Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to Weed your Library While Looking Like Idiots

“Oh boy”, I thought as I read the headline. “Another library has gone and started another mass weeding project, and ended with egg on its face”.

Really, people? Why is this still happening? Haven’t we learned our lesson on this yet?

This is not what the public wants to see, folks!
photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/7883660@N05/466221141/in/photostream/

The Annoyed Librarian over at Library Journal shared this news report from the Boston Globe about the Boston Public Library system making itself look stupid while going about a perfectly normal, process of library collection management. The really frustrating thing about this is that they didn’t have to. Look stupid, I mean.

Libraries weed books. Just because we acquire a book does not mean we are contractually obligated to keep it on the shelf until it disintegrates into a pile of paper dust. Books come off of our shelves for many reasons, such as:

· It has been damaged
· The information has been rendered obsolete
· The book has a recorded history of not being used
· Duplicates exist where there is no demand for multiple copies
· A newer edition has been added to the collection
· The patronage of the library has changed such that the book is no longer relevant

And some times, we just run out of space. Patrons have this unquenchable desire for new books, you see. “Have you got anything new?” is a normal question. Especially in academic libraries, having access to the current scholarship and research is absolutely essential. So we move things around, and try to fit the new stuff in.

Until someone invents a bookshelf that can get around basic laws of physics (two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time) we are faced with the limit of not enough space to put all of our stuff. You know, like your house. When we run out of space at the library, we either build a bigger library (slow and expensive) or remove tables & chairs to make room for more books (unpopular) or remove some existing books from the shelves (deeply unpopular).

The Annoyed Librarian makes a good point about that last option, though. AL says “people don’t care about the weeding. What they care about is noticing the weeding”. An irrational distinction, but true none the less.

If the BPL had to weed its shelves on the scale it did, fine, I’ll accept that they had good reason to want to cut back that much. Obviously, it would be very hard to do a weed on that scale without someone noticing. With that in mind, they should have tried harder to make sure the people who did notice were not upset by it.

The Globe article quotes a person who said “I can’t begin to imagine what their thinking is in this wholesale removal of books,”. This person was a member of the Friends of the Library group! Hello, what? They should have been the first people the library explained the project to.

A few humble suggestions:

Planning is good. Let the key people – like the Friends of the Library - know what you are doing and why you are doing it. Talk about parts of the collection that want to expand. Talk about making room for new books. Once you have them on your side, they can help spread the message you want to spread. Expect that the local news will get wind of it - so beat them to the punch, and send them a press release, which says what you want to say, not what they think will sell copy.

Get them to see that it is not destructive, but constructive. The Globe article mentions, in journalist passive voice, that the BPL adds 100,000+ books every year. That should have been headliner stuff: “We’ve got lots of new stuff coming in, and we’re trying to make room for it”.

It also helps to have the staff on board with the project. The Globe article made it sound like the BPL staff was unenthusiastic at best about the weeding project. They should have had some media statements ready for when the reporters came asking, to project ‘team effort’ and again, pushing the positive message you want to push.

Take it slowly. If noticing the weeding is what bothers people, then go slowly so it is less obvious. The shelves’ composition changes all the time – but whole shelves do not disappear at once. Avoid doing that by have shelving assistants come along behind the weeders, to shift and spread the books out so you are not left with barren shelves that scream “Help! Books are Being Thrown Out Here!”

Know your collection. Know what people want, and what they don’t want. Emphasize the positive – we’re giving you more of what you want. Americans love the new thing, so showcase the new stuff that’s going on the shelves – line up some weeding candidates (the oldest, nastiest books you can find) alongside the new stuff and show the patrons exactly what they’re getting from the exchange.

Never forget libraries are for readers. Even in the 21st century, people still want books. The idea of books not being available is a scary one to many people. Reassure them; don’t try to buy them off with coffee shops, media walls or colorful mosaics. They want books, first and foremost.

For the more devious minded, you could plant a few books in the weeding pile so that you can publicly put them back, to remind the public that you do listen to them. 

Really, people, we are smarter than this. My little blog post is far from original in mentioning ways to get this thing done without looking like whacking great idiots. Do some research. Here, I’ll get you started.

Articles on how to weed without PR disasters:

Soma, Amy K., and Lisa M. Sjoberg. "More than just low-hanging fruit: a collaborative approach to weeding in academic libraries." Collection Management 36, no. 1 (2010): 17-28.
Cascio, Keri. "Culling Your Collection: The Fine Art of Weeding." (2011).
 Metz, Paul, and Caryl Gray. 2005. "PERSPECTIVES ON … : Public Relations and Library Weeding." Journal Of Academic Librarianship 31, no. 3: 273-279. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed August 19, 2014).
Wajda, Carrie Netzer. 2006. "Selection, deaccessioning, and the public image of information professionals: Learning from the mistakes of the past." Library Student Journal 1, no. 2: 1-9. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed August 19, 2014).
Roy, L. 1990. "Weeding without tears: objective and subjective criteria used in identifying books to be weeded in public library collections." Collection Management 12, no. 1/2: 83-94. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed August 19, 2014).

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