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Librarians Must Weed Their Book Collection

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Sarah Ullery

Staff Writer

Sarah suffers from chronic sarcasm, and an unhealthy aversion to noise. She loves to read, and would like to do nothing else, but stupid real life makes her go to work. She lives in the middle of a cornfield and shares a house with two spoiled dogs and a ton of books.

Like a gardener, librarians must also weed. Our crabgrass might be forgotten celebrity biographies; sow thistle could be out-dated technology manuals; purslane, books that haven’t been checked out in three years; poison ivy, the multiple copies of a single book that had its 15 minutes of fame; prickly lettuce might be old books that have been treated like classics (don’t get mad, I have an argument!). If a gardener does not pluck out an invasive weed, their entire garden could be smothered.

The same goes for a library. If a librarian is not diligent about weeding their shelves, books no one wants to read could smother the library. Clutter on a library shelf is off-putting, especially in the children’s section. If the shelves are too tight to easily pull out a book, it’s time to weed. As librarians it is our job to cultivate our collection. To stay up-to-date on what’s relevant and what’s not. There is an art to librarianship; to knowing your patrons; to knowing your collection. It is the librarian’s job to make sure that the library maintains an updated, relevant collection of books that suits the needs of all its community members.

How often?

Our library weeds books that haven’t circulated in three years. Some departments weed more often. Our outreach department has limited space, so they weed books that haven’t circulated in two years. I work in a very small branch extension of the main library, and when I first started working there, the shelves hadn’t been weeded in years. There was no space, and things weren’t circulating. Over the past year, we’ve weeded every section of the library, created more space for displays, and started updating our collection with more current titles. We also have something called a “grubby list.” These are books that circulate often (think: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Harry Potter, Captain Underpants), and we use that list to determine if a book needs to be replaced with a new copy.

Classics vs old books

I have weeded pseudo-classics. Classics were books we read in school like: Moby-Dick, Wuthering Heights, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird. No, I have not weeded To Kill a Mockingbird from its place on the library’s shelf. But I might weed The Rifleman of the Ohio (ever heard of it?) if it comes up on my list. Why would I desecrate my shelves by weeding these moldy oldies? Our library is too small to hold them all. They’re shelved in the children’s section. We’re in a consortium with larger libraries, so if a patron is really dying to read The Rifleman of the Ohio, I can just request it for them and they’ll get it in less than a week. We don’t have space on the shelves to keep them all, and I’d rather fill the shelves with an array of new and diverse books. Remember: just because it smells moldy does not mean it’s a classic!

Quick tip #1: to get the classics circulating, update the editions that are on the shelves. We did this, and it really helped make the classics more appealing to our young patrons.

Quick tip #2: we donate most of our withdrawn books to the local public schools, and the teachers are always very excited to receive them!

What to Buy?

Diversify those shelves! There’s no better time to update your library’s collection. More and more books are being published by diverse voices, and it would be a great time to evaluate what’s in your collection: how many authors of color are represented? How many books in translation? How many LGBTQ authors or books with LGBTQ characters? I tried to make a Women in Translation Month display, and I could only find one book by a female author that had been translated. We have too few books by authors with diverse voices, a problem I intend to remedy.

Some ideas:

  • Classics are important, but make sure the classics on your bookshelves are diverse. Here are 100 Must-Read Classics by People of Color, an article written by Book Riot’s Teresa Preston.


    “But I work in a small, white, conservative, Christian community, and all people want to read are inspirational romance!” I said when I started my job, but since then I’ve put my reader’s advisory skills into high gear. I’ve created displays, we have staff picks scattered throughout the stacks, and I’ve been paying attention to people’s interests and trying to recommend a more varied selection of books within each genre.

    What Your Collection Says About Your Community

    What I’m saying is this: as librarians we have a responsibility to our community. If we continue to keep the same kind of books on the shelves, and make assumptions about what people will and won’t read, we are responsible for the ignorance we have allowed to fester within our community. If we assume LGBTQ books will offend people, so we don’t buy them, recommend them, or display them, we have become the problem. We are librarians for ALL members of our community, not just the majority. It is our responsibility to buy books from different genres and by authors of different backgrounds so we can reach patrons we have neglected because we’ve been stuck doing and buying the same things for so many years.

    Librarians, remember: cultivate your bookshelves, weed when necessary, and buy diverse books! Your community is depending on you!