When I arrived at my current place of employment, I inherited a high school library of 20,000 physical volumes that had not been weeded in institutional memory. That’s not quite true: the librarian who worked there right before me, for about a year and a half, had weeded a lot, especially in the fiction section, including, rumor had it, all the “for boys” books (early YA literature).
The collection was still astonishingly outdated. The budget for the past decade or more had covered databases, a few hundred dollars’ worth of book purchases, and a handful of magazines. It seemed like every donation was kept. The average age of the library was 1977. All of the age-sensitive materials were woefully outdated: history books discussed the Cold War, chemistry books’ periodic tables were incomplete, social sciences questioned the motives of the fledgling Civil Rights Movement.
In about three years I’ve updated the average age of the collection to 1989 (the Wall has fallen!) by weeding thousands of books and buying hundreds to replace them (thanks to a very generous Director and Board who understand the library’s needs). In the beginning, I tried using data and lists to choose books to weed. I ran reports on the oldest and least-circulating books. This will probably be a great method in 5 years when the library is adequately weeded. But in the beginning, with a collection like this where all of the books are outdated and few circulate well, half the library could easily be deaccessed, so such detail-oriented beginning is like looking for a needle in a moldy haystack. When I learned that I would need to weed about 5,000 books to fit our collection into a new library space, it became even more important that I get all the obvious stuff out without running reports every time.
I have the luxury of a FT assistant, two student assistants and a biannual 4 hour period of student volunteer work– the employed assistants are with me regularly so I can train them, while the student volunteers are untrained hands on deck. So I developed the following assembly line system to make weeding more efficient and less overwhelming.
- Buy tiny 1/4″ dots from DEMCO. We use black because they’re unobtrusive but visible.
- Train employees to look for candidates for weeding. If you don’t have regular staff, you’ll be doing this step yourself. I taught my assistants to look for books that are physically falling apart (moldy, broken, etc.), that they cannot imagine anyone ever wanting to read (this is especially useful in the fiction section– the teens can be put to work selecting books they don’t want), or that seem outdated. I work with my assistants to see what they’re marking andguide their decisions– it’s kind of like teaching taste, or art– this part of the process is subjective even if it’s based on objective criteria. Dotting the books should be quick and casual– something assistants can do while shelving or in 15 minutes before their shift ends. Leave a sticky note on the dots box or shelf to note where you left off.
- Put those tiny DEMCO dots on the call number sticker of the books that might be weeded.
- When you have time or extra hands, go into the stacks with your laptop catalog, workers, WEEDED stamp, boxes and tape. Pull each dotted book off the shelf. Evaluate its condition, circulation (we keep books that have circulated in the last 10 years if they meet the other criteria), and relevance to the collection (which is itself another list of considerations I won’t get into here). If the book is still relevant or needs to be updated, but is in poor condition, make a note to replace it. If a subsection is losing a lot of books, make a note to restock it. This part of the process is still a combination of a subjective “sense” of value, relevance, and collection development, and the objective data of age, condition and circ stats.
- Weed the dotted books. Have your workers (2-3 per librarian) stamp and box them and tidy up the shelves.
My assistants did well at dotting; we weeded almost everything they dotted. In some cases, I kept books that were classics they didn’t recognize, that were in decent condition on a minor subject that I don’t want to spend money to replace, or that were old and well-loved but not falling apart. There’s an aesthetic value to that 50-year old volume of Sherlock Holmes stories that someone checks out every semester.
The nice thing about this system is that it doesn’t get completely overwhelming. When you have to weed thousands of books, it can be confusing and depressing. Marking books to weed ahead of time makes the decision process easier when weeding the books from the system. Splitting up the work over people and time takes some of the pressure off, while the librarian has the final say in what happens to the book. Getting volunteers to help stamp and box makes the process very quick. In our last batch, we were able to weed almost 4,000 books in 8 hours with one librarian, two trained employees and twelve untrained volunteers.
Working with community volunteers also gives you an opportunity to educate a batch of people about why we weed and gives them ownership of the process. Each volunteer rescued a handful of books, but they were able to see why most of those books were being weeded. While standing around in the stacks, almost all of them said, “wow I didn’t know we had [this book]! I should come here more often!”