Recent faculty forum discussions

In the past several days there have been a lot of messages about the weeding project both on the faculty forum listserv and sent directly to me.  I’ve responded to people individually, but since these concerns are no doubt shared by many others I decided to address them in this blog as well.

Thanks to everyone who has participated in the discussion so far!   Please continue to send along your comments, concerns and suggestions.  Weeding is a difficult, controversial, and complex process.  The more open discussion we have about it, the better the result will be in the long run.

The weeding process

The books on the weeding candidate lists have not been pulled from the collection or deleted from the catalog; they are only being considered for weeding.  They are on the list because they meet all the initial criteria for weeding candidates:, and because they were not identified to be retained in the initial librarian review of the lists.

We set the 60,000-volume weeding goal (out of almost 1 million books in the circulating collections) for two reasons. One reason is that the Art Library is being moved into Olin, and the other is because we are out of space in Olin and in Art for new books.  (We’re close to running out of space in the Science Library as well.)  There are close to 90,000 volumes on the weeding candidate lists, so we do not have to weed all of them to meet the goal.

Some of the lists are long (I did the initial review of the E and F lists, which are very long indeed!).  The initial criteria reduced the lists to about 10% of the books the library holds in each subject area, but even 10% is a lot in many cases.  We really appreciate the time you and your colleagues are taking to review the lists.

The online list tracks how many faculty members have recommended that a book be kept, but not who has made the recommendations.  So we are not able to provide a list of the books each faculty member has recommended be retained.

In December, the library liaisons will do a final review of the books on the weeding candidate lists for their subject areas.  They will make decisions on which books to withdraw based first on the recommendation(s) of faculty, as well as the subject itself and the librarian’s knowledge of how Wesleyan students and faculty use the collection.  We cannot guarantee that a faculty recommendation will result in the retention of a book, but faculty recommendations it will be the single most important factor we consider in making these decisions.

Once the decisions are made, we don’t anticipate having an appeal process for withdrawn books.  However, we are working on a process that would make it possible for faculty members and academic departments to take withdrawn books for their office or departmental collections.  We would love any suggestions about how we might do this.

Criteria used to create the weeding candidate lists

The criteria we used to create the lists of weeding candidates were not intended to determine which books were and were not valuable for scholars, but only to reduce the number of books to be considered for weeding.  They served that purpose; the books on the list represent only 10% of the library’s total holdings in the collections that circulate.   We always intended to review the lists ourselves and invite the faculty to do so, in order to retain books that meet the criteria but are valuable for scholarly or other reasons.

It is true that many books get used in the library but are rarely taken out.  After compiling the lists of weeding candidates that met the initial criteria, librarians reviewed the lists and deleted titles they knew were used in this way.  But of course faculty members know better than we do about this, and that is one reason it is so helpful for faculty to review the lists.

We are only considering weeding books that are readily available in a variety of other libraries through CTW or interlibrary loan.  Librarians are very aware of the importance of preserving many print copies of each book in existence, so that they continue to be available to scholars and students.  As a profession, we are working to develop processes for managing our collections with this in mind.

Are the books on the candidate lists available online?

When we were compiling data on the books that were weeding candidates, we included data on whether each is available electronically through the Hathi Trust.  (The Hathi Trust is a consortium of several large research libraries that are digitizing their holdings and sharing access to them among themselves.  Many of them are participating in the Google Book project and the digital versions of their books are both in Hathi and in Google Books.)

We decided not to base any weeding decisions on the availability of an electronic version.  One reason is that the quality of the scanning is often poor.  Because the books are being scanned quickly and en masse, there are pages that are illegible and some maps and fold-out pages are not scanned at all.  Another reason is that technical limitations of the text files and the devices used to read them make online books less usable in many cases than the print equivalent.  A third reason is that both Google Books and the Hathi Trust are in litigation over copyright.  All these issues will be worked out over time–just as many of the problems with electronic journal articles have been worked out over the years.  But electronic books are not yet usable and accessible enough to enable us to weed the print volume on the strength of electronic availability.

Preserving the scholarly record

There is currently no guarantee that Trinity or Connecticut College will not weed their collections of books and withdraw some of the same books we do.  However, CTW is actively exploring how the three libraries might coordinate both the selection of new books and the withdrawal of unused volumes.  Once this is worked out, it will prevent us from withdrawing the last CTW copy of books that our patrons need, even occasionally.  There is a delay in access through CTW, but very little more than it would take to retrieve the book from a storage facility.

The library is iconic for a number of reasons, and one is that we preserve and celebrate knowledge.  As stewards of the collections, librarians have to balance this essential purpose with the equally essential purpose of supporting the academic work of Wesleyan students and faculty, now and in the future.  New resources, in print and electronic form, come out each year and are often of great potential research and pedagogical value to Wesleyan.  They also require library funding, time and space (for print collections).  No matter how much of these a library has, there is never enough to preserve everything we have and to provide everything that is now available.  So the library needs to make difficult decisions about some of the least-used older material in our collections.  The weeding project, done as conservatively and responsibly as possible and with the faculty’s help, is one way to do this.

The library has a responsibility not only to current Wesleyan students and faculty, but to future scholars within and outside Wesleyan. As a profession, librarianship is committed to the preservation of the scholarly record in its entirety.  This is the reason that we are not weeding books that fewer than 30 other U.S. libraries hold, or that are held by fewer than two of our partner libraries in Connecticut. But I do know that no library–not Wesleyan and not Harvard, Yale or the University of Michigan–has the resources to hold and maintain the entire scholarly record for even selected subject areas, and each library relies on many others to provide library materials to their patrons.  Each library must balance the needs of current scholarship with our stewardship of a part of the scholarly record.  I believe that this weeding project helps us to do this, by creating space for new books that are needed both now and in the future.

For a university of its size, Wesleyan has a magnificent collection.  Wesleyan’s library has been described (and not just by us!) as one of the finest small academic libraries in the United States, and I am committed to ensuring that this remains true.  But collections are a tricky thing nowadays.  They include, as they have for centuries, print books, journals and other physical materials.  But they include as well an increasing number of electronic resources that many students and scholars expect to be able to access.  A truly exceptional library like Wesleyan provides resources in the form that is most usable for our students and faculty, as well as working with other libraries to preserve the entire scholarly record.

Alternatives to weeding

Many have suggested that we create a storage facility instead of weeding.  But I’m not convinced it would be the best solution for the library.  The money needed to create a storage facility and then to maintain it every year, in order to house books that receive little if any use, might be better put to providing access to materials that the library currently does not have but which would be useful for Wesleyan students and faculty.  There are more resources out there now than any one library can acquire, and we need to make thoughtful decisions about how to spend the funds we have to best serve our users.

Before compact shelving was installed in the basement of the Science Library several years ago, we had off-site storage at Amato’s Toy Store downtown.  The annual, ongoing cost of maintaining the space and providing delivery services to and from Amato’s was several thousand dollars a year.  I do not know the cost of recreating the space in Amato’s or elsewhere, but it would be substantial and include shelving, environmental controls to inhibit mold growth, and installation costs.

The library could certainly use the additional space that would be provided by an expansion of Olin, more compact shelving, or a new building.  We have an outstanding Special Collections & Archives that has very little space for collections, students and researchers.  The World Music Archives needs space with the proper equipment for preserving and accessing these unique recordings.  Because of the space and equipment needed to study images, there is a great need to develop a state-of-the-art image/media study area for students and faculty. And the library could definitely use more spaces in which students and faculty could work individually and in groups with print, electronic and other library resources.

I’m not convinced that providing access to books that are readily available elsewhere through CTW delivery or interlibrary loan, and that have gotten little or no use in the past 15 years, is the best use of additional library space.  There are always more library resources than any library has the money, space or staff to acquire and maintain, and so we have to strike a balance between maintaining and preserving older material and acquiring and using new resources.

Why weed at all?

Some librarians as well as faculty have reservations about the weeding project, particularly the timeline. Two years is not much time to withdraw 60,000 volumes.  But most of us think that there are books that might be withdrawn from our collections without hurting the library’s ability to support the scholarly work of students and faculty, now or in the future.

There is value in browsing the shelves, and right now there is no comparable way to ‘browse’ materials in an online catalog or database.  Some companies are working on making that possible, but there have been no breakthroughs yet.  And I completely understand about needing to keep books for months when working on a research project–there is a flow to research that is delayed when you have to order a book and then wait for it to come in, or send it back in a month.

Selectively withdrawing some books that are held in over 30 U.S. libraries and two or more Connecticut libraries, and that have gotten little or no use in the past 15 years, is–I believe–a responsible way to balance the need of scholars for new books and other materials, with the need to access older materials.

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