Weeding is Fundamental

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
There’s a common complaint that people don’t read books anymore. But the truth is print book sales are up these days. Since 2013, sales of physical books have increased every year. At first, people attributed this to the rise of adult coloring books, but even as their popularity has dwindled, book sales have risen. I’m talking about physical, old-fashioned books with paper pages full of words. We love them.

Piers Gelly:
The Great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books,” and I kind of agree.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Piers Gelly, although he’s not normally a reporter.

Piers Gelly:
I’m a graduate student in creative writing, and for the past two years I’ve taught Fiction Writing to undergrads at the University of Virginia. I assign a lot of reading, but mostly it’s in the form of photocopied pages. But don’t worry, the print shop pays for the rights. I don’t want to force my students to buy too much, but I always make sure I assign at least one physical book. And I always try to pick something that’s beautiful – one with a nice font, a lovely page design, a pleasing paper grain, and an intriguing cover.

Piers Gelly:
Don’t get me wrong, the words inside matter too, but I think it’s important for my students to have an object that accentuates the pleasure of the physical act of reading, and something they would hold onto after the class had ended.

Roman Mars:
I personally toss hundreds of pages of radio scripts in the recycling bin every month, but I would have a really hard time throwing away a book. Once the pages have a spine, it’s like they have a soul. It would feel wrong, like you’re spitting on knowledge itself. It’s so hard to get rid of books.

Piers Gelly:
This is a story about books, and brace yourself, how to get rid of them. And in the words of REM, it starts with an earthquake.

Al Michaels:
Downtown San Francisco in the background, and we zoom into Candlestick Park.

Roman Mars:
It was the most Bay Area sporting event imaginable. The Oakland A’s were playing the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 World Series.

Piers Gelly:
Coming into the third game, on October 17th, 1989, the A’s were in the lead. They had won the first two games.

Al Michaels:
Allowing Jose Canseco to score, and he fails to get Dave Parker.

Piers Gelly:
But just as the third game was about to kick off …

Al Michaels:
The Oakland A’s take the … I’ll tell you what, we’re having an earthquake.

Piers Gelly:
… the TV broadcast cut out.

Roman Mars:
When the signal came back, it was no longer a baseball game.

Cheryl Jennings:
This is Cheryl Jennings in the Channel Seven news room. As you may have noticed, our power was knocked out, and…

Piers Gelly:
These were the early minutes of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which struck near Santa Cruz.

Cheryl Jennings:
The earthquake, which was felt …

Roman Mars:
This was the first major earthquake ever to be broadcast live on national TV.

Cheryl Jennings:
We have a report of a person trapped in an elevator in Shelter Bay.

Piers Gelly:
Part of the Bay Bridge had been destroyed. There were fires, fallen buildings, widespread power outages. In all, there were 63 deaths and almost 4,000 injuries.

Roman Mars:
But this was a story about what happened to the San Francisco Public Library after this earthquake, and because of this earthquake.

Piers Gelly:
The library suffered a lot of damage, especially on the higher floors.

Jason Gibbs:
So one of the things about an earthquake is the effect of it is intensified the higher up you go.

Piers Gelly:
On the upper levels of the library, floors had caved in. Jason Gibbs was a new librarian there, but he couldn’t go to work for two months after the quake. It was too dangerous. He says bookshelves had collapsed sideways or fallen on their faces, and books lay in piles everywhere.

Jason Gibbs:
Like the books had been tossed around by some angry force.

Roman Mars:
No one was injured at the San Francisco Public Library, but the earthquake dumped half a million books on the floor.

Piers Gelly:
Even after two months of repairs, the post-earthquake situation in the San Francisco Public Library was still pretty bad. Library management determined that the stacks weren’t safe and designated a new room for public browsing. Librarians curated a selection of books that they thought the public would most like to read, and those books went in that room.

Jason Gibbs:
But they realized along the way that not every book was going to fit.

Piers Gelly:
In other words, even this winnowed down selection of books was too large for the available space. They needed to winnow it down even more.

Jason Gibbs:
The earthquake’s just happened, we don’t have this shelving anymore. We need to make space. That’s a reasonable thing to do if you approach it in a thoughtful way.

Piers Gelly:
Because libraries do get rid of books all the time, earthquake or not. Put simply, there are so many new books coming in every day, and only a finite amount of library space.

Roman Mars:
The practice of freeing up library space is called weeding.

Sharon McKellar:
If you think about, it sounds ugly, but it is a really good description.

Roman Mars:
That’s Sharon McKeller. She supervises teen services at the Oakland Public Library. Avery Truffleman went down the street to visit her and see how she weeds.

Sharon McKellar:
You have to weed your garden for the flowers to grow. I’m not a gardener.

Piers Gelly:
And weeding is not just about holding the book in your hands and asking yourself if that book sparks joy.

Sharon McKellar:
There’s really, really specific guidelines. We’re not just randomly grabbing books off the shelf and putting them in the trash.

Piers Gelly:
McKellar and many other librarians at libraries all over the world weed their shelves using the same set of guidelines, and it has an excellent acronym, MUSTY. M-U-S-T-Y.

Roman Mars:
M is for misleading.

Sharon McKellar:
Or factually inaccurate.

Roman Mars:
U is for ugly.

Sharon McKellar:
This one’s a little ugly. It’s like the cover’s a little broken.

Avery Trufelman:
Isn’t the fact that it’s so beat up an indication that it was loved?

Sharon McKellar:
For sure. So if it’s been checked out in the last three years, I’d probably actually buy a new copy of it. If it hasn’t been checked out in the last three years, I would probably consider it for withdrawal.

Roman Mars:
S for superseded.

Sharon McKellar:
Buy a new edition or a much better book.

Piers Gelly:
This would be like an old manual for Windows 98 or an outdated travel guide. These are the kinds of books that get shredded.

Roman Mars:
And the last two letters are T for a trivial and Y for your-collection-has-no-use-for-this-book, because they really want that MUSTY acronym to work.

Piers Gelly:
Those last two, the T and the Y, trivial and your-library-has-no-need-for-this-book, these are the tricky ones. They’re not necessarily statements of fact. They’re judgments of value. What’s trivial to me might be very important to you and vice versa. But even here, these judgment calls are made by librarians who specialize in the relevant section, based on circulation statistics. You just have to trust that your librarians are doing their best for the public.

Sharon McKellar:
We want to be able to keep bringing you then most relevant, most current information, and the only way to do that is by having room to do it. So the only way we can do that is by sometimes withdrawing the things that are not as useful anymore.

Piers Gelly:
Although some sections, according to the library guidelines, are generally self-weeding. In other words …

Sharon McKellar:
They disappear.

Avery Trufelman:
Oh, people steal them?

Sharon McKellar:
Yeah. Certain sections of the library tend to disappear more than others. Books about marijuana, the Bible and the occult are probably the biggest ones I can think of.

Piers Gelly:
But for the sections that do have to get weeded, weeding is generally a touchy subject. The reason why is probably already clear to you. People don’t like the idea of books being thrown away.

Roman Mars:
We like books, a lot. And perhaps no one loves books more than librarians.

Jason Gibbs:
There’s a part of you that just winces every time you have to remove a book. Books are dear to us. Part of my maturing as a librarian is to get over that a little bit.

Piers Gelly:
Yes, weeding is normal and necessary.

Roman Mars:
But after the 1989 earthquake, the San Francisco Public Library started weeding an unusual amount of books.

Piers Gelly:
The librarians were told to move quickly, and they didn’t use MUSTY or any sort of comparable system.

Roman Mars:
The librarians were ordered to go through each collection, book by book, and insert a slip of paper and to each.

Jason Gibbs:
Green, yellow and red.

Piers Gelly:
Green meant the book had been checked out that year. Yellow meant the book had been checked out in the last two years. And red meant that it had been over two years since somebody had checked out that book.

Jason Gibbs:
And the red books were the ones that were in potential danger.

Roman Mars:
Danger because management had decided that the red books had to go.

Piers Gelly:
Compared to the careful consideration of MUSTY, the system of the green, yellow and red cards is a rather blunt instrument.

Jason Gibbs:
It’s certainly not the only measure, whether somebody has borrowed it within the last period of times. It felt rather arbitrary.

Piers Gelly:
And it wasn’t really clear where the red card books were going to go, or if they would ever be used again. In Jason Gibbs’s department for example, the Art and Music Collection, the discarded books got sent to an abandoned hospital owned by the city, because there was nowhere else to put them.

Roman Mars:
Even battle-hardened librarians like Gibbs felt that the weeding was happening too fast. You had librarians in different sections weeding furiously and not really communicating with each other. As a consequence, lots and lots of books were removed from the library. And no one quite knew how many, because no one was keeping track.

Jason Gibbs:
It was ultimately, I think, a weakness of management from the top.

Piers Gelly:
Jason Gibbs is a pretty even-keeled guy, but that’s his diplomatic way of saying that the problems began with the head librarian at that time, a man named Kenneth Dowlin.

Archive Tape:
Within a year or two, you could be visiting the public library without leaving your home.

Roman Mars:
In the years leading up to the 1989 earthquake, the San Francisco Public Library was starting to rethink its whole approach to books, in light of a new little thing called the Internet.

Archive Tape:
Imagine plugging a computer like this one into any telephone in the world and being able to search any library in the world.

Piers Gelly:
And a big part of this pivot was when, in 1987, San Francisco hired Kenneth Dowlin as its new city librarian.

Archive Tape:
As San Francisco’s city librarian, Ken Dowlin must make sure that 2 million people have access to 18 million books and other information on a limited budget.

Piers Gelly:
Dowlin was all about the internet. He had recently published a book called “The Electronic Library,” in which he argued that technology was changing the way people used information, and therefore changing the role of librarians. This is a clip of him.

Ken Dowlin:
The internet – web world, if you will – collapses time, collapses distance and is collapsing cost.

Roman Mars:
If this sounds unremarkable, not to mention a bit quaint, keep in mind that Dowlin was saying all this stuff as early as 1984. He certainly understood at an early stage what the internet was going to do for communication.

Piers Gelly:
But there was a flip side to Dowlin’s visionary concept of digitally-networked libraries. Some people felt that Dowlin had a distressing lack of concern for books.

Jason Gibbs:
There was this sense that when it came to the physical collections, he just didn’t have any interest.

Piers Gelly:
Dowlin was also overseeing the design of a new main library for the city of San Francisco, which would complete his vision of the library of the future.

Archive Tape:
The city is building a new $100 million library that is wired for computers as well as television.

Piers Gelly:
This new library would have twice as much space as the old one, but a big chunk of that space wasn’t going to be for shelving books. Instead, much of the library’s interior was devoted to an atrium in the middle of the building, which should rise 86 feet to a conical glass roof. Lots of librarians worried that this big empty atrium wouldn’t leave a lot of space for books.

Roman Mars:
The atrium was evidence that books were not the sole priority of this building, and Dowlin wasn’t going to let a good crisis go to waste. The earthquake was a perfect excuse to do what he wanted to do anyway, shrink the physical collection before the move to the new space.

Piers Gelly:
Dowlin’s administration started sending books to landfills. In the days after the quake, books were being sent out by the truckload several times a week. This is not normal library practice.

Roman Mars:
Twenty-seven librarians signed a petition asking Kenneth Dowlin for the weeding to stop, but that didn’t work. So Jason Gibbs and his colleagues decided to do something.

Jason Gibbs:
In any institution, you have a variety of people. There are some people who will just do whatever they’re told, and then there are other people who feel like they have a higher calling to the profession.

Piers Gelly:
Gibbs and librarians from several other departments felt that higher calling. They banded together and called themselves the “guerrilla librarians”.

Jason Gibbs:
Guerrilla like the freedom fighter.

Roman Mars:
Fighting for the freedom to not put little slips of red paper on books, against the orders of management.

Jason Gibbs:
Let’s just say that we did not withdraw books because they hadn’t circulated. We generally held on to the collection.

Roman Mars:
Jason says that other guerrilla librarians snuck into the stacks and replaced red slips with green ones, thereby designating the book as a circulating book and keeping it in the collection.

Piers Gelly:
The guerrilla librarians wanted to determine exactly how many books had been weeded and how many had been dumped, but nobody had any idea how many books were being taken away. And there was a risk that they’d never be able to find out the magnitude of this massive clearing.

Roman Mars:
Because Kenneth Dowlin decided to get rid of the physical card catalog, those files full of index cards chronicling each book.

Ken Dowlin:
The card catalog is an artifact. But I will not support the view that the card catalog is a working technology to help people find books anymore. It is not. And most of the libraries in the world know that and have moved on.

Roman Mars:
He was right about this. Already at that point, more than 90% of the nation’s libraries had computerized their card catalogs.

Piers Gelly:
The earthquake itself allowed the San Francisco Public Library to modernize their catalog. With the disaster relief money they were granted, the library was able to get electronic catalog software. So now, logically, Dowlin wanted to get rid of the physical card catalog, which the library had stopped updating in 1991.

Archive Tape:
San Francisco’s old card catalog was not moved to the new library. It is locked up and inaccessible to the public.

Piers Gelly:
But this move to get rid of the old card catalog caused a surprisingly intense outcry from the guerrilla librarians. And it wasn’t just a matter of nostalgia or personal preference. The physical card catalog said exactly what was in the library before all the arbitrary weeding.

Roman Mars:
If a book was red tagged and weeded, it wouldn’t be registered in the new digital system. There would be no record it had ever existed at all. And so the old card catalog was more than just a card catalog.

Nicholson Baker:
The card catalog is evidence. Evidence of a purge.

Piers Gelly:
To get to the card catalog, the librarians pulled out their secret weapon, Nicholson Baker.

Nicholson Baker:
I’m Nicholson Baker, and I am a writer of books – fiction, nonfiction – and I became for a brief period of time, a library activist.

Piers Gelly:
Baker is a writer if novels and essays that celebrate the minutia of daily life. And in 1994, Baker had gotten national attention for a New Yorker article about the disposal of physical card catalogs, a practice that had become increasingly common, and which upset Baker a lot.

Nicholson Baker:
The San Francisco Public Library had a very ornate, beautiful card catalog. That feeling that you have when your fingers would dance over the little cardboard pieces, and you could tell a subject that was popular because the tops were darker, and there’s all sorts of tricks that were just fun.

Piers Gelly:
The guerrilla librarians reached out to Baker for help. By now, it was 1996 and the new library was nearing completion. The lost books, evidenced only by their locked away card catalog, were teetering on the edge of disregard.

Roman Mars:
In their email to Nicholson Baker, the librarians wrote, “You’re the only one who can save it now.”

Nicholson Baker:
Part of me thought, “Oh God, this is going to get complicated.”

Roman Mars:
Oh, it would. At the time, Baker was living just across the bay in Berkeley. So he made a formal request to inspect the card catalog. Kenneth Dowlin denied that request. So Baker sued the library for access to the card catalog.

Nicholson Baker:
Never sue anything if you can avoid it, and don’t sue a library.

Piers Gelly:
This lawsuit took a while, and it was a bit of a mess, but it automatically classified the card catalog as a public document. Now the library had to keep it.

Roman Mars:
And then Baker and the guerrilla librarians got to work in secret.

Nicholson Baker:
And you can imagine this with Mission Impossible music going.

Roman Mars:
Yes, please.

Piers Gelly:
The guerrilla librarians snuck into off-limits areas in the library. They took away books that were going to be destroyed. In other words, they stole them.

Roman Mars:
The guerrillas stockpiled hundreds and hundreds of library discards – in their homes, in their cars, in their offices and lockers and boxes – all in the hope that they would someday be returned to the library.

Piers Gelly:
Nicholson Baker stole books too.

Nicholson Baker:
I was driving back and forth across the Bay Bridge with my car full of books that I had actually found in this place that was the “deselection room”.

Piers Gelly:
Baker ignored the “Staff Only” signs and walked right into the deselection room, the basement storage, all the places where the SFPL were storing books. He picked up a bunch of books that had no match in the online catalog and found some real treasures.

Nicholson Baker:
They had stored all of these … including 17th century, very valuable books and stuff was down there.

Roman Mars:
Baker, along with a historian, began comparing the online catalog to the physical card catalog. As they cross referenced the two lists, it turned out that a lot of books were missing. Way more than anyone had expected.

Archive Tape:
Let me tell you, what an opening day celebration today.

Roman Mars:
At last, in April of 1996, the new Main Library opened its doors with panache.

Archive Tape:
Talk about fanfare. Nothing less than a parachute jump into civic center, with a man holding the symbolic key to the new library.

Roman Mars:
And in May of 1996, about a month after the library opened, the guerrilla librarians organized an event in the library auditorium, where Baker delivered a speech stating what he had found.

Piers Gelly:
Baker contended that Dowlin was responsible for a massive destruction of books, the systematic removal to a landfill of at least 200,000 volumes.

Nicholson Baker:
And I just said it right there in the library itself, in a talk, and I think it really startled people.

Roman Mars:
The phrase that got Baker the most attention was when he called this mass disposal a “hate crime directed at the past.” This really upset library management.

Nicholson Baker:
And it became this minor dust-up in San Francisco.

Piers Gelly:
Word had begun to spread that Baker was writing another story for the New Yorker, one specifically about this whole weeding debacle. So the president of the library commission wrote to the New Yorker’s editor at that time and attempted to kill the piece by discrediting Baker. It didn’t work, and Baker’s article came out in October of 1996. It was called “The Author Versus the Library”.

Archive Tape:
A current New Yorker article called it the great book purge, claiming more than 100,000 rare and one-of-a-kind books were hauled to the dump.

Piers Gelly:
And then things got a little out of hand. The library hit back, condemning Baker for accusing them of a hate crime, and saying that he misunderstood the problem. They also tried to discredit him because of some bad math he had reported.

Roman Mars:
It turns out, one of the guerrilla librarians had messed up the measurements of the old library shelves. In fact, the new library had much more space for books than the old one.

Nicholson Baker:
It was a very bad era. It was very embarrassing.

Piers Gelly:
Although it didn’t change the fact that the library had taken so many books to the dump.

Roman Mars:
Then both sides started lobbing insults at each other, as the local and national press piled on. One paper compared Baker to the Unabomber. It was basically an analog Twitter feud.

Nicholson Baker:
I wasn’t prepared to be part of it. I didn’t know that I was getting into that kind of a battle. It was really ugly.

Piers Gelly:
And even from guerrilla librarian Jason Gibbs’s standpoint, the whole weeding controversy got a little blown out of proportion.

Jason Gibbs:
It probably was not as horrible as Nicholson Baker made it out, but it was horrible enough.

Roman Mars:
Meanwhile, the new library itself had already been built and it was, judging from the influx of visitors, a success.

Archive Tape:
As charges and countercharges fly, three times as many visitors streamed through the doors of the new library. An indication that some book lovers welcome the change.

Roman Mars:
Some of those books saved by the guerrilla librarians in boxes and lockers were transferred back into the collection. All the books in Jason Gibbs’s department, Art and Music, made it back. But he says that many of the other books didn’t. They stayed gone, and many of them probably got discarded.

Piers Gelly:
Nicholson Baker says he still has some of the books he stockpiled. Given the painful experience of the controversy, the library wasn’t really interested in reshelving them.

Roman Mars:
But at the end of the day, the controversy wasn’t only about what to do with old books. It was a debate about what books are. Are they beautiful objects that we can smell and touch and collect? Or are they eternal sources of knowledge, accessible to everyone in the ether?

Nicholson Baker:
Well, it’s both. In a given research quest, you and I might want to find out what is in a book in the fastest possible way. Well, nowadays it’s miraculous. Sometimes you want the words. Sometimes you want more than the words, you want the words laid out on the page.

Piers Gelly:
Clearly, Nicholson Baker can see Dowlin’s perspective. But Baker maintains that we shouldn’t give up on the printed page. His argument, and the public battle around it in the 90s, was a big reason why the San Francisco Public Library totally overhauled their collections policies.

Roman Mars:
They made it a policy that if a library branch is considering weeding a last copy of some book, they must send that copy to a subject specialist, who will decide if it can be weeded or not.

Piers Gelly:
And for the books that do have to go, the San Francisco Public Library developed a community redistribution program to make sure the extra copies of popular books can live on somewhere else.

Jason Gibbs:
We distribute them to schools.

Piers Gelly:
And city colleges and prisons.

Roman Mars:
And strangely enough, one of the biggest changes to the modern practice of weeding is something that Kenneth Dowlin himself helped establish, online communication between libraries.

Jason Gibbs:
In an ideal world, you might want to have every book, but we just don’t have the shelf space for every book. So you rely on somebody else’s shelves to hold the book.

Piers Gelly:
Some libraries spell MUSTY with an I and an E at the end instead of a Y, for misleading, ugly, superseded, trivial, irrelevant or elsewhere, like if a copy of the book is at another library nearby. Jason Gibbs at the SFPL, and Sharon McKeller across the bay at the Oakland Public Library, can now communicate with each other instantly, so they can share book space and make different volumes available to readers in both cities.

Roman Mars:
And this has huge implications for what gets weeded and why. In this respect, Kenneth Dowlin was very right.

Jason Gibbs:
He certainly failed in terms of managing the collection, but he succeeded to the extent of bringing us into the wider network of libraries online.

Piers Gelly:
And yet still, because of Baker’s 1996 lawsuit, the San Francisco Public Library has kept the old card catalog. They are legally required to.

Nicholson Baker:
The card catalog was a way of holding onto the memory of a quarter of a million books that they had gotten rid.

Roman Mars:
Those cabinets full of cards are still there in storage.

Jason Gibbs:
Practically barricaded in by all kinds of other supplies, but I’ll go down and visit it every now and then.

Piers Gelly:
Just to say hi?

Jason Gibbs:
Just to know it’s there.

Piers Gelly:
After this weeding debacle, Nicholson Baker became even more vested in philosophies and practices of archiving, and went on to publish a book that touched on all of this, called “Double Fold”. It looks at these events in the much broader context of the digitization of libraries, and this book is now commonly assigned in Masters programs in library science.

Sharon McKellar:
We read the Nicholson Baker book in library school.

Piers Gelly:
That’s Sharon McKellar again from the Oakland Public Library. She says that the debacle at the San Francisco Public Library has become a case study about weeding.

Sharon McKellar:
Why we do weed and how we should weed and what could be done, how to do it well and what to avoid and all that kind of stuff.

Roman Mars:
And when it’s done well, with care and consideration, weeding isn’t so bad at all.

Sharon McKellar:
For me, weeding is fun. It’s a chance to really touch the books and see how they’re doing and see what people are interested in.

Piers Gelly:
That’s what all of this comes down to. It’s what people are interested in. Weeding isn’t just about what to cut, it’s also about what to keep. It’s about what the public wants to read.

Sharon McKellar:
Your voice does matter. And we’re maintaining a collection for the public and for the people who use it.

Roman Mars:
And so every time you check out a book from the library, you are casting a vote to your local librarian roving the stacks to keep this title in circulation for everyone to read.

Credits

Production

Reporter Piers Gelly spoke with Jason Gibbs, Manager in the Art, Music & Recreation Center at SFPL; Nicholson Baker, Author; Sharon McKellar, Teen Services Supervisor at Oakland PL; Shellie Cocking, Chief of Collections and Technical Services at SFPL. This piece was edited by Avery Trufelman

Comments (10)

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  1. Rebecca Montano-Smith

    ZOMG. I wish you’d talked to a few other librarians about the weeding process. A public library collection is a living thing. It must shed some percentage of items continually to allow new growth. Public libraries are usually not set up to be historical archives. They are meant to lend popular materials.
    Many, many books are not tomes meant for the ages. Books wear out physically too. While that fight at SFPL was raging, the books that were hoarded by the guerilla librarians were slowly losing their value. Only a fraction of the fiction would even still be desired by the public and many, if not most, of the non-fiction would have been superceded by new titles. I don’t advocate throwing out books wholesale but non-librarians often fetishize a physical book to the point of absurdity. Who wants to borrow a ratty paperback with food stains? Or an outdated novel from 25 years ago?

    And as far as that physical card catalog is concerned, the furniture itself is now highly desirable by many folks (check the prices on eBay or any antique store) but I don’t know any library worker who actually wants to go back to using those as a catalog.

    But the Kentucky Packhorse Librarians story is near and dear to my heart, being a librarian in Kentucky myself. There were packhorse nurses in Kentucky as well and both groups did tremendous work in a very inaccessible landscape. Thanks for sharing! Big fan of the show!

    1. Steph

      I’m sorry, but your comment is chock full of a lot of insults. You’re assuming the books “hoarded” by the guerilla librarians were fiction. And how much value do books lose rotting in a landfill?

      As for the card catalog, how did you miss the point of access to it was to learn how many books were lost in the wholesale dumping in the early days? Wanting to know what was lost and an accurate idea of what you have is not absurd.

      I have an appreciation for digital books because reading is my passion. And my limiter isn’t money or time, but physical space. With my Kindle, I read somewhere between 400-500 books a year. But I still have all of my favorites from early childhood, school years, and into adulthood. Over time, due to that space limiter, I’ve had to weed my own physical collection before I received my first Kindle and started buying digital books.

      However, I go back and handle and re-read those books—yes even the early childhood ones—because they mean something to me or I simply loved the story. The time, emotion, and memories an author put into the story, the artwork, and my own memories associated it with it: who gave it to me, where did I buy it, when did I first read it, events that happened when I was reading it.

      That’s not me “fetishizing” a physical book, but appreciating everything about it. I would hope librarians have that same appreciation for books. And I would hope if one individual initiates wholesale destruction of a library’s collection, other guerilla librarians would step up to help protect their collection until appropriate steps can be taken before it is lost forever.

  2. Hilary Thome

    This episode brought back a lot of memories for me. As a high school student I worked at my local library in rural Manitoba, Canada. While working there I saw how the head librarian was changing the nature of the library, getting rid of general adult fiction and nonfiction to make room for an ever-increasing number of Harlequin romance novels. The MUSTY guideline was not being followed. Instead the librarian would weed the stacks by determining when the book was last checked out, as per the most recent date stamp on the back of the book. I was upset to be seeing classics and books that, though not checked out often, I felt needed to be part of a well rounded library, were being discarded. So, in my rebellion, I would take time on my shifts to go through the shelves with my date stamp and secretly put an updated due date on titles I felt deserved to stay. Next time the librarian would weed the stacks she would look at these recent due date stamps and therefore not weed out the title. I am still pleased with myself!

    1. Christina

      How wonderful that you, a high school student working part time at your local library, knew better than a full time, accredited librarian who ostensibly had the education and experience to be in charge! I’m sure you knew so much better than she did about what sorts of things patrons were actually requesting to read, what the circulation statistics looked like, what the turnover rates for various collections were, what the item replacement policy was, what the circulation goals and standards were, and what the materials budget allowed for. How very valuable your insight must have been!

    2. Chris

      I hear this a lot: “The librarian was changing things…”
      No. User behavior is changing, so the librarian is making changes to support the users.

  3. A great episode. College and university libraries are also engaged in a battle of the books, as some want to reinvent libraries as “spaces” in which books are not the priority.

    The SF story reminded me of a nearby story of weeding gone wrong, at the Urbana Library, Urbana, Illinois. There, every book published more than ten years earlier was to be removed — truly what Nicholson Baker would call a hate crime against history. This story ended with the library director’s departure:

    http://www.smilepolitely.com/culture/do_you_ever_read_any_of_the_books_you_weed/
    http://www.smilepolitely.com/culture/miscommunication_or_mismanagement/
    http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2013-07-09/updated-urbana-library-seek-early-separation-director.html

  4. A great episode. College and university libraries are also engaged in a battle of the books, as some want to reinvent libraries as “spaces” in which books are not the priority.

    The SF story reminded me of a nearby story of weeding gone wrong, at the Urbana Library, Urbana, Illinois. There, every book published more than ten years earlier was to be removed — truly what Nicholson Baker would call a hate crime against history. This story ended with the library director’s departure.

    It seems that your comment form doesn’t allow for links, but searching for urbana free library and weed will turn up relevant reports from Smile Politely.

  5. Jeff Smyth

    A few years ago, some friends of mine decided to find the library books that had had the longest gap between being checked out. The library claimed they could not tell this from the electronic catalog, however do to the age of this library, they previously used physically stamped checkout cards that were glued into the books. Through these cards, we were able to find books that hadn’t been checked out in 75, 90, and 103 years.

    We were so excited, look at this history we were finding within the stacks, but then we stopped. We couldn’t check these books out to read them. That would destroy their uniqueness. And we couldn’t tell the librarians or they might decide to weed out these books.

    Library collections are unique to their location, and that is part of the beauty of library collections.

  6. Scott Quinn

    I am a librarian, and one major issue that was not discussed in the electronic vs paper portion is one of equity. A paper book can be checked out and used by anyone who can read. An electronic resource often requires equipment to use and sometimes an active Internet connection. There are ways to help get around this, but for the most part accessing electronic resources effectively if you do not have a computer/tablet/e-reader involves being physically at the library or another location that offers the tools to access.
    Yes, the current push to subsidize smartphones for low income people helps some, but it is not an effective way to read more involved work.

    For those outside the profession libraries are generally grouped into basic types: public, academic, school, archive and specialty. Public libraries (and school libraries) generally look at the interests of the patrons when considering collection development (both acquisitions and weeding), but there are some things that are usually kept because they are important, or some collections that are more towards archive – a common example would be a local history collection. It may not circulate much, but the library keeps it around.

  7. Michael Kidd

    The role of libraries in our society needs to change and adapt in the digital age. The Oakland Public Library has done just that with their creation of the tool lending library. I wish other libraries would follow suit. This library gives the DIYer not just the knowledge of how to fix things from the traditional library but now the tools to make it happen.

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