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Managing a collection is easier without all those books in the way: The Urbana Free Library’s lesson for the rest of us

It’s kind of a common joke among librarians: “Our jobs would be so much easier without the patrons.” It’s the kind of thing we say in a moment of frustration that both allows us to vent and also reminds us why we’re here in the first place. We would never lock our doors to keep the patrons out — to “protect” our collections and our time.

Apparently the library director at the Urbana Free Library, Deb Lissak, decided that her staff’s jobs would be so much easier if there weren’t any books. And rather than sigh and get on with life’s little frustrations, she actually acted on the impulse. In the space of a few hours, and without the knowledge of the librarian in charge of the collection, she had 12 new staff weed 50-70% of the adult non-fiction collection using publication date as her only criteria. Looking for a non-fiction book published before 2003? You won’t find it at the Urbana Free Library.

Of course, thoughtful weeding is a vital part of maintaining a useful collection. This, however, does not resemble thoughtful reading in the slightest. This resembles a daycare dumping basins of bathwater without checking for people’s babies first.

Somehow, of all the appalling aspects of this story, her stated reasoning is what gets me the most.

[It] has to do with RFID [tagging]. We have to touch every single piece in the collection and have to tag it… And you don’t want to be doing all that and then find you’re — six months from now — you’re weeding and taking things back out you just went to the trouble of doing this for. (Quoted here)

There you have it: proactive weeding. We might find we want to weed it later, so we’ll just weed it now instead. The ultimate in efficiency.

Meanwhile, the library is telling its patrons not to worry, that this will make browsing easier. It’s so much more efficient to browse 10 books compared to 50 books. You’ll love it!

Libraries sure can be more efficient without those pesky collections.

8 thoughts on “Managing a collection is easier without all those books in the way: The Urbana Free Library’s lesson for the rest of us

  1. Have you tried to find a nonfiction book more than ten years old at a public library recently? It wasn’t easy getting my hands on Prozac Nation (1994) here in the Hudson Valley–my local public library in Poughkeepsie (which is actually very good) certainly didn’t have a copy. So it’s not like public libraries keep a lot of older nonfiction around anyway.

  2. Sure, I understand that public libraries aren’t research libraries. But it’s still irresponsible to weed on that criterion alone. And I’m sure your local public library has quite a few books older than 10 years.

  3. Thinking about what Eric says, the “previously popular” nonfiction does seem like it ends up in Limbo. My awesome library system, Pikes Peak Public Library, has only two copies. So sure, *specific* books from 10+ years ago may be difficult to get immediately, but the idea that *all* older books would be gone is mind-blowing. The sections I tend to browse in art, literature, history and so on are full of books that are from 1990 and before, let alone 2003.

  4. The director has issued an apology, clarified the procedures, and assumed full responsibility for the incident, and initiated corrective action, including the return of a book shipment made to Better World Books. The incident appears headed to a satisfactory resolution. Certainly the library board and concerned patrons will be monitoring this.

    HOWEVER, this incident raises a question about whether all books and which books should be culled when not borrowed for three or some other number years–a question that applies to any library, not just the Urbana library. I remember once going to the Urbana library to look at a book containing drawings of the artist Giacometti. I thumbed through it for a hour or so, appreciated that I could do so at the library, but did not borrow it. And sometimes a patron might take extended looks at several books, before deciding to borrow one for whatever reason. So maybe a book’s “cullability” should also be in part be measured inversely to how many times it has been reshelved. With a new a RFID system, maybe this can be tracked. Again this issue is important to all libraries, especially now considering the technological changes now coming to libraries.

    I expect and hope that the director will gain enough good will for her response to the mistakes, to compensate for the ill-will caused by this incident

  5. Michael,

    While it’s good to forgive, I’d like to point out that the Director did NOT assume responsibility for what happened, she blamed the incident on her staff, most of which had been hired the week before, and had no training in the processes related to “weeding”. Couple that with the fact that even after meeting with a more experienced member regarding the speed at which books were being removed, she STILL didn’t stop the process, or monitor it in any way.

  6. Pingback: weeding: how i did it | lis.dom

  7. The director should have been fired immediately. How could there be any doubt of that? Speaking of “Prozac Nation,” the local library tossed the sole copy in the dump, and I found it. Here, too, “reference” barely exists in hard copy. Nonfiction? Or, good old fiction? Gone. Thrown away. (Whilst crying poverty).

    Adding more disgust to the Urbana director’s actions is that she donated the books to Better World Books, a sleezy, suspicious ‘non-profit’ corporation if ever there was one. Even WITH a computer available, she didn’t bother to check on this group?

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