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The weeding process: Decisions on materials made on a regular basis at libraries

Debbie Walsh, head of adult services at the Geneva Public Library, remembered a time that libraries had to remove all books they had that covered the canning process, after the method changed and the previous process no longer was considered safe.

“All books that were out before that date had to be removed,” Walsh said, adding that some of them likely were relatively new and “theoretically could have been a year old at that point.”

The discovery meant the existing books on the subject were considered to be flawed and outdated. It’s an extreme example of a process all libraries go through, called weeding or deselecting. Those in the area who participate in the process, and there are several at each library, say there are multiple reasons why books and other materials are weeded out.

Books must be removed when they become damaged or worn. But because library officials look to keep their collections fresh, there are other reasons that books are cycled out. If a book hasn’t been checked out in a significant length of time, someone dedicated to weeding that particular section may choose to remove it. Also, if a library has several copies of a book, someone might look to take it out, to make way for new books.

Several local libraries – including Geneva, St. Charles, Batavia and Elburn – described methods that were similar. At Elburn, Mary Lynn Alms, the director of the Town and Country Public Library, said the process can be different for various sections of the library. For instance, information in fiction books isn’t as likely to become obsolete as books in the science section.

She said medical books also can be a high priority for those in the weeding process. In fiction, books might be removed if they’re not popular. And some books wouldn’t be taken out unless their condition deteriorates.

“If it’s a classic, we’re not going to throw it out,” Alms said.

All of the libraries called weeding an ongoing process. At St. Charles, Heidi Krueger, the reference services manager, said there is a written document “that outlines the goals, purpose and criteria for weeding items.” It is different for each collection.

“For us, weeding is the systematic removal of materials which are no longer useful to our patrons,” Krueger said. “We want to have collections of the highest quality, which are suitable, attractive and, above all, relevant for our community.”

Although space can be a factor in weeding, officials say it’s not often the primary reason materials are removed. Krueger said it is “never the only factor.” At Geneva, Walsh said 900 to 1,000 books will come in on a given month, and there are times officials “would be a little less ruthless” if more space existed.

At Batavia, Stacey Peterson, manager of the adult services department, listed similar reasons for weeding out a book. She also said for fiction books, officials will check to see whether the book is listed on the “Fiction Core Collection,” which will include books she said “every midsize library ought to have.” She said travel and medical books will be looked at on an annual basis. It can take years to get through the fiction section.

“It’s very important,” Peterson said. “When we talk about collection development and collection management, a lot of times people think about the acquisition of new materials. … The other side of that is deacquisition of books that have served their purpose.”

Library friends organizations can get a big help from the weeding process. Ellen Bassett, of the Geneva Library Friends group, said such books make up “a pretty good part of our sale.”

“About 50 percent of our books are from the withdrawn, mostly from nonfiction,” she said.

Those at each library said that most books are able to be sold at such sale events. Peterson said at Batavia, all but a “fairly small amount” would go to a sale.

“The only ones that don’t are the ones that are damaged,” she said. “If they’re falling apart, or if there’s water damage, they need to be removed.”

At Elburn, Alms said she doesn’t find it particularly difficult to part with certain books as part of the process.

“You just disassociate yourself from it,” she said. “You’ve got other things that are painful.”

But at St. Charles, Krueger said “of course it’s sometimes difficult to weed.”

“You’re never going to find a higher concentration of bibliophiles than in a library,” she said. “Librarians love books. And just like everybody else, we can develop sentimental attachments to items we’ve read, or even items we’ve purchased for the collection. But our training and expertise helps us to overcome sentiment to make sure that our collections are the best that they can be for our community.”

Know more

According to those who handle the task locally, here are five reasons books are weeded out at libraries:

1. Books contain information that has become incorrect.

2. Books have become damaged or worn.

3. Information has been superseded by new or revised editions.

4. Book has not circulated in a designated period of time.

5. Library has multiple copies of the book on its shelves.

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