Library Packrats: Come on, folks. It’s time to let go. I know you spent a lot of money on some of those books. I know you may not be able to afford to replace everything. I know you are busy. I know that you can’t keep up with everything. But I don’t want to hear you complaining about “no shelf space” if you have a collection full of old junk. Throw it out.
Then there are those of us who want to react in the opposite way. I’d just as soon throw out almost everything that’s even the least bit outdated. And maybe that’s not the solution, either. But there must be a balance between keeping it all and pitching it all. In theory, that’s what we are trained to do – make intelligent decisions about the collections we cultivate and the information we make available.
Hurrah to that, from Emily Clasper at Library Revolution. Today my library hosted its semi-regular luncheon for emeriti librarians and retired staff, and I was asked to speak briefly about our new initiative to weed. (See Throw It All Out for my most recent presentation on the subject.) One of my colleagues said in a tongue-in-cheek way before I joined the luncheon that I shouldn’t talk about weeding, I should talk about anything else instead, because did I really want to tell a group of dedicated retired professionals that I was throwing out everything they ever bought?
Well, no. But… what we’re doing is important. So I stood up and smiled and equivocated a little bit, but really did get down to it eventually: We’re in a zero-growth library — 40 years, and we’re full, and still buying books. We have to make room for new materials, and no one envisions a future in which a library renovation or expansion will create more space for stacks. (We can envision a future which has a renovation or expansion, but it’s much more likely to be for multi-functional collaborative study spaces, offices to bring together a more integrated learning commons, and other modern administrative and organizational concepts for teaching, learning, and research. Not for books, and double-not for remote storage facilities, which do nothing but hold books. I got a few blinking, confused looks when I made that statement. Talk about rate of change — that’s NOT the vision of libraries that our emeriti have.)
So. We have to have room for new books. We’ve reached zero growth. There’s no movement for storage. That means weeding. I emphasized that it also doesn’t mean dumpstering books; there are options. (See presentation, above.) I also emphasized that it’s an imperfect science, and we’ve had to come to terms with that. Emily points out a truth above: We’re going to make intelligent decisions about our collections, because that’s what we’re trained to do, it’s what we believe in, and it’s what we can do better than anyone else at our institution can. What’s harder to say to yourself, your colleagues, and your users is that we might be wrong.
And I think that’s what stops a lot of librarians dead in their tracks about weeding — they might make the wrong decision, and throw out the best book ever. And, as Emily points out, they (and their predecessors) put a lot of time and energy and money into building the collection that they’re now taking apart. So it’s a big emotional and financial investment, and there are no hard and fast rules to follow, so what’s right and what’s wrong? No one can say. Instead, we each have to rely on our understanding of our institution, our policies, our users, our curriculum and programs, our history, our long-term plans and needs, and our context in the community, region, consortium, and state. That’s a lot to hold in your head when what you’re doing is looking at a dusty 80 year old book on analyzing race and class in America. Is it relevant to the curriculum? Should it be kept for historical reasons? Is it the last copy in the system? Is it a classic in the field? Does it meet our collections policy? Is it circulating? Does it need updated cataloging in order to be truly useful? Are there 40 other questions I should be considering, as well?
That’s a lot to think about, and to track through when what you need is a Yes Or No Answer about the fate of a book.
But here’s the thing I come back to: This is our job, and we have to trust our instincts. Those questions are questions that we have to ask, and we know how to ask, and we know we should ask. Most people wouldn’t even know to ask them, let alone how to find answers or trust their instincts.
Will we be wrong sometimes, even trusting our instincts and using our best professional judgement to make decisions? Of course we will. We do it when we weed, we do it when we buy books (you can’t tell me that everything a library buys turns out to be a high-circulating item of much demand), and we do it when we implement, change, or discontinue services. We’re just not always right. But we do the very best we can, and that has to be good enough, else we’ll never move forward. We have to be brave, and trust ourselves.
Which means, yes, we have to weed. C’mon, it’ll be fun. The only other option is to start building office furniture out of old journals, and that’ll be wickedly uncomfortable.