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Head for the Edge, Library Media Connection, Sept/Oct 2003

I once took over a job from Evelyn who had been a school librarian for 20 years. During her tenure, she never threw anything away — literally. Most of the books were of an age that they could drink. Many could and should have retired. One book had not been checked out since two weeks prior to Pearl Harbor.

The reason I can state with confidence she threw nothing out is because the bottom left drawer of her desk contained nearly a dozen years of the Sports Illustrated swim suit editions in pristine condition. Happy, happy Doug!

I could just envision Evelyn’s dilemma. “I can’t put this out but I can’t throw it away. I can’t put this out but I can’t throw it away. I can’t put this out but I can’t throw it away.” It must have cost her sleepless nights.

I thought about Evelyn and weeding after reading Minnesota’s recently released state-wide study of its school library media programs <www.metronet.lib.mn.us/survey/index.cfm>. Modeled after the Colorado and other state studies, it contains lots of interesting data. But one part of the study just jumped right out at me. The average copyright date of a book sitting on the shelves on our state’s school libraries is 1985. Ouch.

The first article I ever wrote for professional publication appeared in School Library Journal way back in 1990 and was called “Weeding the Neglected Collection”. It told how and why I tossed about half of the books on Evelyn’s shelves. The recently released study is a clear indication that my advice to weed was ignored 13 years ago. So I will try again.

Poorly weeded collections are not the sign of poor budgets but of poor librarianship. Period. Only two things can happen if library material replacement budgets are inadequate. The collection ages if the librarian does not weed. The collection gets smaller if the librarian does weed. That’s it.

Small, but high quality collections are infinitely better. And this is why. Continuous, thoughtful weeding:

•    Rids your collections of sexist, racist and just plain inaccurate materials. And you’ve been complaining about the Internet being a source of bad information! Any books about the 48 states? That predict that one day man will land on the moon? In which the Soviet Union is still a major political power? My favorite weeds were these:
•    Boy Electrician
•    Boy’s Book of Rifles
•    Boy’s Book of Verse
•    Boy’s Book of Great Detective Stories
•    Boy’s Book of Tools
•    Boy’s Book of Turtles and Lizards
•    Boy’s Book of King Arthur
•    Boy’s Book of Outboard Boating
•    Boy’s Book of Sherlock Holmes
•    Boy’s First Book of Radio and Television
There was no “Girl’s” book of anything, but if there had been, I’m sure it would have been of cooking, sewing, or dating.

•    Makes the good stuff easier to find and more appealing. Kids (and more than a few adults) do judge books by their covers. Publishers design bright and attractive book jackets and paperback covers for a reason. One reason folks gave for not using a library is that the books are physically dirty. Few students are willing to plow through dozens of books with nasty old worn-covered books to get to a good one. (Now that I think of it, that’s a pretty good reason to clean the fridge now and again too.)

•    Sends the message that the library may not be adequately funded. If you went into your neighbor’s pantry and saw the shelves filled with boxes of breakfast cereal, you’d conclude your neighbor had plenty to eat. But what if those boxes were empty? Shelves filled books of no value are the equivalent of pantries full of empty cereal boxes. Visitors don’t look very hard at book collections. They only see whether shelves are empty or full. Your budget is unlikely to increase if the perception is that you have a library full of materials already.

One very sweet library media specialist came up to me after I gave a talk on budgets in which I railed about weeding. “But, Doug,” she said, “if we weed, our collection will be too small for our school to meet our accreditation standards.” My tongue-in-check advice was to replace the books with those fake book jacket pieces one finds in furniture stores if the standards only required quantity not quality. Whether directly stated or not, I am quite sure her accreditation standards call for usable books, not just any books in the library

Download Betty Jo Buckingham and Barbara Safford’s Weeding the Library Media Collections. It’s an authoritative guide that will give you confidence.

Whether fortunate or unfortunate, many people regard books as sacred objects and have difficulty throwing them away. An industrial arts teacher at Evelyn’s school glares at me to this day, claiming he hurt his back climbing out of the dumpster into which I had thrown away some “perfectly good books.” What he did not understand and we need to remember is that it is not books that are sacred, but the thoughts, inspiration, and accurate information they contain.

Weed! I’m not telling you again.


Most of my Head for the Edge columns, updated and edited, can be found in my book School Libraries Head for the Edge. Buy it and I might be able to afford a nicer nursing home one day. Thank you.

Posted on Thursday, June 21, 2007 at 06:21PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments12 Comments

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Reader Comments (12)

I am now the media specialist in the school where I attended Junior High in 1978-79. One of my weeding criteria for the fiction section was that if the last person to check it out went to high school with me it was time for it to go. It was amazing how many books met that criteria or were from my older sisters' classes!

December 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCathy L

About the dumpster diving...Never toss books in your own school's dumpster. Drive to the next county by the dark of the moon if you have to!

December 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJulie D.

Weeding is one of the jobs that I really like. It is a great satisfaction to clear the shelves of old, unused, musty books. In one school library where I was weeding heavily, one of the students complained that I wasn't leaving much on the shelves and my response was, "But what I am leaving on the shelves is good, usable information." That was a satisfactory answer. I, too, have been known to take books home and dump them in the garbage there so no one would "rescue" those perfectly good books! Weed!

December 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn

I've been pulling loads of books off the shelves for 11 years and am still finding things that make me gasp. The challenge with weeding is that it needs to happen constantly. My goal is to have my fiction shelves filled with books that I want to hand to children, and to eventually get to a place where most of the discarding is due to books being really worn.

March 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMs. Yingling

Hi Ms Yingling,

I know many librarians who tackle a set number of sections each year in a 5 year rotation. Seems to work pretty well.

Keep up the weeding!


March 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

KSTP news (Minnapolis/St Paul) just aired another story about the age of Minnesota's library collections. It wasn't any different than what you noted was found six years ago.

January 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarcia

I've been pulling loads of books off the shelves for 11 years and am still finding things that make me gasp. The challenge with weeding is that it needs to happen constantly. My goal is to have my fiction shelves filled with books that I want to hand to children, and to eventually get to a place where most of the discarding is due to books being really worn.

August 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

But seriously, how do you handle the accreditation problem. I already don't have the number of books required, but I sure do need to weed. What is your advise?

April 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn

Hi Carolyn,

My advice is to weed and then let the accreditation report reflect that the collection is not adequately funded. Pointing out deficiencies is one of the reasons accreditation studies are done.


April 29, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I realize I may not get a response, since this post is over 7 years old, but I read this article as part of a class I'm taking, and I have your book, Indispensible Librarian. I love your works and enjoy reading your advice. I really wanted to check out the work you mentioned in the article by Buckingham and Stafford, but now that URL you gave is no longer working. Do you have an updated link to it or something comparable I can check out? Thanks!

November 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDixie

Hi Dixie,

Flattery will get you everywhere. Here's a working link:


Let me know if this doesn't work.


November 15, 2014 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

The link worked. Thanks a lot!

November 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDixie

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