By Stephanie Campbell, MLIS
When talking about their chosen profession to a general audience, librarians inevitably hear “You must really love books!” And while this is probably true of many of us, I have found that it’s the non-librarians who seem more attached to books, often maniacally so, especially when doing their own weeding projects or witnessing ours. Book sale donations, while wonderful for fundraising, can be the bane of our existence when they contain such gems as midcentury “Encyclopedia Britannica” sets, not to mention whatever wildlife took up occupancy in the boxes while they were in the attic or garage. And if you try to deny such materials with your donation policy, you are met with indignation about how expensive the set was when new and that “there’s still a lot of good information in there!”
Similarly, it can be hard for librarians to make decisions about old, expensive, previously revered materials. The biggest thing standing in your way of having a great collection is that your shelves are clogged with obsolete items. They haven’t circulated or been used in eons and you know they should go, but what to do with the materials that have been weeded?
Whether the books are donations or discards, make sure you exhaust organizations such as the American Rescue Workers, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Military Order of the Purple Heart, etc. Contact your local churches to see if they have any missionary projects in impoverished areas around the world. Private primary and secondary schools are also an option for unwanted but viable titles. Perhaps you can try selling items through Better World Books, Amazon, eBay, etc.?
Do be aware that charitable and for-profit organizations can be selective about what they will accept. Add to that the guilt you may feel about donating/selling items that are horribly dated or otherwise blatantly undesirable.
If you dumpster them, dumpster divers and/or tattletales will invariably report about the perfectly good books the library is throwing away, which may have been funded by taxpayer dollars. Boxing up books and putting them at the curb can also prove too scintillating. In my experience, boxes were inevitably torn open after library hours and rummaged through. I tried duct-taping the boxes shut and then putting the boxes in garbage bags to disguise them as trash, but not even those measures could deter the rabid bibliophiles (perhaps bibliohoarders or bibliopolice would be a more apt term).
This kind of activity can spur the librarian stealth ops. Place the boxes out at the curb under cover of darkness, or arrive at work pre-dawn and put them out just before trash pickup. It’s amazing we have to go to such lengths. Believe it or not, I once had a colleague who took the library discards home and burned them in her outdoor furnace in an attempt to avoid opprobrium. And librarians are the ones who usually oppose book burning!
Large sets are especially onerous. I once gave away a vintage “Oxford English Dictionary” set to a local shabby chic home designer and she turned it into a side table for a client (I’m still kicking myself for not getting a photo of that!). Municipalities will often only accept paperback books for recycling. So I also enlisted the help of the library maintenance man to make a complete Contemporary Authors set “go away” by cutting the hardcovers off with his table saw and recycling the pages.
But enough is enough! We never agreed to warehouse items that no one wants. And it’s exhausting trying to hide the dirty little secret that libraries regularly deaccession and often throw away books. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I absolutely love weeding. However, I absolutely hate clogging landfills with stuff that is otherwise reusable or recyclable.
All laughter aside, we must strike a delicate balance. We want to welcome well-meaning individuals who wish to donate their personal collections for our fundraising efforts. And we also value the members of our community who pay the most attention to us (and what goes into our dumpsters). Our biggest champions can also be our harshest critics. In terms of selling library discards in book sales, you can also face push-back, especially when expensive items are selling for as little as 25 cents.
We take our role of information steward seriously. Transparency is key. Be forthcoming about what you are doing and why. Keeping up with your weeding projects will also prevent the massive deaccessioning jobs that arouse suspicion. I found it best to not “nickel and dime” the process and simply make discarded books free for the taking. And if anyone questioned it, I simply said, “Your tax dollars paid for these, now we’re giving them back to you.” In one of my last jobs, we would take cart after cart of materials that had been weeded, roll them into our book sale area with a “FREE” sign, and most of them would disappear within a few days.
We’d love to hear any funny (or not so funny) stories you’d like to share about navigating the world of unwanted books!
“Weeding without Worry” from American Libraries
Stephanie Campbell has worked for more than 20 years in public, academic, and special libraries. She is an avid gardener, bicyclist, and kayaker. Click here for more.