Monday, October 17, 2011

Making the Case for Weeding

Collection managers at work last week
Last week, our small world of print monographs management approached its own instance of 'harmonic convergence'. A number of unrelated events coincided to illuminate the changing role of print collections in the academic community. Heat, light, and even the threat of fire emanated from several angles, and the humble task of library weeding reached the edges of the mainstream media. Overall, despite their sometimes unexpected origins, these developments advanced a timely and necessary discussion. Consider the forces aligned on this topic:
  • Hathi Trust Constitutional Convention:An excellent summary from Feral Librarian includes the good news that "HathiTrust will establish a distributed print monograph archiving program among HathiTrust member libraries." This supplements Hathi's pioneering archive, that now includes secure digital versions of "over half of the collective holdings of ARL libraries."  John Wilkin's opening remarks to the Convention [pdf] emphasized the power of large-scale collaboration toward "an increasingly comprehensive shared collection." The addition of a print archive will assure that no content is lost. Check the Twitter hashtag #htcc for more.
Cultural critics?
  • 6 Reasons We're In Another Book-Burning Period in History: Meanwhile, incomprehensibly,, the web version of a Mad magazine imitator, served up a provocative post by S. Peter Davis. The piece is a strange mix of inflammatory and informed, and occasionally even humorous. It taps into the outrage that can be engendered by discarding and destroying books, no matter how strong the rationale. As of today, the article has been viewed 665,668 times--far beyond the audience reached by librarians wrestling with these issues. Davis sees that weeding may be necessary; he objects to the destruction of withdrawn volumes.
  • 'Hard Choices: Do Libraries Really Destroy Books?" An NPR blog called Monkey See brought the "Cracked" entry to a still wider audience but with a more balanced perspective and some actual reporting. The author spoke with Betsy Simpson, President of Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS). Ms. Simpson articulated the academic library perspective fully and well, noting the library's "mission to preserve the cultural record' in the face of simultaneous need for [user] "space to interact and collaborate" and the existence of many unused copies of the same titles.
  • ARL Membership meeting: The Chronicle's 'Wired Campus' blog reported that the agenda for the Association of Research Libraries' Directors annual meeting in Washington, DC included presentations on the Digital Public Library of America, an update on HathiTrust, and on the changing nature of research. In a session on 'Rebalancing the Investment in Collections', H. Thomas Hickerson, the Vice Provost and University Librarian at University of Calgary, noted that 'the comprehensive and well-crafted collection is no longer an end in itself.' Ed van Gemert, deputy director of libraries at UW-Madison, noted: "We simply can't afford to do work separately that could be done collectively."
Not weeding has consequences, too
All in all, not a bad week for the concepts of weeding and collaboration: a healthy mix of attention, controversy, innovation, misunderstanding, good sense, and passion. (More like dissonant convergence, I guess.) Perhaps these events are most usefully seen as a challenge to all of us engaged in deselection, shared print management, and digital archiving. The challenge is to continue to clarify our own thinking, refine our message, and get better at making our case not only to ourselves but to the wider community. Weeding is necessary. Weeding is responsible. Weeding can be made safe. Collection security will assured  collaboratively.

This is the main reason that we at Sustainable Collection Services have adopted an approach to monographs deselection that relies on data. Taken together, the number of copies held globally or within a specific region, circulation and in-house use over time, and the existence of a secure digital copy can create a safe and suitable list of withdrawal candidates. Disposition options are numerous, and each involves different trade-offs and costs. But, as Betsy Simpson and even indicated, the underlying problem is real. We need to explain why some books may need to be removed, and what is to be done with them. We need to make the case.

Here are my suggestions for talking points on the rationale for weeding. I'll add supporting data points in another post. First, let's see if this high-level message works. Thoughts?
  • Electronic resources are the dominant information format
  • Print use is low and declining
  • Library stacks and storage facilities are crowded
  • Library space is wanted for other purposes
  • Keeping print books on the shelves is expensive
  • Many copies of the same titles exist in many libraries
  • Secure digital versions exist for millions of titles
  • The infrastructure to support sharing exists and is growing
  • Savings from adopting shared print can support other library services


  1. One of the points I like to make is that library stack space is not just limited, it is essentially finite. It is no longer financially and politically possible to expand book space indefinitely, or at all. Given that, a choice to retain all or most volumes ever acquired in the past is a decision to privilege older items over the new. So long as new volumes are published in print (and that will change eventually), it will be necessary to incorporate thoughtful and substantial weeding projects to accommodate them.

  2. I agree completely. At times it strikes me as almost a misuse of resources. It's very hard to justify long-inactive collections in central campus space. There are so many better uses: group study, writing centers, teaching & learning, info commons, etc.

    Using Paul Courant's numbers, the move to storage reduces annual maintenance costs by 80% -- without losing the content. It also eliminates the opportunity cost associated with that central campus space, by freeing more room for users.

    And of course, if an unused item is actually withdrawn (knowing that a secure and accessible copy remain somewhere), the savings are even greater.

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