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Things I Never Learned In Library School: Weeping over Weeding

In the US, people are always using the term “Spring Cleaning.” We get it from being locked away for months at a time by the awful, nasty winter weather, and having needed to clean and dust when we could open the windows and let clean, fresh air in the house- usually around March.  (Obviously these people never lived in Texas, where there would be pollen everywhere.)  

In my library, I always equate spring cleaning with spring weeding; we’ve survived winter break, we have time before summer reading beings, and it’s the perfect time to take a look at the collection and see what’s circulating and what’s not.  I’ve had the classes at school and know that weeding a library collection is needed, just like weeding a garden: you have to take out those that aren’t doing well so that your collection can bloom and flourish.  If you’re at a loss for how to start weeding, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission has some awesome online materials that you can use.  However, what library school never taught me was that I need to educate three separate populations about WHY we need to weed: our patrons, our library friends/board, and our library staff.


My patrons LOVE our library, which is wonderful. They know that we love them back, and we want to have interesting and engaging things for them to browse and check out. We want them to have a say, and we have a running list of suggestions for things to purchase. We do our best with the materials budget that we have, and the amount of space that we have for materials is extremely limited.  

Even so, I have had an extremely hard time getting patrons to understand that weeding is GOOD for a library. They HATE to see books leave the library- as if I’m taking something away from them. I have the hardest time getting them to understand that weeding saves them time by not having to sort through overcrowded shelves, or not having to stand on their heads to look for things that are on those weird, useless bottom shelves. Or that the majority of our books are staying in the system, just that they’re being adding to the Main Library’s collection. Or that if they’re not added to the Main Library’s collection, and are eventually withdrawn entirely, they’re placed in the library’s booksale, and that money comes back to us in the form of funding for library programs like the summer reading program or family movie nights.

So, I weed in secret.  I’ll gather my lists, and weed in the hours I’m at work before the library is open to the public, or when no one is around to ask questions.  I feel like I’m sneaking around to do my job, and it’s a hassle to juggle things around in my schedule, but it’s better that than try to explain why we’re taking THIS book and THAT book off the shelf.


A second group that in previous instances that have been extremely hard to get on my side with regards to collection weeding are the library friends and the library board. I have been extremely lucky in that for the most part where I have worked, the Friends of the Library and/or the Library Boards have been extremely supportive of library initiatives and goals.  They have visited often, have stayed involved in what the library was doing, have assisted in community programming, and have supported new initiatives that we wanted to do.

We, as library specialists, see weeding as necessary to improve the appearance of the library and to maintain the order of the library.  They, however, sometimes perceive that money is wasted because materials are being taken out of the collection. Where we see changes in the population and demographics of the area, and therefore in the usage of the collection over time, the Friends and Board can see it as out-of-touch librarians who don’t know what to order and aren’t serving their communities. Add in that some Friends of the Library and Library Board members can have their favorite authors or areas in the library, whether they circulate or not, and you can have a political minefield on your hands when you try to weed.
So I keep them involved. I keep my weeding on a schedule, so they know when it’s coming every year. I know what sections are their “pets” and keep those sections as current as my budget allows, and let them know when they come for visits what new materials may spark their interests. When we have reports to Friends and the Board, we mention that we’re weeding, and what sections so that there are no surprises. My current Friends of the Library use our withdrawn selections in their booksales, and the money goes back into supporting the library.  It saves a lot of headaches, and keeps everyone informed and happy.


One of the hardest groups I’ve ever had to deal with in regards to weeding has been library staff, especially other librarians. Maybe I just have a special attitude or something, but I was always of the opinion that if it’s not circulating then it either needs a special book talk to get it going or it needs a new home. I have never taken weeding personally- some things just didn’t do well in the community, and you live and learn. However, I have learned over the course of my career that there are some that take weeding to heart, and for them, taking a book out of the collection they’ve created is throwing daggers into their professional career. It doesn’t make any sense to me, but that’s how they feel.

You know that saying, “Show me your friends, and I can tell you who you are?” Look at a library’s collection, and you can see their philosophy about a lot of things.  Weeding is not personal, and shouldn’t taken as such. It saves staff time by not having to search through stacks and piles of books, and you won’t have to shift and re-shift materials. You make your library more appealing, which means more use and more bodies, which means more stats, which always looks good to the higher-ups. You enhance your reputation because you become known for having “the good materials” and having “the new stuff.”  There are tons of reasons to weed, and not one good one not to.

Still have someone refusing to weed, or acting like you’re beating puppies?  You’re going to have to take a hard line, but stick to your guns. Weeding is necessary and anyone that’s in charge of a collection should be responsible for the weeding of said collection. If you are the manager and have someone that is refusing or reluctant to weed, you’re going to have to set guidelines for them to weed. Take a look at your collection stats for their section, and set reasonable milestones for them to accomplish. For example, if you want them to weed the picture books, give them a set deadline to accomplish it (say, 2-3 weeks depending on their schedule and other projects).  If, after that 2-3, they haven’t weeded enough, have them go back over it again, mentioning that there still is deadweight. Ask if they have questions- if they don’t understand how to weed, it’s one thing, but if they’re just being stubborn, it’s another.  Either way, by the time one section is complete, expectations should be set for the other areas they are responsible for.

Nobody wants to be weeping over weeding.

What issues have you run into with weeding at your library? Share in the comments!

Karen’s take:

If you can, don’t weed out in the open where the public can see. Like Christie said, it makes them seriously cranky.  If you must do large collection weeding out where the patrons can see, make sure all staff are trained on some basic talking points; it is helpful if staff know what to say and how to say it.  Also, use common sense when weeding: I worked at a library that was cutting staff and asking patrons to support their libraries by writing their legislators while we were doing a large scale weeding project.  It was absolutely the right thing to do for the collection, but it looked bad doing it where all the patrons could see and they definitely noticed.  We ended up setit up a computer to weed in a more private location so the patrons couldn’t see.

As Christie mentions, it is a great to have a weeding schedule.  I usually like December because it is traditionally the slowest time at my library, but spring makes sense too.

Make it your goal to keep all your library shelves no more than 3/4 length full so that you can use the ends of shelves to face out books.  This will increase circulation. And it makes everything look nice and merchandised.

Try the “last chance” cart.  Some titles may no be circulating, perhaps they are on the top or bottom shelves, and it may break your heart to discard them.  Put out a cart of “last chance” titles and see if they circulate.  You may be able to save a few.

The most difficult experience I ever had weeding was when I had to discard the entire Buffy the Vampire Slayer book collection.  We have over a shelf of them and they were all basically being held together by glue, sweat and rubber bands.  And yes, they were still circulating.  And yes, patrons asked about them.  But even they had to admit that the Buffy books were not long for this world, they were seriously falling apart.