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Librarians do not take piles of books out the back and set them alight - though the reactions from people I discuss weeding with might sometimes suggest otherwise. Today I visited a friend whose reaction was not so severe - but she was surprised.
This inspired me to write about weeding - this post was written considering people without library experience but might well be of interest to those who work in libraries.
Weeding is a commonly used name for deselection, the last, and sometimes neglected, stage of a book's life in the library. Before I worked in libraries I imagine my reaction would have been very much like that of my friend today - but experience has helped me see why this is a necessary part of collection management.
I have worked in school, public and academic libraries who all apply different standards and criteria to suit their purpose. Every library I have worked in thus far has undergone a substantial weed while I was there - none of these have been initiated by me but I have been part of the team, and at times have had to advocate to colleagues and members of the public on behalf of these projects. I am currently in a position where, in many collection areas, I am the one making the calls. Seeing varied reactions has been extremely interesting.
If a library wishes to continue buying books sooner or later it will have to start weeding - a library only has so much capacity and sacrificing other functions or accessibility to more shelving is simply not acceptable. Materials also deteriorate with use - a ten year old book in a public library that is in pristine condition has simply not been read, and in that case, it is probably time to bring in something that will be used. The contents also become irrelevant or inaccurate. Old pharmaceutical texts are downright dangerous. Much of the information is probably right - but nobody but a medical or pharmaceutical professional can accurately pick which bits are not.
The Australian Library and Information Association's standards for public libraries give some guidelines on what age is appropriate (page 24). Some libraries weed to tighter goals because space restrictions require it but most are pretty solidly at that standard. Generally public libraries do not keep items as long as school or academic libraries where financial restrictions or library goals require different approaches.
Selecting items for weeding is something I find challenging (whatever the observer might think...) simple rules about age of items and usage statistics are the most objective way of weeding and are my first indicator of items for assessment but by no means spell the final fate of an item in themselves. Certain areas warrant earlier deselection than others - travel manuals such as lonely planet guides are very quickly inaccurate - new editions are far more appropriate. Some qualitative criteria enter the mix too - items of local, family history or heritage interest are entirely exempt from weeding unless they become a physical danger to the collection and cannot be saved (mouldy, usually). At present my current library is treading softly around the subjects of the two world wars due to the approach of the ANZAC centenary and anticipation of an increase in demand in this area. Premier's Reading Challenge books are also generally exempted due to the large demand for these.
It is very important that I avoid subjective criteria as much as possible. Certain subject areas or authors I find particularly sad to weed, but my interests cannot enter into this process. The reverse is also true - personally, I find certain arguments frustrating but I can't use weeding to exert my prejudices or as a form of censorship so I am careful that I apply the same standards as I do elsewhere.
This is far too big and contentious a topic for me to tackle in one go so I imagine it's not the last you will hear from me on this subject. For a thorough and very well laid out article on weeding and why it matters I suggest the discussion by SCIS under the name secret library business.