The Collection is a Garden.

Disclaimer: My opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of my employer.

I wanted to write about weeding today, inspired by the ALCTS eForum being generously overseen by Alex McCallister and Allan Scherlan of Appalachian State University. Reading responses to their thoughtful prompts on the reasons and approaches to weeding, I realized I felt compelled to write more about it. Partially because I am concerned with what I would describe as a trend of fearfulness in our approach to academic library collections specifically.

Weeding is a euphemism based in the analogy of the collection as garden. Gardens, we know, benefit from our care and attention, from the cultivation of what we want to grow and the removal of what we don’t. That’s weeding. It’s the gentlest metaphor for getting rid of undesirable and unnecessary materials ever imagined. 

It’s funny to consider that now, when the term has become so loaded and fraught. At a time in libraries where we are expected to tread so lightly around collection management that all decisions to remove materials are framed as “retention” projects. Where I have seen colleagues have to roll back important initiatives because of bad press and misunderstandings. Weeding gets a bad wrap- and we make it worse all the time by feeding anxiety about a routine process that is desirable and necessary. 

vintage-lady-flower-garden

Per whoever it was who first tried to do the good work of talking to patrons about the need to cultivate collections, weeding is good. Research conducted by leading experts suggests that “weeding” was a term used for removing things (including vermin) as early as the 16th centuryStanley Slote eloquently championed the work for decades.

I like this quote from Will Manley, who noted, “Collections that go unweeded tend to be cluttered, unattractive, and unreliable informational resources,” (“The Manley Arts,” Booklist, 1996). He was probably trying to soften the language of the 1911 barn burner on the topic, “Discarding Useless Material,” written by the unapologetic Asa Wynkoop for the Wisconsin Library Bulletin.

Full disclosure- I have one of the best print soft-shoe routines in the game. I can settle the ruffled feathers of many a scholar. It’s because I have confidence in the process, my expertise, and because I know The Preservation Problem isn’t mine to solve. I believe in and actively work in distributed repository frameworks. My library can’t hold everything, and shouldn’t anyway. The future of research is impossible to predict, but turning outward to make connections between library collections is a far better way to future-proof collections than overcrowding spaces. Extending access to collections may be more important than expanding local collections. I work hard to make sure that every decision that gets made in our collections is defensible, and letting everything sit on the shelf isn’t. I am adept at talking about weeding, because I believe in it.

And I think that’s crucially important because collection management one of my most meaningful contributions to the library and the collection. I am a collection steward and I am a trained curatorial professional and I do know a great deal about books and physical materials of all kinds. I am the person who coordinates feedback and input but also the person finalizes the decisions. Obfuscating responsibility to our patrons leads to more panic and misinformation. It also leads to the devaluing of library practice and expertise.

It’s important that we make our work visible, that we believe in its value so we can communicate that to our community. This is particularly true in collections, where patrons often have pointed and specific needs. It’s also necessary because we conflate library collections with libraries and further libraries with librarians when we imagine ourselves as a profession and present ourselves to the public.

The love stories that get penned to libraries are almost always about the experience of collections. Library workers should own the work we do to curate collections and leverage it to advocate for our profession, rather than passively present collections in a way that provides scholars no sense of the many kinds of labor that go into creating “serendipity” and “browsing experience.” This is what has been short-handed, in recent library literature, as collections as a service, and in the majority of academic libraries it’s the only way of doing collections that is worth a damn. 

One point I think we fail to make is that room for new physical materials is important. If you have growing print collections in any area (including special collections and the humanities) where will it go? Maybe it should go where the 5 out of date print best colleges books are. Or the duplicate encyclopedias. Or the print bank directories.

Even well maintained collections have resources that linger that should not. 

We aren’t doing any large-scale weeding projects at the University of Rochester currently. But I’ve run them, and tried to run them as quickly and painlessly as possible. That said, I think that incremental and ongoing collection management is where it’s at, so large-scale weeding projects will never be my jam. Why? If you aren’t in your collection all the time, you’re neglecting your collection. And while there are plenty of good reasons that happens, it’s going to make whatever action you take to address it seem jarring and extreme. The issue with the build up that occurs when you don’t do the ongoing and incremental work of collection management is what we see play out in the drastic scenarios that get pointed to when we start to address our collections. 

If we’re not doing something about our collections, when we suddenly announce we have to cut it in half or move a bunch of it offsite or whatever we need to do, everyone freaks out. They freak out because they are accustomed to the inaction and inertia of a stagnant print collection. We have been invisible to them, and now we’ve startled them.

And I am not against startling scholars- I think discomfort can be healthy and productive. Research suggests that discomfort is an important part of discovery and learning. It’s not necessarily the most strategic or efficient approach to collection management. Rather than startle our patrons, I think we need to own our expertise enough to be ok with making them uncomfortable and with sharing our knowledge. With communication and trust building comes better relationships and better collections.

Get in there and weed.

 

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