Weeding the Stacks

book cover for the Singular Mark Twain

One of the most (intellectually) difficult jobs for many collection development, acquisitions and circulation librarians can be culling books from the shelves. Many books need to be weeded, some because they are unloved and no one checks them out anymore, and some ahead of their time because of damage, obsolescence, or outright dirt poor information. Fiction writers lie for a living, and do it with style and panache (they get a bye on fibbing, the Mark Twain Free Pass.) Some nonfiction writers prevaricate as well. Some quite gleefully. When detected, those books are far easier to boot off of the catalog and out the door (or in library parlance, “deaccess.”)

Fiction is relatively straightforward to deaccess–check the circulation, and if the book has gone unloved and unchecked out for a few years, pull it and make room for a newer, shinier, and presumably more lovable tome. Some classics get a pass (Mark Twain is possibly slightly overrepresented in the collection, but hey, Mark Twain.) Regional authors get a little extra attention. Still, taking out some books can be a hard call. Librarian favorites can mysteriously find new life and more prominent locations (when will they reprint that Edward Abbey classic? Has it become too subversive for modern publication? Better keep it…) Weeding is as much an arcane art as book ordering.

book cover for Trust and Honesty

Right this very minute, I am scanning some nonfiction candidates for deaccession from our society and law section (Dewey 346-347.) Some books are fairly easy culls, such as O.J., The Last Word, c1997–regional author, but last century subject, and no recent circs. But what about Trust and Honesty: America’s Business Culture at a Crossroad/ Tamar Frankel–isn’t the subject more relevant than ever? Or perhaps the scholarly approach is too dense for a general collection. And what about Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History–c2001, and still being argued. Moreover, Library Journal still recommends the book for public libraries ten years after publication. Then there’s How to be Rich, by J. Paul Getty, published by Playboy Press in the sixties, a first edition. It’s a fascinating book. Not my normal fare, but now that I’ve paged through it, I might read it to study the snapshot of the time and mindset. Serendipity in the stacks works like that.

On to the next book. The Constitution of the United States, Its Sources, and Its Applications by Thomas James Norton, c1940. “…this explanation of the Constitution has been prepared under the conviction that the American never has had within reach the means of acquiring that knowledge which, as a citizen, he should first of all possess.” The quote is from the preface, written just after the 19th Amendment passed allowing women the right to vote. Inclusive language was still a work in progress, and one of our more deeply passionate readers has underlined a key phrase or two (thankfully only in pencil) but the bones of the history in the book are good.

What would you do? Keep or cull?

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