone challenges your weeding. (One of my favorite weeds was one that proclaimed the Ford Escort as a compact car of the future. In the Motor City, having a book that said this was akin to malpractice!)
- If you haven’t heard of the author of a fiction title that is over 10 years old, it is probably ready for discard. Ditto if you haven’t heard of someone who is featured in a biography.
- Look into local recycling sites that accept books. Deface them and remove any evidence that the book ever belonged to you. Recycle them off-site. (I never discarded materials in building recycling or trash bins, as dumpster divers sometimes went looking for “good stuff” people threw out. However, follow your district’s discard policy.)
- If you are timid about weeding, delete the books from the system, box them up, and stash them in a back room for a few months to a year. At least the old stuff is off the shelves, making room for the newer stuff to sing. Alternatively, go through the library in multiple sweeps: start by discarding the the titles that, on sight, are the most obviously distressed titles. Later, use Titlewise or a similar tool for a more in-depth weed.
- If you are required to have a certain collection size for accreditation purposes, and your funding is too low to replace aged titles, turn a back storeroom into your “archive,” stash the cruddy stuff there and change the call numbers to reflect the new location. Technically, the books are still accessible, but you’ll still be in accreditation compliance.
- If you’re fueled by a sense of accomplishment, start by weeding the computer section. In most libraries, this consists of a single shelf, maybe two, so you can quickly weed and feel like you’ve accomplished something in a single day. If it’s more than 10 years old, it can most likely be pitched.
- For big impact, weed reference early on in the process. Oftentimes, this section is prominently located in the library on special shelving, so cleaning up this section will have a big impact on your library’s overall appearance. Most of these titles have been replaced by online materials. Keep only those items that are truly still being used, present well, or contain information (such as local history) that cannot be replicated by online sources. Now may be the time to let your print encyclopedias go.
- Third, weed biographies. Again, these tend to be in a standalone section but are a relatively small collection, so you can make progress fast. Start by weeding out celebrity and athlete titles that are more than ten years old. Then look for aged bindings (like cloth covers, faded spine labels). Ask yourself, “Is this information presented more cohesively, more effectively, or in a more aesthetically-pleasing manner online?” In almost every case (except for picture book biographies), the answer is yes. And, as a rule of thumb, if you don’t know who the “famous person” is, neither will your students.
- Fourth, weed much of your fiction over 10 years in age unless the title still has relevance or the author is actively studied in school. For example, Beverly Cleary’s books are still read, even if they’re older, so I’d keep those. Also look for worn paperbacks and yellowing covers. However, save picture books until the end. You’ll need to pull out nearly every title to examine it, and progress will be slow and painstaking.
- Fifth, work your way through the rest of non-fiction, multimedia, teacher materials, and more. Check circulation statistics or the aged titles list if you’re not sure.
- Finally, tackle picture books.
- Admire the extra room that’s on your shelves. Use that space to display high-interest but often-overlooked titles (such as non-fiction for pleasure reading).
Once you see the impact that a few hours’ work will have on your library’s visual appeal, you’ll be addicted to weeding. And, should bad times come, it’s amazing how much aggression you can get out by throwing away old stuff.
And if your physical collection is in great shape, the next step? Start revising and refining your pathfinders, being on the prowl for link rot and updated curriculum standards. Good luck!