Saturday, June 27, 2015

Why Do Libraries Throw Out Books?

Many people who read love books. They consider the physical volume a sacred thing; maybe not exactly in those words, but somewhere deep down many people are horrified at the idea of throwing away a book, any book. When people have to clean out their house or a relative's house, the library gets lots of donations of books for this very reason. So why do libraries throw out books?

If you search online, you will find news stories about public libraries doing just that. The Pottsville Free Public Library was mentioned recently in a story about someone who likes to retrieve things from the city recycling center. This blog post is an explanation why the library throws out certain books that no longer belong in our collection.

Libraries call the process weeding. Just as you remove the weeds from your garden so there is space for the plants you want, libraries remove the "weeds" from their book collections so there is space for the books their patrons want to read. No library has an infinite amount of space. If we purchase new books, we have to have someplace to put them.

So how do we choose which books should be discarded? Books that are in really bad condition are obviously candidates. If a book looks so "icky" you don't want to touch it, or if the book is physically falling apart, who's going to want to read that?

Libraries also withdraw and discard books that are out of date. We are responsible for providing our community with accurate information, both for students doing homework and for adults trying to learn new things. If we give you a book about financial aid for graduate school that was published in 1990, will it be of much help? If you are trying to find the best information for dealing with a chronic illness, do you really want to depend on a book that is so old it doesn't include anything about recent medical breakthroughs? If you need help with a legal question, how many laws might have changed between 1995 and 2015? If a student needs to do a paper on recent United States history, shouldn't that book include the 9/11 attacks? We know that many people do not check the date a book was published before reading it, so we need to make sure that the information we are providing you is current and relevant.

But what about fiction? Why do we send some of those books to recycling? They might fall into the "icky" category. If a book is on the local schools' summer reading lists we try to keep copies of those titles, replacing them with new copies if we can. However, other fiction titles are discarded because no one has read them in many years. They might have been read a lot when they first came out, but as the years pass they get forgotten, or no longer of interest. This applies to the nonfiction section, too. Here's an interesting tidbit: cookbooks may be the only subject where every single title in our collection has received regular use by library patrons.

And if a book is not used in a long, long time, it becomes like a weed. Think about a book shelf or a closet full of clothes. If there are many old books, or old clothes, how likely are you to go through it looking for what you want? The eye sees "old" and the brain says "never mind, what I want isn't here." Even if it is, hiding among the old.

Is there any way to prevent this situation? Well, we could stop buying books. Then we wouldn't need the shelf space and could leave the old books there to collect dust, only withdrawing the "icky" ones. But that doesn't make the library collection useful to our community. No one wants to go into a library and only see old books. That's not a library. That's a storage facility.

Is there a way to only buy "the best" books that won't go out of date? We do try. We can't read every book that is published, so we select the books to purchase by reading reviews by professional reviewers in respected journals. We try to find the most interesting, relevant, and informative books for our library users, because that is what we believe you deserve in your local public library. We look for positive reviews of fiction, nonfiction, children's literature, and reference books, as well as for our DVD and CD collections. 

But even the best books get old eventually, and the most popular titles now will be almost forgotten in a few years. Scientific advances will make our current science books too old to use. Medical discoveries will change how illnesses are treated. Current events will become part of our nation’s history. 

We like books, too. But we have a responsibility to use your tax dollars to help the community be informed and entertained. And we can't do that with shelves full of "weeds."

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