Where Do the Books Go After the Library?
A few years ago I was chatting with a friendly barista about my day at the library — I had been, what we call in the library trade: “weeding”. Weeding means going through the collection and, to put it bluntly, removing books. Unsurprisingly, she was shocked!
“But…Books!” She let out, “You can’t get rid of books.”
“I know how it sounds,” I said, “but it’s not all that dramatic. Libraries have always weeded their collections. Otherwise, how would we have space for new books?”
She thought about it a little bit.
“Okay, but how do you know which to get rid of?”
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“Oh man, that is a small question with a big answer! Library school students have whole classes on collection management! Basically, we consider variables like condition, currency, and whether the item gets checked out or not, and use those to determine whether to weed, keep, or reassign the books to another library. For example, if a popular book is falling apart or has pages missing, isn’t it better to get a new one that folks can actually read? Or think about stuff that goes out-of-date quickly like medical books or tax guides. Would you want someone researching cancer treatments from a library book that was twenty years out-of-date? Honestly, we weed those kind of books because keeping them is irresponsible.”
A customer came up to order some coffee and I moved to the side to sip on my cappuccino and eat my chocolate chip cookie. When she finished helping that person, she asked:
“When you weed books, do you just throw them away? Can’t you send them to some poor country?”
“Sure, but why would someone halfway across the world want, I don’t know, an atlas that still shows the Soviet Union? Just because kids are in a poor country doesn’t mean they deserve to be given misinformation. Plus, we don’t throw the books away! Usually, if they’re falling apart or so out-of-date as to be dangerous, they’re recycled. Otherwise, they’re either given to the Friends of the Library to sell and raise money for library programs, donated to nearby organizations, or picked up by companies like Better World Books, who sell them on the library’s behalf and returns a portion of the profits.”
“Hold on, you said you get rid of the old books. But don’t like…that old atlas you mentioned, have historical value? People can look at them and learn how map used to look.”
She had a point, but I didn’t have time to explain the different goals that public libraries, academic libraries, and archives, had for their collections. I had to keep it brief, so I answered:
“Just to clarify, we don’t get rid of books just because they’re old. If an edition of Sense and Sensibility that was printed 40 years ago is still in good condition and people are checking it out, it’ll stay put. The thing about that old atlas is that the text inside doesn’t provide appropriate historical context for someone without a strong knowledge of geography like a young student, that’s what historical atlases are for — they show old maps and explain them properly. Same with out-of-date history books; while the book in itself may be of interest to scholars, a layperson just picking it up to learn history would potentially be getting discredited info.”
She shook her head.
“I don’t know, I’m still not that comfortable with getting rid of books.”
“Look,” I said, “the Library is not where books come to die. The items on our shelves are meant to be used over and over again for many years! If that’s not happening, like if a book literally hasn’t been touched in ten years, for example, we may consider weeding it. That’s part of our responsibility in making sure our collection is up-to-date and responsive to community needs! The public library isn’t a warehouse or some sort of storage bin, after all.”
“Sure,” she nodded, “I get that.”
“When we do discard books, though, the last thing we want to do is just trash them. I’d guess that most weeded books are eventually united with owners that give them a long post-library life.”
“Aww, that’s cute! Going to a used book sale is just like going to adopt puppies!”
“Yup, except your rug will always be safe with books!”
We chuckle, and make a little bit of small talk before I finish my coffee and head back up to the library to weed some more. All in a day’s work.