Why Do Libraries Get Rid of Books?

This is an example of a weeded book from Awful Library Books

There is always a lot of controversy when public libraries (or really any libraries) get rid of books. In 2015, the Berkeley Public Library chief resigned due to controversy over weeding books. This was due largely to his behavior and attitude around removing thousands of books, but there are many stories about community members being upset about book removal and disposal including outrage over finding books in dumpsters or being pulped all around the country.

Weeding is the term used by libraries for removing books. I really like this term because it suggests that a library is like a garden, and you have to make room for the plants you want by removing the plants you don’t want. This is an act of cultivation, not of destruction. Some of the books removed by libraries are so old and not relevant any more that they are almost an embarrassment. Sometimes they’re really funny. If you want to see some great examples of weeded library books, check out the blog Awful Library Books.

So why, when it’s so unpopular do libraries get rid of books in the first place?

  1. Space. Libraries are trying to buy books that their patrons will want to check out, but there is only so much space in the library. Some books will have to go so the new books can be purchased.

2. Circulation numbers. Libraries will buy many copies of a bestseller when it’s gaining popularity, but five or ten years down the road there might not be a need for 10 copies of the same book. Similarly, a book that no one is checking out isn’t earning its spot on the shelf.

3. Condition. When books are damaged or look too worn they are removed and either replaced or removed entirely.

4. Merchandising. It may seem weird to think about the fact that libraries have to think about things like shelf appeal since no one is buying anything. But psychologically people enjoy browsing more when the shelves aren’t too crowded and when the titles feel relevant and not old or outdated.

How do librarians choose which books to get rid of?

One method involves evaluating books with the MUSTIE criteria. This means getting rid of books that are:

M misleading (books that aren’t giving factual information)

U ugly (no one wants books that are stained, falling apart, or unattractive)

S superseded (there’s a new, updated edition)

T trivial (there’s no merit for this book)

I irrelevant (there’s no need for this book in the community)

E elsewhere (it’s easy to get this book online, from a partner library, etc.)

What do libraries do with books they’ve gotten rid of?

I think this is the area that causes the most controversy. Choosing how to get rid of a book is really important. Many libraries sell the books they’re weeding at a Friends of the Library store or similar used bookstore. They’ll also use this as a place to sell books that are donated to the library that can’t be used in the collection. Proceeds from sales go back to the library.

Some books aren’t sold though and they are discarded in other ways. They can be used for craft projects, recycled and turned into new books, and sometimes they are thrown away. This is often what has to happen with books that are beyond saving, like books that are water damaged or moldy.

Personally, I think weeding is vital to the library process and makes collections feel more relevant and visually pleasing, but books should be disposed of responsibly because they are a community investment. I am of the opinion that a physical book, though a wonderful thing, is wonderful because it contains information whether it’s a great story or a great recipe. When the information is no longer useful, I think the book is also not useful anymore.

What are your thoughts on libraries getting rid of books? Let me know in the comments.

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