Spring Cleaning and the Stacks: A Weeding Refresher

June 1, 2021
Spring Cleaning and the Stacks: A Weeding Refresher

By Kathryn Shaw, Manager, Collection Development Programs

For most people, springtime marks the end of a long, dark, sometimes brutally cold winter. It represents freshness, renewal, change. The pursuit of these very things made May and June busy months in my household growing up, because it was the time of year my mom (a proverbial clean freak who regularly dusted lightbulbs) orchestrated the annual family spring cleaning operation. It was serious business.

My personal housekeeping is less zealous than my mom’s, but, as a librarian, it’s almost as particular. When I worked in libraries, I relished an often dreaded (but important) task of collection management: weeding library materials. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I never really stopped weeding. That said, spring was a perfect time for a deep clean, not only at shared workspaces, but also in the stacks. We’d clean and disinfect shelves. We’d also complete a major cull of tattered and untouched materials. With an approaching new fiscal year -- and the beginning of a new cycle of materials selection -- it was exciting!

Not all library employees enjoy weeding, understandably. It’s a time-consuming task for which busy librarians have little time. But it’s a crucial part of collection management because, for one, it frees up shelf space. Public libraries are not archives, and they have finite space for books. There simply isn’t enough room to own a copy of every award-winning, best-selling, or mildly popular book. Second, weeding is the only way to remove outdated and weary library materials. Third, the deselection process helps increase knowledge of the library’s holdings. There is no better way to familiarize oneself with a collection, with its strengths and weaknesses, than by weeding on a regular basis.

Still, some libraries don’t do regular weeding. Lack of time, once again, is probably a primary reason. Another is that, in their deep desire to do right by their patrons, librarians can fear making a wrong collection management decision. What if someone, somewhere, one day wants this novel (the one that hasn’t checked out in 5+ years)? What if, in a year or ten years, a local book club needs all 12 copies of this former bestseller? While contemplating so many possible scenarios, it’s easy to overthink and to then throw up our hands (figuratively and literally), walk away, and leave those books sitting on the shelf.

Yes, a good decision is of course better than a bad one. But, according to a lot of professional literature, what’s worse than a bad decision? Making NO decision. And, by allowing an unused or ratty-looking book, audio CD, or DVD to take up real estate in the stacks, we are essentially avoiding making a (tough) decision.

This brings us to a third reason librarians allow materials to languish -- emotional and financial connections to books. After years of carefully building the collection, it can be difficult to part with titles that had once been the most sought-after in our communities. We might struggle to reconcile our calling as providers of information with the fact that it’s sometimes necessary to remove that information.

And, to top it off, we can be guilt-ridden with thoughts that discarding materials, however pathetic looking or ignored they may be, is a disgraceful waste of taxpayer dollars. With all these considerations to worry about, it’s a wonder that public libraries aren’t all busting at the seams.

We make it much easier on ourselves to remember that fluctuating popularity, diminished relevance, and aged appearances are simply part of the natural lifecycle of books. A library collection is a living, breathing, ever-changing entity. One neglected or unhealthy part can undermine the viability of the whole. Or, think of a collection in more pragmatic terms. Joseph Segal, developer of the CREW method of weeding (Continual Review, Evaluation, Weeding), believed that books have “useful careers,” but that once those careers are over, they should be “retired.”

Whatever narrative we follow, Rebecca Vnuk says that, at some point, we “must let go of sentimentality.” In her 2015 book, The Weeding Handbook: A Shelf-by-Shelf Guide, she suggests we consider our personal responsibility not to specific items per se, but to the collection as a whole. She also reminds readers of two of S.R. Ranganathan’s five laws of library science -- save the time of the reader and the library is a growing organism. Discarding unneeded materials is wasted money? It’s more a waste of money to keep them on the shelf, insists Vnuk. Time is money, and ”patrons shouldn’t have to waste their time searching through your outdated collections.”

As for the belief that no book should ever be discarded!, Holly Hibner, a public librarian in Michigan and co-author of popular website Awful Library Books, reminds us that libraries provide access to information, and that “books are just the delivery method.” Awful Library Books shows ample evidence of books that, in some cases, should have been discarded decades earlier. At Rebecca Vnuk’s former library, staff routinely displayed their recently removed materials on their notorious Cart of Shame. The display provided tangible proof (to skeptical patrons and administrators) that regular weeding is essential for the continued relevance of the library’s collection.

The first step in deselecting materials is to develop a written weeding policy. This document will provide instruction AND official support for deselection choices if anyone were to question them. The next steps are to apply the policy using various tools and methods. Many public libraries follow the CREW method and its criteria for identifying deselection candidates, which uses the acronym MUSTIE -- Misleading or factually incorrect; Ugly; Superseded by newer edition; Trivial; Irrelevant to the needs of the community; Elsewhere (can be obtained through another source, like ILL). Other libraries follow the acronym WIDUS (Worn out; Inappropriate; Duplicated; Uncirculated; Superseded).

Generally, circulation statistics, physical condition, and information currency are the three most common factors considered when removing materials. But Vnuk and Hibner stress that we shouldn’t hesitate to discard items based on physical appearance alone. Take time to regularly rove the stacks and pull visually damaged items. I did this on a weekly basis, and it helped a lot.

Ideally, weeding is an ongoing process, not an overwhelming project we struggle through once every decade. The key is to develop a self-assuredness and sense of purpose in one’s weeding efforts, and like any other skill, with experience we become more confident in those efforts. I suffered weeding doubts in my first year or two as a librarian. Then I realized that my duty was to help ensure a current, visually appealing collection reflecting the mission of the library, evolving cultural ideas, and the interests and information needs of constituents. And I stopped second-guessing my weeding decisions.

The moral of the story is that, when necessary, we might have to be ruthless when removing books from the collection. I once saw someone wearing a t-shirt that read “Thug Librarian.” Well, when it comes to identifying weak links in our collections, we can all be “thugs.” No special shirt required.

"Spring Cleaning and the Stacks" reading list on spring cleaning/decluttering and library collection weeding: View the List

Spring Cleaning and the Stacks: A Weeding Refresher

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