Libraries Removing Books: It’s A Good Thing

Gustavus Adolphus College librarian Barbara Fister explains why she loves getting rid of books.

Gustavus Adolphus College librarian Barbara Fister explains why she loves getting rid of books.

Why do we weed the collection? First, we don’t have much choice. We’re running out of space and building a wing onto the library to make room for more books just isn’t in the cards.It would be an irresponsible use of funds.

But there’s a more positive reason to weed the collection. Not all books age gracefully. Some weren’t much good to begin with, and they haven’t improved with age. Lots of them confidently state truths that are no longer true, if they ever were. Most of the books we remove are benignly bad – like advice books for executives on how to use computers to improve payroll management circa 1975; they aren’t dangerous unless large numbers of them fall on your head. But others are recklessly bad, such as state-of-the art reviews of how to treat mental illness or how to deal with juvenile delinquency published in 1970. I’m not talking about classics, about books that shaped our thinking and continue to be cited. I’m talking about books that weren’t all that great when they were published. And libraries are full of them.

Going into the stacks and taking the books off the shelf one at a time is instructive. Today, I pitched a handbook for secretaries published in the 1980s and career guides from the 1970s. I ditched a shelf of how-to books for budding executives published in the 70s and 80s. (Really, how many of these do we need?) I eighty-sixed software guides for dummies stupid enough to run software that’s generations old. These books will not be missed. Even in their prime most of them were never checked out, not even once.

What’s even better is that removing books can lead to adding them. When an entire subject area turns out to have no books with a publication date newer than 1975, and we are offering courses in that subject area – or it concerns a region of the world or a topic that is not in the curriculum, but is in the news – it’s time to track down book reviews and acquire some more current material.

Indeed.

University libraries have haphazard methods of acquiring books.  At The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where I taught for my first year out of grad school, each academic department had a budget and committees (in our case, a committee of one: me) decided how to spend the money.  At Troy State University (now Troy State), where I taught four years, individual professors were allowed to recommend books.   In both cases, profs look through catalogs sent in by the various publishing houses and selected books that looked useful.

Regardless, Fister is right:  Most nonfiction books, even those that were worth publishing to begin with (a small subset of books that are published), become stale and obsolete over time.  And given that the modal library user, a 19-year-old undergrad cluelessly wandering the stacks to get enough sources to write a paper, have no means of discerning which ones are worthwhile, it only makes sense for someone who knows what they’re doing to periodically cull the shelves.

UPDATE:  Commenter TG Chicago takes exception to the first sentence of the preceding paragraph, observing that, “Surely histories and biographies are nonfiction books that can be useful long after their publication. Even some of the ‘executive advice’ and ‘bad-science mental health’ books can be interesting as histories, providing a viewpoint into various past perspectives.”

Oh, almost every book, magazine, blog post, newspaper article, etc. is arguably worth something for some reason to somebody.  It’s just that most of them aren’t useful after time for their original purpose.

Old histories and biographies are unlikely to be among the ones culled through this process — unless they’ve been proven to be hack wok by successors.  Even there, they’re likely to be kept because the discrediting will make them widely cited.  But most nonfiction that’s published is of the crap variety: Written by (or, more commonly, for) celebrities and politicians of no long term consequence, or instabooks to capitalize on interest in some passing trend.  By being first on the scene, they’re often snapped up by libraries on the theory that the collection should include works on this important subject.  But they’ll be followed, if the subject is of any lasting interest, by much more worthwhile books.

Almost every book published thus far about the Iraq War or the Bush presidency, for example, is shiite written by hacks to appeal to a certain audience.   Maybe FIASCO and COBRA II, two of the better ones out there, will be of lasting value years down the line. But more objective histories will surely be written by scholars with the advantage of wider access to primary source materials, time to do serious research, and the advantage of perspective.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. TG Chicago says:

    I generally agree with your post, but I wonder about this:

    “Most nonfiction books, even those that were worth publishing to begin with (a small subset of books that are published), become stale and obsolete over time.”

    Surely histories and biographies are nonfiction books that can be useful long after their publication. Even some of the ‘executive advice’ and ‘bad-science mental health’ books can be interesting as histories, providing a viewpoint into various past perspectives.

    But I don’t argue the clear point that libraries have limited space and have to use it in the best way they can.

  2. john personna says:

    There is a great book about where too many of these books end up, rotting in Welsh fields:

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1582344043/104-6171187-2726351

    The problem with “weeding” is that combined with long-term copyright, it means that many of these works will be lost forever.

    It would be different if there were a “Catchment Library” which received Ms. Fister’s discards, screened them to make sure that some handful of copies were kept for public access, at least one place in the US.

    But we don’t have that.

    (Of course, another improvement would be to just give libraries more space, cheap tilt-up concrete space, and let them use it as their own Catchment Branch.)

  3. john personna says:

    You know, there will be one million reactions to today’s news posted on-line, but only a handful remain of the news 100 years ago. The past is getting thinner while the present floods us with ephemera.

  4. john personna says:

    I can’t believe that you are really arguing, in your update, that books should die, and that you are happy with the culling process.

    Think about it. Books are not culled on the basis of their value to the future reader. They are culled by current popularity. To survive, a book much be checked out continuously.

    The 19th century British experience in Afghanistan might be interesting now, but for a soldier’s account to be in Ms. Fister’s library it would have had to been checked out, and read, all through those years when no one read or cared.

  5. James Joyner says:

    John,

    I don’t think she’s using popularity as a single factor. But a 30-year-old book on a perishable subject that hasn’t been checked out in a decade is likely ripe for culling.

    Nor am I arguing that these books should simply go away — just that they shouldn’t be in the stacks of the average university library. They might belong in specialized collections, the Library of Congress, or whathaveyou. But we don’t need to keep expanding the shelves of thousands of libraries to save every existing copy of these books; a handful will suffice.

    And there’s always scanning and archiving online or otherwise in digital format.

  6. This doesn’t strike me as a allowing books to “die” as John Personna puts it, it’s about making sure that the university’s library remains relevant to the people who use it, primarily students and professors. Many schools have neither the resources nor the space to hold on to every copy of every book they’ve ever received.

  7. john personna says:

    To answer you both, the problem is that (1) many libraries are using ongoing popularity as their guide, leaving preservation to someone else, and (2) there is no one else.

    I dug out two books from my shelfs that I consider rare. One, “Taschenbuch Der Luftflotten : Pocket Almanac of Aeronautics”, 1927, is apparently worth 360 euros, but has no copies online. The other “Aeroplane: Construction and Operation and Maintenance”, 1927 is not at google books, though the 1929 edition is.

    There are many gaps, and basically some librarians defend “culling” while not addressing the missing preservation. The LOC does not have a mandate (nor funds) to catch and sort culls, and authors stopped sending LOC copies a long time ago, when copyright stopped requiring it.

  8. john personna says:

    BTW, it is interesting that this is a college librarian defending culling.

    Colleges grew around libraries, and long term preservation was at one time their goal.

  9. A librarian at a private, church affiliated, liberal arts college with total enrollment of about 2600 students:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavus_Adolphus_College

    One would imagine that their resources are somewhat more limited than, say, The Ohio State University

  10. John Burgess says:

    @John: While authors may not be sending in their books under copyright, have the publishers also stopped? This might be a problem with self-publishing, but is it a general problem? I suppose it’s a problem for online and print-on-demand books, too, but I suspect that those exist online and are accessible as long as the Internet survives.

    I don’t use university libraries very much these days, but I’m a heavy user of my county’s public library system. Shelf space is still encumbered with things like Users Guide to Windows 3.1 and early version guides to CorelDRAW or PaintShop Pro. That’s a waste of space. While I find entertainment value in looking at cookbooks from the 1950s and 60s, their utility is questionable, at best. The libraries have purged their 8-Track audio books, however.

  11. john personna says:

    Its interesting Doug, do you notice how packrat used bookstores can pack so much in so little space, while libraries are tending toward the opposite … wide open spaces and fewer books?

    Worse yet, my city library is removing books to make room for computer desks.

    FWIW, my copy of “Riding the Tiger” Carr 1934, is not online. Interesting book, the author visits Japan and sees WWII coming. That’s a perspective current blogs might not give you.

  12. Jay Tea says:

    While I agree with this policy in principle, certain obsolescent reference works are valuable in and of themselves purely for their historical perspective. For example, I would not only cheerfully support flogging for anyone who threw out an edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, I would wield the whip myself.

    I own a reprint of Jane’s Fighting Ships Of World War I, of which exactly one major combatant is still afloat — HMS Caroline. Yet it is a tremendously valuable resource for understanding key elements of the First World War.

    And I am not only not the only naval obsessive nutjob aficionado out there, but there are lots of other areas that have their own obsessive nutjobs devotees.

    J.

  13. John,

    Do you not recognize that there is a big difference between a “pat rat used bookstore” and a university library. They exist for different reasons and cater to different customers.

  14. john personna says:

    John, I would guess that Publishers send overstock to the LOC more than as a regular practice. I don’t know that for sure.

    A lot of this would be solved by a catchment system. The closest we have is that books tend to flow through online houses which screen some of them for current commercial value. That isn’t necessarily the same as historic value, though they overlap. A book, one of very few copies, with a very torn cover, may have little commercial value, but high historic.

    Interesting, apparently used books sell by the ton here:

    http://www.alibaba.com/showroom/pallet-of-books.html

  15. john personna says:

    LOL Doug, seriously?

    You didn’t take from that anything other than “they are different, so of course they are different?”

  16. John,

    My point is that there’s really no point in making an analogy between a library at a small liberal arts college and a used book store

  17. john personna says:

    (I think that while some branches should be open and pleasant places, I think that some branches should be piled high with books. Perhaps at Gustavus Adolphus they have room for both. “Oh, for that you need to go [sinister inflection] downstairs.“)

  18. john personna says:

    “My point is that there’s really no point in making an analogy between a library at a small liberal arts college and a used book store”

    LOL. Shelves of books, ready for the pubic, sorted by an overworked staff … completely different.

  19. Yes John completely different because they exist for different reasons

  20. john personna says:

    Ah, my copy of The book of musical knowledge, Published 1915 by Houghton Mifflin company, is online, so I can safely discard it:

    http://openlibrary.org/books/OL7128344M/The_book_of_musical_knowledge

  21. john personna says:

    Distinction without a difference, Doug

    But you are the sort of guy to ride that distinction all day and all night, aren’t you?

    Just curious though, do people not read books at one place or the other? Do they not value them? Do they not try to keep them safe and dry?

  22. John,

    I can’t believe that you really don’t see how a university library, especially one at a small college with limited resources and space, is different from a used bookstore that caters to people who are willing to pay money for that uncovered copy of a first edition from 1939.

    It’s a fact of life that resources are limited, and I don’t see what’s so wrong with the culling procedure that this particular librarian has come up with. If you don’t like her choices, then I suggest making a large enough financial donation to the Gustavus Augustus College library to allow them to expand so they can keep those copies of training manuals from the 1970s that you apparently think are so essential.

  23. john personna says:

    In my parenthesized comment I suggested that the solution was to think of different kinds of spaces, within a city library system, or within a university. There is no reason that all books need be kept in open and airy shelves. I would think colleges have both back rooms, and students willing to work for extra credit.

    The question is whether we, as a society, value preservation – and then how we achieve it.

    You apparently don’t, because you think it’s on me to cut checks for Gustavus Augustus to make it happen 😉

  24. That’s the part of this whole comment thread that confuses me.

    You’ve taken one very limited example of a library in a small college and are drawing all sorts of conclusions about society as a whole from it.

  25. john personna says:

    Here is what you should be saying:

    “it is ok for a particular library to cull their shelves, but yes, as a society we need a catchment system.”

    If that were in place nationally, or as a distributed network, it would solve both problems.

  26. john personna says:

    “You’ve taken one very limited example of a library in a small college and are drawing all sorts of conclusions about society as a whole from it.”

    Did you follow my link to amazon?

    That book might have told the other side of the story.

  27. John,

    But where is the evidence that there really is such a problem ? You cannot point to the experience as good old Gustavus Augustus as such evidence, for the reasons I’ve stated

  28. john personna says:

    Maybe you need to read that book Doug (with ironic emphsis) if you can find a copy.

  29. John,

    That still doesn’t tell me that we’ve got some massive problem of books of value going out of print forever.

    On that note, I’ll have to wait until later to respond to whatever else you say. I’ve got stuff to do

  30. john personna says:

    You don’t want to read a book that tells the history or how thousands of American books ended up in a Welsh town, and disappeared from US shelves … you want “proof.”

    Incredible, but I guess it solidifies your point, right?

    It’s a book what possible truth or value could it have, eh?

  31. Sigh, either willfully or not, you aren’t understanding me.

  32. john personna says:

    Here is one bit:

    “As warm as Sixpence House is though it does have its ‘colder’ moments. Collins talks often about the untouched and forgotten mountains of books that are to found boxed up in almost every dark corner and backroom of Hay. There are certain genres that don’t sell and will never sell (Theology seems to be the worst from what I can remember), and these are left to slowly heap up with nobody being really sure what to do with them. The worst-case solution (as far as the books are concerned at least), comes courtesy of Booth, who solves the problem by “heaping up pyres of books in the field behind his castle, dousing them with petrol, and then setting them on fire.” Gulp!”

    http://robaroundbooks.com/2009/03/afterthoughts-sixpence-house-by-paul-collins/

  33. john personna says:

    The book tells the story Doug, of all kinds of institutions (public and corporate libraries, newspaper morgues) managing their shelf space and sending the surplus down the food chain, until they burn in Welsh fields.

  34. John

    You do realize that there is more than one copy of a given book in existence at any one time, right ?

    The fact that surplus copies of Mastering Windows 3.1 are being burned in a Welsh town doesn’t really bother me all that much.

  35. john personna says:

    “You do realize that there is more than one copy of a given book in existence at any one time, right?”

    That is what the catchment system I’ve suggested would determine.

    The problem now is that no one checks.

    You’ve put yourself in the position of arguing that no one needs to check.

  36. sam says:

    Is Going Rogue going Welsh? Anybody know?

  37. michael reynolds says:

    I wonder how many of you understand that the vast majority of books cease to exist?

    Of the thousands of books published each year only a minority make it into a bookstore, and those that get in but sell poorly disappear forever.

    Shelf space — in stores or libraries — is real estate. Very limited real estate.

    A far smaller percentage of total books make it into libraries. Once the shelves are full the libraries stop buying. If some crap book on programming in 1970 stays on the shelves it occupies a spot that cannot be filled by the next 40 years’ worth of programming books. So failing to cull shelves actually keeps books from surviving. It is a destructive choice.

    This is one of the reasons I counsel other writers to embrace the digital future: there’s no issue of limited real estate and thus no need to destroy books.

  38. john personna says:

    “If some crap book on programming in 1970 stays on the shelves it occupies a spot that cannot be filled by the next 40 years’ worth of programming books.”

    There is an amusing gimmick in Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky.” If you read it between the lines, as a programmer, he’s basically saying that technology will level and accrete, and that far future spaceships will have UNIX deep in their cores. Anyone with those 70’s books can rule the universe 😉

  39. john personna says:

    Oh, his other gimmick, “focus” has applicability to blog-goofing.

  40. floyd says:

    Whether it’s a good thing or not it is a necessary thing to cull a library in order to keep it relevant and manageable.
    It is an awesome responsibility though, and should not be the instrument of political,religious or scientific zealotry.
    For example I have in my possesion an original Charles R. Van Hise’s “The Conservation of Our Natural Resources in the United States”. It was published in 1910.
    A casual glance might determine this book to be a candidate for removal as obsolete.
    However it contains great insight when juxtaposed with such prize winning books as “An Inconvenient Truth” and other contemporary works on environmentalism.
    Removing this book could be a great loss in terms of librarian responsibility.
    It is my concern that works like this could be destroyed by those with an Orwellian motive.