Stock editing


Sometimes, every library has to do something which does not come easily to its staff – get rid of some precious, precious books.  Sometimes they are sold, and librarians witness the strange spectacle of people fighting to pay for a book which nobody has wanted to borrow without charge for several years.  Sometimes they get traded to another library or donated to schools or literacy campaigns.  Sometimes the books are of no use to anyone and simply get recycled.

The Library of Doom has a space crisis on its hands (if libraries can be thought of as having hands), and has had this for quite some time, as I’ve mentioned before.  We don’t have enough room for all the books currently in the collection, which makes it quite interesting trying to add new acquisitions to stock.  In an academic library environment, there can be considerable resistance (generally from outside the library) to removing anything from stock, but it simply has to be done on a larger scale than usual.  This process is known as ‘stock editing’, mostly because terms such as ‘weeding’ and ‘withdrawals’ are seen as negative.  So why should items be edited out of library stock?  None of these can be hard and fast rules, as there will always be exceptions and special cases (I wouldn’t ever want to dispose of a holy book from any religion, for instance – it would seem disrespectful), but here are three key factors which justify editing.

1 – Condition

The easiest way to justify removing an item from the shelves is that it is falling apart.  Bibliographic Services teams in libraries can work wonders on poorly books, transforming them with their array of exciting tools and a bewildering variety of sticky substances, but sometimes the effort is not worth it and that book has to go.  This is even easier with audiovisual material – if a video has been exposed to an electromagnet, or if a DVD has been placed on the record player, there’s little that can be done to save it.  Of course, if items get into a disreputable state, they’re probably being used a lot, so a replacement may well have to be ordered.

2 – Obsolescence

Books become obsolete at different rates.  Certain subjects taught at the university are particularly prone to this – law and health, for instance.  In these subject areas, stock editing is already fairly rigorous, as you don’t want students learning out of date clinical care practices or working on the basis of laws which have altered.  The government frequently changes its mind about social welfare or the educational curriculum, which means that practical books from these subject areas can unexpectedly become obsolete.

Even in less obvious areas, new editions of books are brought out, superseding older ones.  Sometimes there is value in a chapter which only exists an old edition, but it is only worth keeping one copy, rather than a dozen or so, which take up half a shelf between them.  In these modern 2.0 times, print resources can arguably be superseded by electronic equivalents from time to time, particularly for key reference works such as the Grove Dictionaries of Art and Music.

Related to this are those books which have not had a more recent edition published or have no obvious successor, but are still misleading, inaccurate or out of date.  Material on teaching genetics in schools which was published in the 1970s, for instance, though these are quite intriguing if only for the jumpers worn by the children on the covers.

3 – Relevance

Books in some areas never really become obsolete, most notably in the arts and humanities, where new ideas and new interpretations are often seen as alternatives to older theories rather than as new truths.  However, this does not mean that collections of material concerning music, literature, history or theology could never require ‘editing’ in an academic library, as they can become irrelevant without becoming obsolete.

For instance, there may be an academic who has a particular interest in the Victorian novel and teaches a number of modules on the subject.  If he or she were to leave the university, their successor could well be a specialist on eighteenth-century poetry or on literary censorship.  It is likely that such major figures as Dickens, Hardy, Eliot and perhaps Wilkie Collins may continue to be studied, but material relating to minor figures such as George MacDonald (one of my favourites) or Charlotte Mary Yonge will become irrelevant.  Students are not studying their work any longer, so shelves of books concerning them may go unused for years, taking up space which would be better served by increasing the library’s provision of material on, for instance, eighteenth-century poetry.

Modules and entire degree courses come to an end surprisingly often as a result of political or economic factors, and this can be a major cause of academic libraries filling up with irrelevant stock.  If we no longer teach agriculture, why should we have more than a very basic collection on the subject?  If the music department now concentrates on the classical period, do we need thousands of volumes examining the baroque composers?  I think not.

With exceptions such as major research institutions or legal deposit libraries, an academic library should always be a useful, relevant, living resource.  As Charles Cutter, an influential American librarian, said in 1901, “The library should be a practical thing to be used, not an ideal to be admired.”  It’s been over 100 years since he expressed this sentiment, and it’s more true than ever.  Libraries are often seen as outmoded institutions with little to offer in our networked world.  Careful editing of stock can be part of the process of challenging this perception by ensuring that users find the material that they need and want without having to wade through a sea of dust emanating from shelves of books which haven’t been out for a decade or two.  I think that’s worth the effort, personally.

  1. I like library book sales. I acquired a quaint little book called ‘The Butter Mountain’ (nothing to do with EU surplus) which apparently is quite rare in the Canterbury Library book sale.

  2. Weeding is what we call it here. I rather like the idea of “stock editing” it has a nice ring to it. Every library I have worked in has alwasys had issues with weeding. There is only so much space a library has.

    If you are familiar with the concept of “core collection.” In most libraries 90% of the collection is not used that much. There is a core 10% of books which people actually read. Weeding can actually increase the amount of books which people read if done properly.

    This is similar to the idea of turning over stock in a bookstore. If you don’t have new stock continuously brought in, and remove the old stock the bookstores sales will suffer.

    When the shelves are so packed with unused material, it becomes hard to find the material which people are using and reduces library circulation. Having more books which people use is a relevant goal.

    Often, getting rid of books based on condition is not a good idea. Replacing them or repairing them can boost library use. The books that are falling apart are often the ones which people are using the most. Old books in pristine condition are a sign that no one is using them.

    This is just my opinion.

    Anyways, I got memed recently, I hope you don’t mind my saying this, It is one of those marketing things where you write some little thing about yourself. If you wish to, write six unspectular quirks about yourself. Another librarian, Elvislover, sent me a blog request for this.

    http://bookcalendar.blogspot.com/2008/08/elvis-lover-has-tagged-me-with-meme.html

  3. Oh no, I agree with you – condition should be a criterion for weeding copies, rather than titles, and they will probably need replacing (though sometimes simply being on an overcrowded shelf for too long can take its toll). Perhaps I didn’t word that section well…

    I’m quite sure that if we weeded/edited/whatever more aggressively, more items would be borrowed, because they’d be far easier to find. There is something terribly sad about coming across a good book which hasn’t been borrowed. I have to confess that I sometimes borrow them to make them feel better.

    Unspectacular? I suspect I can manage that!

    I’m not immune to the lure of library book sales either. I wonder what it is that makes us spot things in the sales which we would have passed over on the shelves?

  4. My Ma would have been up for any books you were weeding or editing on both George McDonald and Charlotte Yonge. She very much liked both of them.

    It’s a delicate subject, isn’t it, and one that people can be both irrational and impractical about.

    Aphra.

  5. She’d have to fight me for the MacDonald ones!

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