Like Batman, when curating the collection in your library, it’s best to swoop in like a force of nature, be swift, and if at all possible, work in the dead of night.
What the hell am I talking about?
There are two aspects of curating or developing a collection that a librarian has to worry about: what they add, and what they get rid of. Adding can be tricky business. What will actually check out? What will serve the patrons best? You use statistics, and conversations with users, professional literature and your education to make decisions regarding purchases, or which donations to accept.
That’s actually the easy part. You gather all of that information, see what publishers are promoting as being popular (that’s how it works–a book becomes a bestseller because a publisher says it will be and throws all of its marketing prowess behind said book), and look for the best prices, then place your order. That’s nothing.
So what do you get rid of?
Whenever I have changed jobs and come into a new library, I inevitably have to weed. It’s not because I think the new library’s collection is insufficient; usually it’s because the library’s collection is bulging with books. In other words, no one has done a good thorough weeding in a very long time. Or, they have only weeded books that haven’t been checked out in a very long time, but have left things they felt were too valuable to get rid of.
Which I understand. We’re librarians. We love books and the knowledge they contain. We feel protective of our collections, even the old books that might not be checked out any more, but maybe cannot be replaced. It’s not a bad sentiment.
However, a library is not a warehouse for books. And even if it were, we just don’t have the room. There is no library in the world that has the room it would like to keep everything of value. My favorite library, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, is a wonderful library for research. It is in a college town, surrounded by universities that have students. People come from all over the world for its niche books and rare collections. There are parts of the library sealed off by translucent doors and walls where books are, literally, warehoused, and can only be retrieved by Certified Grownups (™) employed by the institution.
Even they get rid of books. Even they get rid of duplicate copies when the clamor for a new book has died down, and you end up with thirty-two copies of Twilight no one wants to read. The books are sold to the public, given to other institutions, or just plain recycled.
There. You know the library’s dirty secret. Those 50 Reader’s Digest volumes from the 1960s that you donated? They ended up in a recycling bin. Which is one reason why I prefer to do my dirty deeds in the dead of night.
Patrons have a similar feeling toward books as librarians and library workers. If they see you removing books from the collection, even from bulging shelves that can no longer handle the weight, and they know that the books are being removed permanently from the library, there will be protest and interference.
Assuming you make it from the the stacks to the staff area of the library, you have another obstacle: the people you work with. They will gather around like judgemental wolves, prepared to tear your flesh off while criticizing you for removing their childhood favorite, or an award winner, no matter how battered, no matter how long-forgotten. The librarian’s preservation instinct often leans more toward pieces of paper than toward oneself. They WILL run into a burning building to bring out that signed copy of Island of the Blue Dolphin. They just will.
So, what makes me different than patrons, or other librarians? Why can I go through the stacks and pull three hundred books in a day to render null and void without batting an eye? Am I a sick monster?
Librarians are book hoarders by nature. I am not. I have moved a lot, and have come to appreciate the weight of all of those books. And the odds of me actually reading them again. So I got rid of many books over the years. Some donated to libraries I worked at, good books sent off to friends and family to experience the same happiness I did. Some sent to thrift shops when I knew my own taste would be of little use to anyone. My personal ‘home library’ consists of a few short bookshelves overstacked with reference material for writing, graphic novels I can’t part with, and novels by writers over which I obsess, or about subjects over which I obsess. Things that are hard to find in libraries because I haven’t bought them for the library yet like my large and uncataloged of Doctor Who novels.
I keep telling myself… I’m a librarian. I WORK in a library. I spend more time with my work library than my home library. And what we don’t own, I can either order, or borrow from another library. Cos every book you buy is another book you have to move.
I’ve always been less precious about weeding than other librarians at work, but it took me a while to build that into my personal life. Now it’s a general way of living. I don’t care how well-bound the book is, if it is on out of date material, or hasn’t circulated in many years, it has to go. I don’t care how popular an author is, if it is a book from early in their 30-year writing career, where they’ve turned out many similar stories, and the book is damaged, I am going to make it go away and never come back. That’s right. I’m not reordering it. Do we have books that have similar information? I keep the newer one. Do we have multiple copies? I keep the prettier one. If you have coffee stains, torn pages or water-wobbled covers, you are all on the chopping block. I am sorry, you have to go. We don’t need the 1996 Kansas Driving Test booklet. We just don’t. We’re not a research library. We’re not a preservation library. Our patrons mostly check out best sellers and DVDs.
There is a purpose for holding on to every telephone book for every single year from Rochester, New York, if you’re a library that specializes in those sorts of things. And if I need it for historical purposes or research, I know which library to hit. But at this point, the chemistry book circa 1970 needs to go, along with any books discussing cold fusion that were published prior to my birth. I would toss my own mother in the pile for the book sale. I’m brutal.
But it’s like caring for a forest. Things may need to be destroyed completely by fire so that new life will grow, or stripped away with big clippers. But then light gets in; books that had been lost in a sea of other books are suddenly discovered again. New books have room to breathe on the shelves. And people find something old or interesting or helpful, waiting just for them on a tidy shelf tucked away in the 800s.
You do all of that big work of removing so much so that people can find MORE. More isn’t always better. Think of the needle in the haystack. Who cares how good the needle is, if you can’t find it for all of the hay? Burn the hay, walk off with the needle.
And be sure to do it in the dead of night, with the lights off. Weeding while wearing night-vision goggles IS an option. I’m sure you can work it into the budget somewhere. Skulk around in silence, maybe wear a cape. You’ll figure out what to do.