Reverse-engineering the library

For the second time in four years I am tasked with the job of weeding a very large portion of the collection, packing what is left, storing it and then moving it back onto the shelves at a future point. The first time I did this, I weeded, then boxed, then unboxed, then shelved. What else did I do? I listened to a whole bunch of complaints about all the wonderful books I was just throwing out and some subtle questioning of my professional judgment. (I also took a lot of ibuprofen and shredded the knees of several pairs of Dockers. Librarianship is way more physical than the general public imagines.)

Anyone who’s ever done more than the gentlest of weeding is right now nodding along in sympathy. “You know,” I said, at a faculty meeting when I faced some oblique criticism, “I didn’t go into this profession because I hate books. I love them. But you have to prune back the dead wood to stimulate new growth. If you want them, give them a home.” And at that point the naysayers kind of scuttled back into their lairs and mumbled something about not having space, the books were outdated, et cetera and yadda.

So it was with some trepidation that I am facing this second round of weeding, but I determined to stay firm in my resolve to create a lean, perfectly curated physical collection to complement our expansive digital holdings and avoid the psychic toll that kind of criticism can breed.

At present I am tagging the whole collection with colored stickers to indicate their destiny: green stays on the shelf in the high school collection, yellow means I need to check the books against our curriculum or to see if it has a digital equivalent, blue goes on the shelf of the new middle school space, and red means it will be finding a new home somewhere else. That “somewhere else” can take a variety of forms. Some books will be donated to a new private school that’s just opened up and needs resources, others will be sent to Thrift Books for reselling, some must by necessity be pulped for their paper content, and some can go to faculty who want to adopt them into personal or *classroom collections.

Previously I simply took the weeds out of the catalog, then parked the weeded books on a cart in the faculty room for cherry-picking, and that’s where the trouble lay – these discards were the subject of constant questions every time I walked by to get mail or coffee for months on end. How dare I? What was I thinking? Haven’t I read this? This is a really good book! Don’t I understand? I have. I do. And yet . . .

And that’s when I hit upon the idea of reverse-engineering the final weeding process. I’m going to pluck all the keepers and stash them on rented carts in order, to be rolled to their new home and shelved before opening day in August. Whatever is left on the current library shelves gets taken out of the catalog, has a DISCARD sticker placed over the barcode and can then be perused by faculty over the course of three days so they can pick anything they feel compelled to rescue. Then I’m going to pack the rest for distribution elsewhere as I’ve described. This condenses all the criticism and second-guessing into one short window, and then it’s over. I’m also working on greeting this opportunity as a teachable moment for the faculty: outdated science books do no one any good; multiple volumes about a single minor battle in military history take up space better spent on art technique books; kids don’t want to read stained books with worn covers. (I know – all books deserve love, but all librarians make hard choices based on these very criteria.)

In reading this over, I’m struck by how much of my day is spent mostly in the digital realm, and yet the biggest project I have going on right now is the management of the physical assets. There is a romance to books, and I appreciate that, but there are also days when they are things to be dusted, shifted, moved and packed, which makes me a little less dreamy-eyed about saving them and a little more inclined to work harder at converting those yellow stickers into e-book equivalents.


*I have mixed feelings about classroom collections. I’m not territorial – I just happen to think that if a book is valuable enough to several students for a teacher to want to keep it in his or her classroom, it’s probably worth keeping it in circulation for everyone’s benefit. Personal scholarly reference is different, of course.

One thought on “Reverse-engineering the library

  1. Thanks for this view from the trenches, Alyssa. Weeding is not anyone’s favorite chore and yet we know it’s so important. Its a bit like having your teeth cleaned– no fun in the process but so nice when it’s done, with similar parallels as both are vital for the health (and beauty!) of the organism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *