Doing a spot of gardening

Weeding. It’s a term all library folk know, even if it’s referred to in different organisations by another term. Such as culling. Or disposing. Or deselecting. Or ‘managing the collection’. You get the idea.

For as long as libraries have held books there has been the vexed question of what to do with them as they age, fall out of favour, become politically incorrect or just don’t fit the organisation’s purpose any longer.  Vexed because it seems a waste to get rid of ‘perfectly good books’ but also a waste to keep them on the shelves taking up valuable space year after year and not actually being used.  Of course, libraries now have to deal with this issue across many more media than just books – but it’s specifically the ‘traditional’ and tangible media such as books, DVDs, videos and other physical objects I’m talking about in this post.

The rationale behind the disposal or weeding section in a library’s collection development policy is to ensure the collection remains up to date, current and most importantly, meeting the needs of the library users.

In my prac placement at a NSW TAFE library, one of the projects I was given was to assess the collection in one particular subject area and make some decisions about what to keep and what really had to go and subsequently, recommend any acquisitions to then fill the gaps.  The subject area was childcare, the faculty had recently changed the courses so that some of the material in the library was no longer needed and much of it was potentially out of date.  Budget restraints meant that much of the AV material in this subject area was still on video (and the library provided facilities for students to watch these on site as most people don’t have access to VCR’s at home anymore).  The process of watching bits of these videos, studying the course outlines and recommended reading lists, liaising with faculty and building up a picture of what was contained in the collection was for me, a fascinating process. One 12 video series was packed off to the head of the faculty on campus to determine whether the material was still useable but most of it I was able to make decisions and recommendations on my own.

The issue of censorship and subjectivity comes into this a lot.  Just because the 80’s fashions in a particular video had me and the other staff in gales of laughter doesn’t mean the content isn’t sound.  However, I had to weigh up whether the material would have any credibility with our students, as they have grown up with digital media, good sound and sophisticated techniques.  All the solid content in the world is immaterial if the students dismiss it as old or boring at the opening credits. (One memorable video from the travel industry collection featured mustachioed men in short shorts and long socks playing deck tennis on a cruise liner and rendered the entire library staff helpless with laughter – it was all so very 1980’s!).

Sometimes making a decision about what stays and what goes feels perilously close to deciding who gets to read what, which starts to feel like censorship….  It’s all very well deciding that as a particular book was published in 1980 and has only been borrowed 3 times in the past 10 years that it’s probably no longer relevant to the collection but … what if… ?

This is the point at which it is good to remind oneself of the needs of the actual users of the library:

  • Perhaps that book relates to a subject that is no longer offered by the college? Easy – get rid of it!
  • Perhaps there’s 3 copies of later editions? Sure – toss it out!
  • Perhaps it’s aimed at a university level student and as such, isn’t really what TAFE (in this example) students are looking for? Well… maybe, but what about that one student who does want to go the extra mile – you know, the one who’s doing this course as a pathway to university… can I really deprive them of the chance to use this fabulous, albeit a bit old, resource?

And so the internal struggle starts up again….

There’s not really a straightforward answer. A good Collection Development Policy allows you to select and dispose somewhat dispassionately – after all, you are just following the rules. … I think. At MPOW, the library is on the move in the next 6 weeks or so.  It seems to me that ‘s a good time to do some weeding.

In closing, an excellent example of just what to DO with all those old videos that come off the shelves:

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