Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Weed it and weep

I first learned about library weeding back when I was a custodian at the Eugene Public Library in Oregon back in the late 1990s. In advance of a move to a new building, the librarians removed huge numbers of books from the collection and threw them into trash barrels in the library garage. I discovered these barrels full of books -- including a large number of second-wave feminist classics -- one night when I came on shift.

The librarians assured me that this was a normal part of public library collection management, that the books were being removed because they circulated rarely or not at all. Public libraries needed to provide what was in demand among their patrons. The job of saving books belonged to academic libraries. While I was quite convinced that the librarians believed the story that they were telling me, it seemed to me that the practice of weeding had an unintentionally Orwellian result. Old and unpopular materials were removed from public view and sent "down the memory hole." I wrote about it at the time. Thanks to the miracle of the Wayback Machine, you can read that old essay now, if you'd like.

While it's true that the aggressive weeding of public library collections is a widely accepted practice among librarians, there are professional standards that govern it. The decision to remove an item from a library collection theoretically takes account of several criteria, including how often it circulates, its lasting importance, its physical condition, and its age. One widely used set of guidelines for weeding is published by the Texas State Libraries and Archives Commission, and is known as the CREW Manual. Whatever the shortcomings of this document, it makes clear that weeding is a practice that requires thoughtfulness, planning, and thought. In other words, librarians don't generally go through their collections and toss out every book that is more than 10 years old without considering other factors.

But according to information sent to me by one of my professors, exactly such a bizarre and extreme weeding program may have taken place recently at the Urban Free Public Library in Illinois. The story broke about a week ago in the local online news magazine Smile Politely. According to columnist Tracy Nectoux,
I was contacted about something extremely disturbing that had recently happened at Urbana Free Library (UFL). A weeding process had taken place that had discarded thousands of nonfiction books in a hasty, arbitrary way — a way that utilizes only one of the UFL’s stated selection criteria.*

Both UFL staff and the public (who were alarmed at the rapidly emptying shelves) spoke out, but the weeding continued until a library board meeting (and Mayor Laurel Prussing) was called. JP Goguen, a university library employee, was at the meeting, recorded it, and sent the recording to me (the board normally does not record meetings). The conversation at this meeting is alarming. Urbana Free Library's director, Deb Lissak, made a unilateral decision to weed books in the print collection by date alone. It seems that the Adult Services staff’s expertise and knowledge of the collection was neither consulted nor welcomed. In fact, Anne Phillips, Director of Adult Services, was not even in the country when the project began and was unaware that it was happening at all.
The library planned to mark all of its book with RFID tags. In order to speed up this time-consuming process, library director Lissak may have ordered the removal of any book in the collection that had been published before 2003. There are conflicting reports about this. An update to Tracy Netoux's orginal post has a link to this response on the Urbana Free Libary's Web site. Another update provided a link to an interview of Lissak by a local radio station, in which Lissak said the controversy came about because of miscommunication between the library staff and herself.

Others dispute Lissak's version of events. An overflow crowd of enraged citizens attended Monday night's City Council meeting, as reported by the East Illinois News-Gazette and Smile Politely. There is even a Twitter feed devoted to the controversy. Most tweeters seem outraged by the situation, but some support Lissak's position.

This summer I'm working on finalizing the prospectus for my library studies master's thesis. It's going to be about weeding. I think this is an important area of public policy that ought to be discussed more thoroughly with the public. This controversy shows exactly why public discussion of library weeding is so important.