Library Love: Weed Your Library!

Do you ever look at our bookshelves and feel a strange malaise? That same kind of feeling a look at the oldest clothes in your closet produces? Do you own books you think you should read, but deep down, you know you never will? Do you still have that little gift store book about spooning your ex gave you? A yes to any of these questions means your collection is a prime candidate for weeding.

"Weeding" is librarian-speak for collection purge. All libraries weed. It is considered an essential part of collection development and maintenance, and enables libraries to maintain collections that are relevant and useful to patrons. There are significant differences between how different types of libraries weed their materials. Public libraries tend to maintain collections that have a high rate of use. If a book is never checked out after a few years on the shelf, it is a candidate for weeding, and will probably end up at a booksale. Academic libraries like mine tend to take a longer view of their materials. For example, an early edition of a dictionary lacks currency, but it provides historical context for the use of language. In this case, I would keep the most recent edition on the shelf and weed the older edition for storage.

All libraries weed. It is considered an essential part of collection development and maintenance.

Personal libraries should also be weeded periodically, as over time, it is easy to accumulate books that are out of sync with one's collection plan.

Collection plan?

Most folks don't consciously sit down and plan their personal collections, but if you stop and survey your books, some patterns will emerge. If you're like me, you've already created these groupings in your shelves; if not, pause a moment and take stock of your materials.

Here's what you want to see: books that make you feel good and project something true about their owner. When I say "books," I also mean anything that you collect - CDs, LPs, comic books, whatever. If it is taking up valuable real estate in your home, it should say something awesome about you. For some, those shelves say "I love reading about space" or "I need to read some poetry every day to feel normal" or "I am passionate about modern art." What we're trying to avoid are statements like "I studied anthropology in the early '90's" or "I can't resist grocery store romance novels." That last statement may be true, but do you need to hold on to the evidence?

This brings me to the fundamental difference between personal and institutional collections: personal collections assume the existence of the institutional collection. This is why you don't need to hold on to every best seller you buy, because you can always get it again at your local public library. So what should you keep and what should you weed? Here are some guidelines that I apply to my own collections:

Retain That Which is Most Precious

I still have my copy of Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends that my mother read to me when I was a little girl. This specific copy is meaningful, and I will always keep it. Anything that has real sentimental value, that brings back fond memories when you look at it, is worth keeping. Of course, the opposite is also true:

Weed Out Bad Memories

I wasn't kidding about that book on spooning! Chances are, there are some remnants of past relationships living on your shelves. In the end, it doesn't matter if you love the book — if it reminds you of your ex every time you look at it, it has to go.

Retain Unusual Formats

The recent library upset about J.J. Abrams' new work drives home a simple point: some books are designed for the personal, not institutional collector. Boxed sets, pop-up books, books made out of cloth, and comic books all suffer in the hands of the public.

Weed Out the Mundane

Anything from the grocery store, Target, or airport bookseller can go, unless it has some real significance to you. All of these books can be found again at the public library, or even Google Books. While it can be tempting, you don't need a physical record to show all your friends that you're familiar with Dan Brown's entire output. You also don't need a physical record to remember what you're read; that's why we have LibraryThing and Goodreads. Also, if your calculus textbook from college is still in your house, it's time to finally ask yourself why. You have a college transcript — isn't that enough of a reminder that you're a smartypants?

Retain the Rare

Some subjects historically print in small numbers, and these you should carefully consider before weeding. Art books, anything with beautiful plates, and graphic novels are all candidates for retention. Many people confuse "old" with "rare," and even worse, "valuable." An older title doesn't grant it special status, but it may be more costly to replace. So if you're sitting on a first edition copy of Carl Sagan's Murmurs of Earth, think twice before you send it to Goodwill. A yellowed Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice? Maybe not.

What does your library say about you? Do you have a weeding success story? Please share in the comments!

Stephanie Bonjack

Column by Stephanie Bonjack

Stephanie Bonjack is an academic librarian based in Boulder, Colorado. She teaches the relentless pursuit of information, and illuminates the path to discovery. She has presented at national and international library conferences, and is especially interested in how libraries evolve to serve the needs of 21st century patrons. When she’s not sleuthing in the stacks, she enjoys chasing her toddler across wide open spaces.

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ReferenceDesk's picture
ReferenceDesk from NYC is reading Love and Rage by Lama Rod Owens December 10, 2013 - 4:21pm

This is all excellent advice! My library has changed dramatically over the years, and nearly always for the better. One caveat; don't weed out of anger! There are books I thought I'd never miss that I look for still.

JaiNicklin's picture
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