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Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Awful Library Books is a popular library blog which displays the results of postponing the dreaded library tasks of weeding and collection management. The site is run by two librarians who turn archaic books discovered on library shelves into humorous blog posts. Weeding may be a difficult process, but it is still an essential one for nearly all libraries. Deselection ensures that library users can find what they are looking for more easily: it improves browsing by eliminating unnecessary or outdated materials and frees up shelf space for new books. But despite this important role in the library circle of life, weeding is generally considered one of the least desirable tasks on a librarian's to-do list. Even the many euphemisms we use for weeding (terms such as thinning, deselection, deaccession, retirement, reverse selection, and book stock control) suggest it is an unpleasant duty (Johnson, p. 139). Some of the biggest conflicts relating to weeding can arise due to the emotional investment users, donors, and librarians themselves may have in materials undergoing reassessment; because of this, Johnson describes collection management as “more politically charged than collection development” (p. 138). This sensitivity makes it even more important for libraries to have a “disposition policy” to stand behind when weeding decisions are questioned or challenged (Johnson, p. 143).

Johnson's text may be a little outdated, but the fact remains that “shelf scanning” is still one of the most common weeding techniques. Quite basic and very time consuming, this title-by-title approach seems tremendously inefficient. It seems like libraries could benefit from a push to utilize more effective and technology driven methods. Though traditionally intuition has played a large role in library collection management, modern library science scholars are increasingly supporting the notion of “data-supported collection decisions” (Connaway et al, p. 372). However, a new system would still need to address the three fundamental weeding criteria (“Has it been used? Is it worn? Is it outdated?” Johnson, p. 141), which is an ambitious goal for an automated process. Circulation statistics are invaluable data, but do not represent items of the collection that have been used inside the library without being checked out. And the third question is tricky for a computer to answer because even a so-called “outdated book” can be useful to some types of research and as an artifact of its time. Despite these challenges I still believe that for efficiency's sake and in light of our ever expanding collections, librarians need to devise new ways to implement computer-assisted weeding. New techniques will also be important to help libraries deal with the increasing number of e-resources libraries maintain: just because an item is digital doesn't mean it isn't possibly taking up unnecessary space or in danger of being outdated.

One of the things that struck me while I was reading Johnson's chapter on collection management is that librarians involved in the weeding process need to be sure that they do not just think about the effects their work will have on current users, but increasingly they need to be mindful of future users too. Different libraries may have different weeding needs (and weeding may be a higher priority in some libraries, such as small, popular fiction-driven public libraries with limited space) but all libraries should take care not to let weeding be neglected, unpleasant though it may be.

Connaway, L. S., O‘Neill, E. T., & Prabha, C. (2006). Last copies: What‘s at risk? College & Research Libraries, 67(4), 370-379.

Johnson, P. (2004). Fundamentals of Collections Development and Management. Chicago: American Library Association.

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