Weeding Is Fundamental: On Libraries and Throwing Away Books
I’m a librarian, and throwing away books is a big part of my job. I love it! Why? Because it means more space on the shelves for new books and other materials that are of current interest to our patrons. Weeding is a fundamental part of the life cycle of the library, but I get it. The decisions librarians make to get rid of books are often confusing and mysterious, especially when a photo of a dumpster full of books starts making the rounds on the Internet.
I never thought that weeding books would become so integral to both my job and my identity as a librarian. Although I mentioned before that I love throwing away books I can still be a little precious about them, too. I collect vintage paperbacks at home and enjoy the thrill of a unique find at a used bookstore or in someone’s Little Free Library if I get really lucky. So, believe me: I understand. On first glance, seeing a dumpster full of books can seem completely antithetical to everything libraries are supposed to stand for as repositories of knowledge. Yet each time this happens I also see the same concerns about why libraries are throwing away what seem like perfectly good books. I’ll never be able to stop the social media outrage, but I’d like to address some of the common questions about weeding and arguments against putting books in the trash in the hopes of alleviating some of the frustration.
What exactly is this “weeding” process, anyway?
According to the American Library Association (ALA):
Weeding or the deselection of material is critical to collection maintenance and involves the removal of resources from the collection. All materials are considered for weeding based on accuracy, currency, and relevancy. Space limitations, edition, format, physical condition, and number of copies are considered when evaluating physical materials.
This process is also called deaccessioning, and you might encounter the acronyms CREW and MUSTIE used by librarians to describe the processes by which we evaluate books for removal from collections. Every library has specific criteria for weeding, but physical condition and currency tend to get the most focus.
People usually don’t have a problem with books that are weeded based on conspicuous conditions such as mold, “repairs” with duct tape, or being covered in sewage — all issues that I’ve personally dealt with. Old manuals for outdated computer programs like WordPerfect 3.0 or tips and tricks for browsing the Internet on Netscape are also usually obvious enough choices. It’s the copies of the “classics” that tend to tug at the heart strings of book lovers around the world. Yet when I take a closer look at the photo above I see editions of several books I was assigned to read in high school. I graduated in 2002, which means those copies are at least almost 20 years old (ouch). So if those books are still being assigned at that school then it’s likely the case that space was needed for new copies that haven’t been passed around thousands of times.
Different libraries also have different collection needs depending on the populations they serve. My current position is at an academic research library. We keep a lot of stuff. A LOT. So much that we actually have an off-site facility where we store materials that can be requested by our patrons. But this isn’t the case for the vast majority of libraries, especially school and public ones. Old, outdated, damaged, or simply low circulating books have to be weeded on a regular basis in order for us to make space for new books that you’ll actually want to check out.
Why not sell or simply give the books away instead?
In fact, I used to work for a large public library system that does hold annual book sales. It’s no small feat, though. This library system has a separate non-profit group that runs and maintains those sales and then donates the funds back to the library system every year. I’ll give you two guesses as to where a lot of those books come from. Yes, a good deal of them were weeded, but a lot of them were donations that were just not appropriate for current library collections. Many government funded libraries are also not allowed to sell discarded books or the process required to do so is not manageable by staff who are already overworked and underpaid.
Sometimes the demand for yet another edition of Romeo and Juliet or Brave New World just isn’t there, either. A photo of a dumpster full of books can create community demand where it didn’t previously exist, but this isn’t the same thing as perceived general demand. This also isn’t the same thing as censorship or book burning, but that’s an essay for another day. Furthermore, students today deserve the opportunity to read current books that they can more easily identify with. The “classics” are not universal. I’m going to state that again:
The “classics” are not universal.
Aren’t there shelters, prisons, or other groups who would want these books?
Maybe, but this process is complicated, too. It is definitely possible to donate books to prison libraries and incarcerated folks, but there are rules that vary by individual state about what’s allowed. For instance, lots of prisons won’t accept hardcover books or, unsurprisingly, books in bad condition. Check out the programs below to get a better idea of how it works and what you can do to help in this area.
Books to Prisoners Programs
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Shelters also work hard to help lots of different populations that need assistance with housing, food, and other critical needs. To be quite honest, books probably just aren’t at the top of their list of priorities. They may not have the time or even the space to house book donations. Still, if you have books that you’d like to donate, make the time and effort yourself to call and see if local organizations are interested and able to take them. The American Library Association also provides a helpful Book Donation Programs libguide that has more information and guidelines about how to donate books to libraries and other organizations.
Finally, let’s also take a moment to consider the optics of giving old and outdated books to groups that are perceived as low income or less fortunate. While well intentioned, this suggestion actually comes from a place of privilege. Basically, it says that they should be okay with settling for other people’s cast offs. Something is often better than nothing, but that shouldn’t always be the standard that guides us in our desire to help others. Consider giving money to organizations in your community who purchase and donate new books to populations in need.
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And while you’re at it, contact your elected officials and tell them to support full funding for libraries and keeping libraries in schools.
Won’t somebody just please think of the books??
Yes. We do! We think a lot about them, actually, because it’s our job. I hope it’s a little more obvious now that those books in the dumpster have already gone through a weeding process that took a good deal of time and careful thought. Librarians work hard to maintain collections that serve and benefit everyone. If you trust us to help you locate reliable information, then please also trust us when we need to weed our collections, even if it sometimes means throwing books in dumpsters.