Weeding and withdrawal

We’re moving again at work. Probably the fifth or sixth time for me in ten and a half years. Libraries are often soft targets in businesses / organisations. I won’t say easy targets, as I would have thought it self evident that moving a shit load of books and shelves etc wasn’t maybe as easy as moving people from one set of desks to another. But shelves take up space, and you can almost see the accommodation types salivating as they walk around your square footage with their clip boards in hand. It’s not very subtle.

Of course, when we move, we seldom get the same space to move in to. Just as staff numbers and budgets very rarely go up, in my experience, so does the space available for physical stock gradually diminish. So before the great task of actually moving begins- we must decide what we take with us, and what we must somehow dispose of.*

Collection / stock management is part of the good management of any library of course. What it entails, and how it is done, depends upon the purpose of the library. One of the sticking points for us is perhaps that the purpose of the collection has changed over the years, and this is the first major weeding exercise where that has had to be significantly reflected.

I don’t like weeding. It isn’t to me like weeding a garden. You don’t feel like you are getting rid of worthless items in order to let better ones shine through. It feels like someone has told you your garden has to be cut in half, and you can only have yellow flowers. Yellow flowers are all very well, but they just aren’t enough to satisfy my needs.

I have never been comfortable with weeding because of space. Although of course I realise the necessity these days. I will never be comfortable if such weeding is not done responsibly, and discarded books are sent for pulping due to the lack of time, funds, or inclination to try and find them new homes. I wrote a letter to the New Statesman years ago about the dichotomy of my graduate traineeship at Leeds university- spending mornings sending books to be pulped, books which were the modern equivalents of the books I spent the afternoons cataloguing in special collections. It’s all about what books are for isn’t it? Books versus information. A book, say for example a medical encyclopaedia- has a number of uses. When first published, it is presumably full of up to date information. It can be used for reference, answering queries about the body, illnesses, treatments. Gradually, as medical knowledge advances, it becomes more and more out of date, and it is less useful for this purpose. However it remains useful as a record of accepted knowledge and practice at its time of publication. It is a historical document. We would probably worry if our doctor reached for Galen and told us to cure our fever with a good blood letting. But that shouldn’t condemn all copies of his works to a furnace.

As an amateur bookbinder I’m also mindful of the work and care that goes into the creation of the book itself. Not all of them obviously- but even a mass produced book was written, designed, typeset, proofread, indexed. Once upon a time it was a tree, and it cost money. It deserves respect in its old age.

So. In university libraries they have that split. The current collection, and special collections. The main collection must be kept largely current, to ensure students are learning from the most up to date materials. But some older publications may remain as they might never really go out of date. Theories may become dated, but they might also come back into fashion. Those books which are historically significant, for their physical aspects or their content, or some other attribute granting their reprieve – are gathered in special collections, protected and cosseted. Great sums of money are spent gathering rare gems for these collections.

And yet where is the line? As with antiques – how do we know when or if yesterday’s tat becomes tomorrow’s treasure? Libraries are under threat all over. When libraries close, shrink, or “go electronic” – what happens to the books? Does it matter? My other half shared with me notes from a talk he heard by the head of libraries at a large American university, talking about the move away from hardcopy, and positing the idea of having one place (in the country, or the world?) which would have a physical copy of an item, and everywhere else would use electronic versions. In one sense, for study, perhaps, if the access costs and inequalities could be sorted out, then why not. But it relies a lot on faith. Faith in the systems, in the continued availability and affordability of electricity to power them. Imagine a virus that attacked e-journals. Attacked knowledge. Imagine the vested interest of the owner of the one remaining copy. The power to destroy or demand whatever they want to charge for access.

And what of all the information someone considers out of date and gets rid of? If policies or laws change, it makes sense that only the current version is in the place people look when they want to know what the current policy is. But when something is superceded, there are still people who want to know what the policy used to be. Perhaps precisely because it has changed, in order to compare the old with the new. Or when the time comes to review it again, to see what has gone before, avoid old mistakes, or reinventing the wheel, as it were. It’s part of good knowledge management. But no one seems very good at that. They consider the work which goes into making policy, but not necessarily the end result.

Our “special collections” I suppose is our archive. It is meant to be a comprehensive collection of everything published by the organisation. It isn’t – I imagine the early years, and the years since electronic publishing began are full of holes. We struggle to capture everything published these days- for reasons both of sheer volume, but also the lack of a single place where they are all published. The value of these items is in their content. I would be content to see them digitised and placed in an institutional repository and made accessible to all.

The other collection, the main collection, is where our trowel must fall. Journal runs pared down (we have electronic access maybe- but for how long?) Whole historic series discarded for lack of space. The rest, commercial and grey literature. How do you decide what to keep? It burns me. After all, I have bought and catalogued many of these items, all selected and obtained for a reason. But- if books haven’t been loaned out in five years, how can you argue they are essential? Even more troubling if the books are pretty new, relatively speaking. Why aren’t people making use of them? Are they not the kind of things they need? Or do they not know they’re there? Or do they not have the time or inclination any more, to develop background awareness in their policy areas? I don’t know. I do know, that they seemed to be better used before the closure of the London libraries. Which is also before a major reduction in the number of staff. Paradoxically, people having less time – they seemed to think they don’t have time to make proper use of the support services, which could save them time, or make them better at their jobs. And we moved, and people move jobs and leave, and gradually awareness of what you do plummets. It is hardly surprising that people don’t borrow books if you are never able to market them, let people know they are there.

But what then, should we keep? Should the collection shift to a more practical focus? Support shared information needs like management or financial skills, law, training, diversity, wellbeing? If policy no longer wants to read books, do we provide only journals, articles, statistical databases?  In terms of the ongoing development of the collection, that is something we will have to think carefully about.  But I do worry about the things we are having to get rid of – about what will happen if we do have a need for them.  We don’t have the budget to re-buy lots of commercial publications (or indeed get them on Inter-Library Loan) – and what of the grey literature, which we have held on to this long precisely because it is so difficult, or impossible to get hold of. Nothing to be done about it though.  Changing times, changing needs.  Whether I think people should be making better use of the resources available to them is neither here nor there.  I do wish I could get around to doing some of that Resource Development which is in my job title though – it seems to be nothing but Resource Dismantling. Getting rid of books, cancelling subscriptions we can no longer afford. It’s all very depressing.

Which brings us to withdrawal.  Of course, there is the withdrawal process – ammending our catalogue / database to withdraw from stock the weeded books. (They remain on the database as “Not in stock” – so they will still turn up in searches if relevant)  But I kind of mean it more in the sense that one suffers withdrawal from a drug.  There are different kind of librarians. Some are booky, some are informationy, some are both.  Informationy librarians are generally happier with the whole process of getting rid of books – the old makes way for the new. Booky ones are probably closer to archivists in temperament and have a bit of a horror of it all.  It’s clear that there are several of these in our midst (including myself) – and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we are some of the longer serving members of staff. We have seen move after move, cull after cull, cut after cut.  There is a trauma to it. People see their jobs, their professionalism, their livelihoods and wellbeing threatened – and we have to participate in it, like turkeys wielding the christmas axe on their own necks.  It’s a rough time, and I hope I can do what I can to help shape the future of our service, in whatever form, into something which in some way compensates for what we have lost by creating something new which is better than what went before.

*Just to note, we are, to my relief, trying to dispose of the books responsibly – letting teams within the organisation have relevant titles, and using a charity to sell / recycle the rest. For a while, we were being asked to move so quickly it wouldn’t have been possible, and I had visions of hiring the A-Team to rescue them all from the shredders…