Why weed the collection?

(Revised from University Librarian blog post posted on Feb. 1, 2011)

“Plant and your spouse plants with you; weed and you weed alone.”  ~Dennis Breeze

Weeding.  It is not a fun subject, either for librarians or for faculty and students who use the library.  But from time to time it is a necessary thing.  Over the next two years, the Wesleyan University Library will be conducting a major weeding project, reducing our 1.3 million volume collection by 60,000 volumes.   (If you are not familiar with weeding, it is when a library selectively withdraws books that no longer serve the needs of its users.)

Wesleyan University Library is almost out of space in the stacks, and we have to do something about that.  And since the collections support the work of faculty and their students, we want interested faculty and other members of the Wesleyan community to be as involved as possible in the process.

The library’s mission:  In doing this kind of project it is essential to keep the library’s mission in mind.  The primary mission of the Wesleyan University Library is to support the teaching, learning, research and cultural enrichment of Wesleyan students and faculty—both now and in the future.

In addition to this, we have a responsibility to larger scholarly community to maintain and preserve books and other materials in our library that are rare or unavailable elsewhere.  This is true of materials not just in Special Collections & Archives and the World Music Archives, but also many books in the general collection.

The conversion of print to electronic content:  As you know, more and more of the library’s collections are online.  But different kinds of content are in different stages in the conversion to an electronic format.

Journals and other serials are pretty far along in the conversion, and are widely accepted and used in that form by students and by faculty.  Online video and audio are becoming more usable, and certainly our students and faculty prefer online video and audio (as long as it is of high quality) to physical forms such as DVDs and CDs.

Books in electronic form are also gaining acceptance and becoming more usable, particularly for recreational reading.  You may have heard the press release from Amazon that sales of electronic books have now surpassed not just books in hardcover, but in paperback as well.  Scholarly books are also being digitized and provided in electronic form, by a variety of book vendors and publishers.

However, so far technical and copyright limitations have prevented electronic books from being as usable to students and scholars as print books.  Yale University Press, for example, often does not include images in the electronic versions of their books, because of the difficulty of negotiating permission with the copyright holders to do so.  And another factor is the place of publication.  Publishers in the developing world still primarily produce their books in print form because they often do not have the resources to convert to online publishing and because their primary customers—libraries and scholars in their country—often do not have technology that would allow them to access electronic content.

All this will change in the next few years—scholarly publishers are beginning to see the advantages and inevitability of making their ebooks usable.  But we’re not quite there yet.

Why weed now? Libraries are in the middle of a major shift in the way we provide content.  In several years most of the working collections of the library will be online. So why bother weeding the print collections now?  If we wait several years, we may be able to withdraw print books with the confidence that there are good or better electronic versions available.

1. Space! We have almost no free shelf space in the libraries.  And although we are purchasing fewer books in print form—about 13,000 this year down from 21,000 ten years ago–for the next several years the library will continue to add print books as well as electronic books.

2. Relevance.  Another reason to weed is to keep our content relevant.  Wesleyan’s curriculum and faculty research interests are constantly evolving, as are academic disciplines and research methods.  Some books in our collection are no longer relevant to the work that students or faculty do here.  Of course there is an historic value to these books.  But if no one at Wesleyan is doing work on the history of an academic discipline, it can be hard to justify taking up shelf space with these books if they are available elsewhere.

3. Physical condition.  Some of the books in the stacks are in poor physical condition because of deterioration over time or from vandalism.  I’ve had the experience of going to the stacks and finding that the book I need is so brittle I’m not comfortable using it.  And if a book in the stacks isn’t useable we should withdraw it, although if the book has been used recently or is important we may get a replacement.

Deciding what to weed:  How are we going to decide which books to weed?

Past use and patterns of use.  We can get statistics from our online catalog on how often and when books have checked out.  This isn’t the only way books get used, but it is one important way and it is countable.  So we know, for example, that a book has checked out seven times since we purchased it six years ago, and that all of these uses occurred in the first year after we purchased it.  We have these detailed statistics for the past seven years since we migrated to our current system, and also have summary statistics from our previous system.

The number of copies of a book we hold.  We sometimes acquire more than one copy of a book, either because of its popularity or importance when we purchased it, or because the book was requested for reserve.  In some cases it is necessary to keep duplicate or multiple copies of some books, because they are heavily used or difficult to replace.  But in other cases the added copies may no longer be needed.  (You may remember that several years ago we did a weeding project to selectively cull added copies that were no longer needed, but it is useful to look at these again from time to time.)

We also have several editions of many classic works, and need to consider whether it is necessary to retain all of the editions of all these works.

Physical condition.  We cannot tell the physical condition of the books until we get into the stacks, but once we are there we will definitely consider it in determining what to weed.

The number of copies held at other libraries.  For over 20 years now we have shared our collections with our CTW consortial partners, Connecticut College and Trinity College, via a daily delivery service.  If Conn or Trinity have a book, it may not always be necessary for Wesleyan to hold it as well.  In the past few years, the consortium has been working intensively on policies to build a strong consortial library collection across all three schools, to meet our user’s needs in a more coordinated and cost-effective way.

For books not held by CTW, we have interlibrary loan.  Sophisticated online systems have revolutionized interlibrary loan services in the past several years; even print books can be provided much more quickly than in the past.  Ensuring that the library retains rare materials is important not only to Wesleyan students and faculty, but to the larger scholarly community.

The weeding process:  Although the process has not been finalized, the weeding project will go something like this:

Creating a list of potential weeds.  Using our online system, we will create a list of books that have gotten little or no use in the past several years, or that we hold multiple copies of in the collection.

What other libraries hold these books? We hope to be able to run this list against the holdings of our CTW partners, and the holdings in OCLC’s WorldCat database to determine how many books are available elsewhere.  If our copy of a book is one of only a few copies that are held anywhere, then we will strongly consider retaining it.

Librarians’ review.  The librarians will then do a review of the list to determine what books they think should be retained and struck from the list.

Faculty review.  Since faculty and their students are the people who use the collections most, we will post the list online, divided by subject, and let faculty know so they can review the parts of the list they are most concerned about and identify books that need to be retained and struck from the list.

Special Collections & Archives review.  The Head of Special Collections & Archives will review the list for rare books to be retained and transferred to Special Collections.

List of books to be weeded finalized.  Once librarians, faculty and Special Collections have completed their review, we will finalize the list of books to be weeded.

Processing the books.  The books on the list will be pulled from the shelves, the records removed from the system and from our OCLC WorldCat holdings, and the books marked ‘withdrawn.’

Disposing of the books.  Depending on the subject, age and physical condition of the weeded books, some will be donated to other libraries, others put into the Friends of the Wesleyan Library book sale, and still others recycled if their condition does not permit them to be donated or sold.

Shifting space to where it is needed.  The shelf space that will be created by the weeding project will almost certainly not be where we need space in the collection.  So the books will be shifted so the space will be where we anticipate collection growth in the next several years.  The stacks will then be relabeled and the stack guides updated.

In conclusion …

Weeding a library collection is a challenging, labor-intensive, and time-consuming project.  The reward is having a collection that meets the changing curricular and research needs of Wesleyan students and faculty.

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