photo credit creative commons license Manchester Library
Holly Hibner and Mary Kelly are both Michigan librarians who write a blog about weeded library books called Awful Library books. I love popping over to ALB to see the latest “atrocity” and often find myself wishing I could have a closer look, or even a read and giggle. I thought it would be interesting to find out a bit more about why and how libraries weed books, and how collectors could source these books for their collections, if they so wished.
Holly was kind enough to agree to a Q&A with me:
AC: Tell us a bit about yourself and Mary and how you became librarians?
ALB: I have a B.S. in English and American Language and Literature and was once a certified elementary teacher (my certificate has since expired). I worked as a Page in my hometown public library in high school, and always knew I’d become a librarian. I can’t imagine doing anything else!
Mary has an MBA and an MLIS, both from Wayne State University. She started working part-time as a circulation clerk, and then decided to go to library school. I can tell you this: she was born to be a librarian and it is the perfect job for her! She’s very good at what she does.
AC: How did Awful Library Books blog come into existence?
ALB: We were presenting at a library conference on how to do a collection inventory. That seemed like a potentially dull subject, so we punched it up with some book covers of funny, old books that represented “what you might find” when doing an inventory. The audience seemed to enjoy it, so we decided to make a blog out of it.
AC: Most of my readers are not librarians, so could you give us a brief explanation as to how libraries build and maintain collections. Are there any guide lines?
ALB: Absolutely! Libraries usually have collection development policies that guide their selections and create some criteria for the kinds of materials they will collect. A library’s collection should match its mission (for example, a hospital library probably collects health-related materials, a college library probably collects academic journals and text books, and a public library probably collects general interest materials). There is a lot that goes in to creating a well-rounded, useful, relevant collection that meets the needs of its users.
AC: What are the criteria a book needs to meet, or not meet, in order to be weeded?
ALB: Every library has to meet the needs of its own users, but in general items are weeded for space, physical condition, and relevancy. Librarians also keep a close eye on usage statistics, so items that have not been checked out in a long time could also be candidates for weeding. If you’re interested, or just having trouble sleeping at night, take a look at the CREW manual. CREW is a popular method of weeding that many librarians follow.
AC: What happens to the weeded books? Are they auctioned, sold, given away? How could collectors get their hands on them? (I am sure that there are many that would love to.)
ALB: Many public libraries hold used book sales. Some libraries also send them to a company called Better World Books, who sells them online and the library earns a commission. That money can then be used to buy new materials. Collectors can shop online at or through online bookstores like Alibris. The items they buy very well could be library discards! Of course, weeded items that are damaged (missing pages, moldy, torn covers, water damage, etc.) may just need to be recycled.
AC: I spent a lot of time pouring over your site, loving many of the books there. I can see how they would be outdated, but some of them are fantastic in so many other ways. Isn’t there a place for books like these in libraries maybe in categories of their own as historical, cultural references?
ALB: Sure - for libraries who have space, staffing, and time to create those categories. Those items would have to be re-cataloged, re-processed, moved, shelving made available for them...there’s a lot more that goes into moving items around the library than just simply moving them. Mostly, though, once items no longer meet the mission of the library or just are not in use by its patrons, there’s not a lot of reason to keep them. People love nostalgia...and those people should visit museums, archives, and libraries whose mission is to archive and preserve. Most libraries do not have the space to keep everything, so decisions have to be made on what stays and what goes.
AC: Some of the books you have posted are quite funny. I can’t see how they were relevant even for when they were written, for example Mary Mulari’s Garments with Style: Adding Flair to Tops, Jackets, Vests, Dresses, and More! , which brings up another question - how are books chosen for a library collection?
ALB: Most public librarians read book reviews in journals like Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist. This lets us know what new titles are coming out and what the reviewers thought of them. We can make decisions for our own collections based on the reviewers’ impressions. Mary and I often wonder what people were thinking when they purchased some of the books that show up on our site. We can’t imagine that they ever met the needs or mission of the libraries who owned them.
The book you linked to here is about fashion, and was a perfectly reasonable choice for a public library collection in 1995 (although it looks a little ‘80s to have been written in 1995!). The problem with that particular title is that it went out of style as soon as it was bought. It had a very limited shelf-life. Subjects that need to be kept current (health, legal, finance, computers, fashion) need to be weeded more frequently than, say, history or classic literature. This one fell through the cracks and stayed on the shelves of its owning library a decade too long!
AC: Another example of truly awful is Bom Chicka Bow Wow - as one of your commenter’s said - “is it even legal to print this kind of material?” Are all books read before they are accepted into a library? Is there a ‘central library committee’ that will recommend (or not) reasonable books or is it totally up to each library and its policies at the time?
ALB: It is absolutely up to each library to decide what is appropriate for its users. Public libraries are usually very careful to balance their collections to all viewpoints and not censor what they make available to their patrons. That said, it is a delicate situation to match your collection to your community’s needs and still have materials available that represent other viewpoints. Collection development policies often include community profiles, and indicate what kinds of materials they will collect and why. We don’t have the space or budget to buy everything, so choices have to be made. We try our best to choose items that create a well-rounded collection that will be used and make information accessible to our communities. There’s no way we can read every book we buy, so those book reviews and personal recommendations and suggestions from our patrons are very important. The American Library Association has a “Freedom to Read” statement .
AC: I understand how you weed reference books, but how do you decide what to weed in fiction? What are the criteria here?
ALB: Weeding fiction is more difficult. We rely more on usage statistics for fiction. If a title hasn’t been checked out in a certain amount of time (which could vary depending on the space available), it could be a candidate for weeding. However, if it is part of a series we are more likely to keep it if the rest of the series still circulates. Also, fiction can be weeded for condition and duplication fairly easily. We buy several copies of a major bestseller (like Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help”), and then after its popularity dies down we will weed some copies out of the collection. Fiction does become dated after a while, though, as you can see from posts like Friday Fiction: Libby Shadows a Lady and Cherry Ames .
AC: What is the funniest book you ever had to weed?
ALB: Well, “funny” in an awful kind of way...I weeded a book about writing resumes that was so old that it suggested attaching a photograph and including height, weight, and marital status. This one was pretty funny too: Tricky Discs.
AC: What book’s presence in the library surprised you the most?
ALB: We get a lot of submissions for our blog. In fact, most of our posts come from titles submitted from other libraries. A recent submission was a book that looked like a general science title about astronomy, but which really had religious overtones . I was surprised that the owning library didn’t catch that before putting it in their collection. That book might work well in a private religious-based school library or a church library, but for a public library it needed to be cataloged differently. Like I said, we try to include books that present different viewpoints, but they need to be cataloged appropriately so that they are shelved with the correct collections.
Just when I think I’ve seen everything, something crazy shows up as a submission for our site, so I’m not really surprised by anything anymore!
AC: It is both obvious that you both love books, and even some of the weeds. Do you have personal collections? How do you manage them and what do they comprise of?
ALB: We both definitely have books in our homes, but as public librarians we are surrounded by books all day every day. Neither of us is a passionate book “collector” on a personal basis. We both read popular fiction and popular non-fiction, and we do buy used books at library book sales. We’re more likely to donate our books back to libraries after we read them than to collect them, though. That said, I’m sure we each have a few favorites on our home book shelves that we’ll never part with. My favorite book that I own is a book of nursery rhymes that I’ve had since I was a small child. It was a gift from a close neighbor in the late 1970s. It’s much more sentimental than actually useful or valuable, but I love it.