Monday, January 2, 2012

Meet the Press

The act of removing books from library shelves carries a shocking load of emotional and cultural baggage. Academic libraries are seen as guardians of the published record, and more specifically the printed record. To most library users (and to a good share of librarians), books are the DNA of a beloved institution--the core of its identity. At some fundamental level, deselection appears to betray that identity and its corresponding cultural commitment.

Image and article  from

But while the printed book remains a vital part of scholarly and cultural communication, it is painfully obvious that its primacy has been eclipsed by electronic resources. Use of books is far lower than most people realize. Millions of redundant volumes are sitting untouched in open stacks and storage facilities. They occupy space and time that could be used for other purposes. As a professional community, we have a responsibility to address this, even in the face of misunderstanding and resistance.

But we also need to explain our thinking and our actions. We need to educate faculty, students, administrators, and even library staff about deselection. As with any difficult topic, effective communication about weeding, storage, and shared print decisions requires not only mastery of the relevant data, but direct engagement with concerns and objections. We need to manage the message as actively as we manage the decision-making and logistics. We need to provide context. And we need to take the initiative.

The temptation to hide or downplay deselection projects can be quite strong, since this activity is often perceived so negatively. Deselection can attract close scrutiny, inflammatory language, television cameras, and protests. Stories and misunderstandings abound, but let's start with a big one that occurred 15 years ago.

In the October 14, 1996 issue of The New Yorker, author Nicholson Baker confronted San Francisco Public Library about books removed after retrospective conversion of the library's catalog. The article, entitled "The Author Vs. The Library" [abstract], set an adversarial tone and engendered suspicion around motives and practices for removing library material--suspicion that persists to this day. Some of that suspicion is warranted. We need watchdogs. We also need to be clear about why some books must be withdrawn. We need to assure that criteria for weeding are well-founded, and that the process is sufficiently transparent. We need to articulate the problem, the solution, and the benefits.

Baker attacked when he learned that 200,000 books had been sent to landfills. There were unusual aspects to this case, and clearly some questionable decisions made in haste. But even Baker's informants from the library agreed that "maybe a quarter of them, fifty thousand, should have been thrown out." And while the article teems with examples of potentially valuable discarded titles, those lists provide no context. No consideration is given to circulation rates, to how many other libraries hold these works, to a title's relevance to the Library's mission, or to the cost of retention. (Digital versions were not a significant factor in 1996.) In short, the picture as sketched by Baker was incomplete.

It is our task as responsible librarians to fill in the background and to complete that picture. In some cases, even good books (or rather, surplus copies of good books) may warrant weeding and discard. We need to get better at making the case and showing that no content will be lost. We need to welcome the press and make our decisions/criteria transparent. In subsequent posts, we will look at some libraries that have handled these aspects of deselection especially well. But for today, let's recall some good practical advice from an academic library that pursued a major weeding and storage project between 1995 and 2002. Virginia Tech must have been all too aware of Nicholson Baker's piece as they removed 100,000 volumes each year between 1996 and 1998.

In the May 2005 issue of The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Paul Metz and Caryl Gray looked back on that experience, and offered their "Perspectives on... Public Relations and Library Weeding" [WorldCat record]. This article is an excellent short synthesis of what the Library learned about communicating with its community before, during, and after its massive deselection project. Metz and Gray's advice focuses on six key topics:
  • Advance Publicity: Consulting faculty 'early and often' is critical. For example, "An article published in the Spectrum, a faculty/staff newsletter, presented an overview of the shelf-load problem, outlined the strategies that would be employed, and invited academic departments to participate in the process."
  • Clear Criteria: "The criteria and guidelines for the project were shared with interested faculty members and an opportunity to review items selected for discard was offered."
  • Flexibility: "The Libraries expressed its willingness to transfer storage items back to campus" [...] "A library's willingness to allow visitors to come to the Storage building and examine items on site is another important and beneficial element in flexibility."
  • Good Deeds: "...[the English bibliographer] listed discards she thought would be of interest and offered them for transfer to the department. By the end of the project 4016 books had been sent to several members of the department."
  • Quick Response from the Top: "The [Director of Collection Development] answered all questions immediately. [...] With many critics it helped to give tangible examples..." [...] "Who would want a book on personal finance that predates the personal computer and spreadsheets?"
  • Low Visibility: " was the Library's commitment to recycling that invited its greatest public relations challenge. Rather than send our discards to a landfill, we held them in a dumpster behind the library. The unfortunate result was that "dumpster divers" would periodically remove items and express their disapproval of the Library's decisions." [...] "After several months, the dean of Libraries decided that the 'dumpster situation' was untenable and directed that all library discards be included in the university's periodic surplus property sale." [Related post]
As is clear from these brief statements, even the best communications plans require extensive groundwork and vigilance. Despite all the preparation, a letter entitled "Tech Is Treating Unwanted Books Like Garbage" appeared in the Roanoke Times and World News. But because they were prepared, the Director of Collection Management responded within 4 days, providing corrections and context, and advancing the Library's rationale. In the end, Virginia Tech considers their project "a success. The Libraries still benefit from the enormous gains in shelf space. [...] The project is very rarely mentioned by faculty or other members of the university and seems almost to have been forgotten."

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