A Cape Cod librarian talks about a library’s process of weeding, recycling, and redistributing discarded library books.
There is only so much shelf space in a library: the NEW section is ever-expanding, and the stacks are not. The term librarians use to describe the process of getting rid of old library books is called “weeding,” which is preferable to the term “culling.” You weed a garden to make it grow more vibrant. You cull a herd to get rid of stragglers. Only the most sadistic librarians prefer the latter term.
Studies have shown that fewer books on the shelves yields higher circulation rates. Check out “The Art of Weeding” by Ian Chant for more specifics. When book selections are limited, it makes titles more noticeable. Books fly off the shelves. … Either that or our library is haunted, and the ghost has a taste for contemporary westerns and short-story collections. (The library at which I work was built in the 1640s. It’s definitely haunted.)
Every library’s weeding criteria is different. It could be by publication date, last checkout date, number of copies in the lending system, physical condition, trilogies versus series versus standalones. At Sturgis Library, where I work, the criterion we use is last checkout date: If a book hasn’t gone out in three years, it’s time for retirement. (Of course, that comes with exceptions. For example, if my favorite horror novel published 10 years ago is on its way out, I can check it out myself and reset the clock, extending the book’s shelf-life by three years in hopes of rediscovery. And you can’t get rid of classics. Looking at you, Moby Dick.) We also take into consideration how damaged a copy is. If a spine is in tatters and there are streaks of grape jelly marring the title page, there’s a good chance it will be weeded. This is the criteria I apply to the fiction section. Our director takes care of the nonfiction section, which, in some regards, is more streamlined. If the information within a work of nonfiction is no longer accurate or up-to-date, it’s got to go. No one needs to keep a copy of Windows 98 for Dummies, How to Prepare for Y2K, or that 1800s home remedy guide to self-treating bunions.
In some areas of the country, the topic of weeding has been controversial. Some people see it as book murder, or a waste of taxpayers’ money. Others believe it’s one step away from a scene in Fahrenheit 451. Take the Alameda County Library, for example. In 2015, they came under fire from townspeople who found a dumpster full of discarded books, then went on to prove the library had discarded over 100,000 copies in one go. After the uproar, the town put a moratorium in place to regulate how books were discarded. Since then, they have created a volunteer network to handle getting their weeded books to nonprofits and local library book sales.
One hundred thousand books seems a bit extreme, but if there were no weeding, people would enter a library and be swallowed by a wave of disorganized hardcovers and paperbacks. Almanacs and dictionaries from the 1920s would pile up to the ceiling. Doorways would be choked with computer manuals written before the Internet existed. It’s not feasible to collect every book ever purchased. Weeding critics only see the retirement, not the afterlife. Most libraries don’t throw withdrawn titles into the dumpster. There are many nonprofit organizations that repurpose these books. Books to Prisoners takes in weeded copies and circulates them to prisons around the country. More Than Words accepts donations to sell in their used bookstores located in urban settings. These stores are staffed by teenagers and young adults as a way to help learn business skills, gain employment, and transition into adulthood. Books for Africa does exactly as its name suggests: attempts to end the “book famine” in Africa. At Sturgis, we sell our weeded copies in our book store for 50 cents apiece. The resale of these weeded titles helps pay for library programing, the purchasing of new books, and general operation costs.
Now for some of the fun things I’ve discovered while weeding:
For a book to have a successful life, it needs to hit at least 20 circulations. Most of the books I weeded in our last round had fewer than 10 checkouts. Some hovered below three. At least 20 books had never even left the shelf.
Since purchased in 1993, Along Came a Spider by James Patterson has circulated 176 times. A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton, purchased in 1991, has 134 circulations. Homeplace by Anne Rivers Siddons has circulated 112 times. Now, compare that to two of my favorite books in our collection: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell has 30 checkouts, and The Girls by Emma Cline has circulated 15 times. It’s interesting to consider what makes one book circulate more than another. Whether it’s name recognition, subject matter, quality of writing, awards won, book cover design, or weeks spent on The New York Times bestsellers list, I couldn’t tell you. It’s definitely a topic for another article … another very long article. Even though some of the above-mentioned authors garner high circulation numbers, it doesn’t guarantee all their titles will live on the shelf forever. This year alone, I weeded seven Patterson novels from our collection. Five of Fern Michaels’ cozy romances met their demise. Six of Stuart Woods’ mysteries reached their last checkout. I have nothing against these authors, but when you stock between 15 and 142 titles by a single writer (Guess who?), shelf space has to be a consideration. Plus, you can make fun collages with their author photos.
A little-known fact: Books are great insulation for your house. Walls obscured by bookshelves hold in the heat. If we ever run out of places to donate our weeded selections, I’m considering starting my own construction firm as a solution. Instead of pink fluffy fiberglass insulation, I’ll just load up the space between plywood and drywall with old thrillers and westerns, romances from the 70s, and outdated almanacs.
Renew, reuse, recycle. It applies to more than just plastics. Books never die; they just morph into alternate forms, circling through reincarnation until they reach Nirvana … or until I funnel them into my wall to save on heating bills.
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his partner, Gabrielle. He works as a librarian and landscaper. His work has been published in or is forthcoming from Blue Earth Review, JMWW, Hawaii Pacific Review, Gravel, Literary Orphans Journal, and elsewhere. He is represented by Marie Lamba of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. To learn more, follow him on Twitter or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.