Weeding the Neglected Collection
School Library Journal, November 1990
The retiring librarian whose job I filled was awfully proud of her print collection’s size. Indeed, the shelves were overflowing with books; every inch of every case was jammed full from bottom to top. Granted there weren’t many bright dust jackets or fiction titles I recognized on my brief tour of the library when I interviewed, but, hey, 14,000 books! That’s nothing to sneeze at for a small high school.
It wasn’t until I began trying to pull materials for booktalks and class units that I discovered how horribly dated the print materials in the collection really were. Many materials were physically deteriorating (which really was something to sneeze at). Sexist titles like The Boy’s First Book of Radio and Television were common.1 Most of the geography books were purchased in the richer funding days of the mid-sixties, as were nearly all the books in the 500’s and 600’s. Fran Tarkington was the most contemporary sports figure in the biography collection.
More telling was a quick inspection of the dates many of these materials were last checked out. The record breaker in this category was Good Stories for Anniversaries last circulated November 21, 1941. I can only hope the reader finished it before December 7th, after which I am sure other demands were made on her time. How could one blame students for not using a book like What’s New in Science (c1960) when the first picture in the book shows a Curtiss-Wright air car, looking like a levitating parade float with Studebaker bumpers. Whether due to changing curriculum or the lack of resource-based activities in classes, the majority of the collection was not being used.
I needed to weed. The authorities advise not to weed during your first year on the job. I disregarded that advice for two reasons. First our collection was to be retrospectively cataloged in the spring and conversion to MARC records is $.40 a title. I could not justify spending that on books I knew I’d be tossing the following year. Second, the collection needed weeding so very badly and was being minimally used. I needed an accurate assessment of what useable resources I actually had so I could realistically plan collection development, budgeting, and curriculum involvement.
From past experience I knew that folks look at you with suspicion when you toss out books. Vague images of Brown Shirts and Fahrenheit 451 flash in folk’s minds. “Hey, isn’t this the guy who is supposed to like books? What’s he doing pitching them in the Dempsey dumpster by the arm load?” Through memos I let the faculty and administration know not only that I was weeding, but why. The memos helped. The one question I was asked by teachers on several occasions was, “Aren’t you afraid that if you throw out these books, you’ll never get any to replace them?” Actually, I was more afraid that if I kept them all, no one would ever see the need for replacements.
I determined to keep accurate records of what I weeded. This cover-your-butt tactic turned into a pretty fair collection evaluation. I did a book count by Dewey section and established an average age of each section before weeding. (Pull every tenth book of the shelf skipping the classics, write down the copyright date, add them up, divide by the number of copyright dates you’ve written down. Once we are automated, I will be able to determine the collection’s age with a few computer keystrokes! I also repeated the process after I physically removed the weeded books from the shelves. When all the numbers were in place at the end, I threw them into a simple spreadsheet. I also kept some “representative samples” of the materials I weeded in case the school board or the ilk were to call me on the carpet. I can use these examples to help justify my weeding by being able to quote passages like:
“Only immediately before the first manned orbital flight will the first Mercury astronaut be selected. The question is: Will we do it first? Or will another nation be ahead of us in this important step? Bergaust, Satellites and Space Probes, Putnam c 1959.
Or I can show the board a 1955 atlas held together with packing tape, the 1953 Yearbook of Agriculture (that year’s hot topic -Plant Diseases), and, yes, answer that burning question so poignant asked in Sheila John Daly’s book Personality Plus, “What About Necking?”2.
Before I actually began evaluating individual titles on the shelves, I re-read “Weeding The Library Media Center Collections” by Betty Jo Buckingham3, a succinct booklet full of weeding advice. In it, Buckingham includes a handy table which by classification number recommends evaluation by a material’s age, last date of circulation, inaccuracy, and other considerations. A modified version of this chart in hand, I put on my oldest clothes, started pulling, and, Allah be praised, emerged wan and weak three months later. My fellow professionals, you know weeding is an unpleasant job for anyone who enjoys print and recognizes the value of books and writing and knowledge. To have to have done ten years worth of discarding in but a single year was an onerous, time-consuming, depressing task. I was glad to be finished with it.
During the weeding process, my English teachers reviewed the fiction I pulled for Minnesota authors and classics I was might have missed. The head of the math department weeded the math books for me. He kept fewer than a dozen. Everything else I judged myself and personally carried to the dumpster near the school’s outdoor loading dock - after they had been clearly stamped in red over the school’s property mark [DISCARD].
Buckingham’s booklet offers some other suggestions on how to “get rid of the bodies”, so to speak. She suggests:
1. Bag and tag for destruction.
2. Put a few in a waste basket every day.
3. Take them to the dump.
4. Take them to another community’s dump.
5. Tear or break them up and put them in a wastebasket.
6. Offer them to a charity book sale.
7. Have a white elephant sale
8. Offer them to other libraries in the community.
9. Box and send to superintendent.
10. Store them until they are forgotten.
I also wondered if I couldn’t use a few in my wood-burning fireplace. No, I didn’t offer my discards to kids or faculty or other libraries or have a used book sale for the community. I had my reasons: the process needed to be done quickly; I don’t believe it’s good professional practice to give or sell inaccurate, dated information to anyone4; storage room in the school is non-existent; and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time being second-guessed by anal-retentives who can hardly bear to part with used Kleenex, let alone a book. I did find one of our shop teachers in the dumpster shuffling through books. He was unhappy with me because he hurt his back trying to reach books at the bottom of the container. He still glares at me in the hall months later.
Well, we went from 13,500 books to 7,000. The collection is no longer of an age that it can buy beer, or even vote. It’s still not young, however. Twenty years has always struck me a reasonable average age for a book to retire. The early burnouts about computers and social ills are nicely balanced by classics in literature and history. That means my average age of collection should be ten years. We have a way to go.
In summary,the following good things were a result of the extensive weeding:
- The material which is left has some credibility. My students have a better chance of finding accurate information.
- I can see the areas we need to develop. There are almost no geography or science books left. As I work with teachers to develop resource-based units, I know in what areas to buy.
- The place looks better. The books which remain are generally more attractive. It’s easier to find (and reshelve) books.
- The shelves look bare. When a school board member or administrator visits, he/she will not automatically assume we are adequately funded.
- I saved $2600 in retrospective conversion costs.
- I have a base line figure on which to build my budget. (Here is where we are. Here is where we should be. Here is how long I want to take to get there. Here is how much money is required). I have a budget based on collection development and program need, not last year’s budget.
- The administration and faculty saw the action as constructive, purposeful, and carried out with professional confidence.
I am aware that unless I am diligent in my future weeding efforts, I might wind up doing a full ten years worth of discarding at a single time again. An unpleasant thought at best. I do hope that by reading this article you will consider for a few moments your own collections. Weed, my fellow professionals, and you too might find such classics as Betty White’s Teenage Dance Book.
By the way, I’ve just started the AV collection. Preparing for the Jobs of the ’70s was my first discard.
1. Here are some of the titles which seemed to reflect a less than gender-fair editorial policy:
Boy’s Book of Rifles
Boy’s Book of Verse
Boy’s Book of Great Detective Stories
Boy’s Book of Tools
Boy’s Book of Turtles and Lizards
Boy’s Book of King Arthur
Boy’s Book of Outboard Boating
Boy’s Book of Sherlock Holmes
Boy’s First Book of Radio and Television
(No “Girl’s Book” of anything)
2. From Personality Plus “A noted anthropologist attributes the failure of many marriages to the extended necking which the couples engaged in during the courtship.” The book does not quote Groucho Marx who said, “Whoever called it necking was a poor judge of anatomy.”
3. Buckingham, Betty Jo “Weeding the Library Media Center Collections”, State of Iowa Department of Public Instruction, 1984. (Stanley Slote’s Weeding Library Collections: Library Weeding Methods, 3rd edition, Libraries Unlimited, 1989 is the more comprehensive guide if one can find the time to study it.)
4. How ethical would it be for a pharmacist to offer at minimal cost drugs which through time have changed composition so that they are no longer effective or even dangerous? If one believes in the power of information, is the analogy not apt?