Last summer, in Berkeley, California, librarians pulled roughly forty thousand books off the shelves of the public library and carted them away. The library’s director, Jeff Scott, announced that his staff had “deaccessioned” texts that weren’t regularly checked out. But the protesters who gathered on the library’s front steps to decry what became known as “Librarygate” preferred a different term: “purged.” “Put a tourniquet on the hemorrhage,” one of the protesters’ signs declared. “Don’t pulp our fiction,” another read.
In response, Scott attempted to put his policy in perspective. His predecessor had removed fifty thousand books in a single year, he explained. And many of the deaccessioned books would be donated to a nonprofit—not pulped. Furthermore, after new acquisitions, the collection was actually expected to grow by eighteen thousand books, to a total of nearly half a million. But none of these facts stirred up much sympathy in Berkeley. A thousand people signed a petition demanding that Scott step down—and, in the end, he did.
Public libraries serve practical purposes, but they also symbolize our collective access to information, so it’s understandable that many Berkeley residents reacted strongly to seeing books discarded. What’s more, Scott’s critics ultimately contended that he had not been forthcoming about how many books were being removed, or about his process for deciding which books would go. Still, it’s standard practice—and often a necessity—to remove books from library collections. Librarians call it “weeding,” and the choice of words is important: a library that “hemorrhages” books loses its lifeblood; a librarian who “weeds” is helping the collection thrive. The key question, for librarians who prefer to avoid scandal, is which books are weeds.
Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner, two Michigan librarians, have answered that question in multiple ways. They’ve written a book called “Making a Collection Count: A Holistic Approach to Library Collection Management,” which proposes best practices for analyzing library data and adapting to space constraints. But they are better known for calling attention to the matter with a blog: Awful Library Books.
Kelly and Hibner created the site in 2009. Each week, they highlight books that seem to them so self-evidently ridiculous that weeding is the only possible recourse. They often feature books with outlandish titles, like “Little Corpuscle,” a children’s book starring a dancing red blood cell; “Enlarging Is Thrilling,” a how-to about—you guessed it—film photography; and “God, the Rod, and Your Child’s Bod: The Art of Loving Correction for Christian Parents.”
Sometimes it’s the subject matter that seems absurd. Of “Wax in Our World,” a nonfiction book for young adults, Kelly said, “Who came into a publisher’s office and said, ‘You know, the kids really need a book about wax’?”
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“It’s not free to keep something on the shelf,” Ann Campion Riley, the president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, told me. According to Riley, weeding goes back at least to the medieval period. “There are writings where the monks are saying, ‘Should I keep this? Should I keep that?’ ” These questions are pragmatic, but profound—and they have been joined by new ones, such as, should libraries phase out physical books and move their holdings online? The trouble, as Jamillah Gabriel, a librarian at Purdue University, explained, is that “there’s not always an e-book for everything.” Digital libraries are becoming more popular, but they’re not on pace to replace tangible books anytime soon.
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When I asked about what happened in Berkeley last year, Kelly and Hibner said it helps, from a public-relations standpoint, to weed gradually. “I pull one or two books a week. Nobody’s going to even question that,” Hibner said. She also keeps a bag of her favorite weeded books under her desk—“Vans: The Personality Vehicle,” “Be Bold with Bananas”—in case any inquisitive patrons want examples.
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Hibner and Kelly both emphasized that many factors come into play when deciding which books should be kept. You want your books to reflect the community you serve, but the popularity of a book is by no means the only barometer. At Hibner’s library, “War and Peace” has been checked out just five times in the past twenty-two years. “It’s huge; it’s taking up quite a bit of space,” Hibner said. “But for libraries like us to not have ‘War and Peace’ at all—it doesn’t seem right.” Something tells her that Tolstoy is not a weed.