Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Weeding is Where It's At: Deacquisitioning in a Small, Academic Library

Queen Anne's Lace, one of my favorite weeds.
(Picture from Jeffrey S. Pippen)

Simply put, collection development means both adding to and subtracting from a library's collection. That's why calling this activity weeding is so appropriate: both adding and subtracting are necessary in gardening and in collection development. I'm not 100% sure why, but I find weeding more satisfying than any other facet of collection development. Perhaps it's to do with how well I know a section after weeding, or maybe it's the satisfaction of having a physically attractive collection when I'm done. I know there are other librarians who agree with me, but it still seems like we don't weed enough.

I've done a lot of weeding in my career (although not as much as I'd like), and I've come to realize that the process is halfway between an art and a science. There are some clearly defined steps I take, but there's always the chance of something undefinable getting in the mix. Further, how I approach weeding a fiction collection is a bit different from how I approach weeding a science collection. To be truthful, it's not an easy process to describe, but there are some general things I always consider:
  1. The physical book. This starts with a general browse of a section. If a book catches my attention, I pull it off the shelf to examine it more closely. I consider whether or not I was able to read the title on the spine, check the strength of the binding, look for markings and other damage, etc.
    • If a book is in poor condition but I still want to keep it, the book might get replaced or rebound, depending on costs, availability, and the extent of the damage.
  2. The importance of the author/work. I try to keep all major award winners (Pulitzer, Newbery, and so on). I also try to keep seminal works. For instance, there's something in me that doesn't like the thought of a fiction collection without authors like Oates, Dostoyevsky, Fitzgerald, etc. 
    • If I'm at all unsure about a book's importance, I check with the faculty in the relevant department(s).
  3. Its role in my library's collection. If it's nonfiction, I look to see what else we have on the topic. If it's fiction, I check if there are other copies of the same book.
    • Multiple copies of a novel are fine if I know someone teaches that particular author. For instance, we have multiple copies of Pride and Prejudice because we have an Austen scholar on campus. Similarly, we have more books about the literature of medicine than you'd expect of a library this size, but Biomedical Humanities is one of our majors.
  4. Its role in our consortium's collection. If there are more than 20 other copies available in Ohio, that's a vote against keeping the particular volume. Conversely, if the copy in my library is one of the few, I keep it.
    • This is not a strict rule. I've kept books where there are 50+ other copies in our consortium if it circulates a lot.
  5. Circulation history. How many times has it been checked out and/or renewed? Considering the size of my institution, and the nature of the library, just one check out in the last couple of years can be enough to save a novel. Also, with nonfiction, there are some books that never get checked out but that get used frequently.
  6. The undefinable qualities. There is, and should be, some wiggle room in weeding decisions. Any time I've kept a book where I had no reason to do so, this factor was always the reason. Modern Breeds of Livestock by Hilton Marshall Briggs, published in 1958, is my favorite example of this consideration. You see, there's no reason for my last library to have this book. It's a tiny, two year school, and they have nothing to do with agricultural studies. I doubt this book has ever gone out, but it is so dear and so misplaced that I just had to keep it. I believe that you need a couple of books that don't belong in your library because those titles give a library character.
The way I've described it here makes it seem like a linear process, which it isn't. Not really. Sometimes I start with a list of books that haven't circulated much, or with a book that's about to be shelved that catches my attention. The most important part of the process is starting it. After all, Seneca spoke the truth when he said, "It does not matter how many books you may have, but whether they are good or not.”

What about you? How do you feel about weeding?


  1. I enjoy it but some part of me is always pained by removing books from the collection. I compromise by hardly ever weeding my books at home.

  2. Hey Jessica,

    I agree with all your points, but I actually have a question--what about the books that do get weeded out? I'm currently helping facilitate major changes to a senior center's on-site library, and they have TONS of books that need to be weeded out. But where to take them? I don't advocate throwing out or recycling books, but these are books that were received from library donations, patron donations, et cetera. Some of the older titles wouldn't sell in a used bookstore either.

    Any ideas how libraries tackle this?



  3. Greg -

    We recycle a lot of books here, especially things that are in such poor shape that they barely hold a book shape anymore. It has to happen sometimes.

    We do have a Friends of the Library organization, and they have regular book sales. We put weeded books into the sale when they are in decent condition.

    Other options I've considered or pursued include:
    -Better World Books: http://www.betterworldbooks.com/Info-Discards-Donations-Program-m-4.aspx
    -Crafting (thanks to Jazmin Idakaar for this link): http://www.onlinecolleges.net/2010/02/17/80-awesome-ideas-for-all-your-old-or-unwanted-books/
    -Donating to other libraries or moving to archives.

    Hope that helps.

  4. Jessica,

    Great options all around. Fortunately or not, most of the books we're dealing with are in good shape despite their age and unpractical nature for the library users. We'll look into the donation options.

    As always, great blog.


  5. I'm not a librarian, but I really need to weed the books in my personal collection because I don't read them and I need the space.