03 October 2012


Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 36.1, March 2011

Most of us became librarians because we love books—love reading them, buying them, discussing them—collecting them and, eventually, realizing we have too many of them.  Acquisitions are the most exciting part of librarianship, after all, and there is always something missing from a collection, but at some point we just run out of shelf space.

We encountered this problem while I was at the University of Michigan’s Undergraduate Library (the UgLi, an appropriate abbreviation if you’ve seen the building).  When built, the UgLi was intended to be a model collection for any undergraduate institution, consisting of the 100,000 most important titles.  This wasn’t an arbitrary number, but one based on the average holdings of a typical liberal arts college and meant to ensure that, no matter an institution’s size, it would provide an appropriate collection for a solid education; if a UMich student needed more, he could walk next door to peruse the five-million plus volumes in the Graduate Library.  Yet after fifty years, during which acquisition librarians tried to maintain currency and relevancy of their collections, the UgLi was now stuffed to over-flowing, with closer to 300,000 volumes in the catalog.

My assignment was developing criteria for our student shelvers to apply in an initial pass through the collection.  Books culled at this stage would get several additional screenings; only those rejected at every step would ultimately be discarded.  For the students, we wanted easy, binary choices.  We had originally selected all of these titles, so quality was no concern—but currency and usage were: we wanted only the most current, and most requested, material.  To achieve this, I built a decision tree, with any ‘yes’ answer meaning a book stayed on the shelf.

The questions: Is the book less than ten years old?  If no, open the book.  Has it been checked out in the past two years?  If no, has it been on course reserves in the past five years?  If no, place it on the culling cart for additional screening.  These three questions address the currency and perceived value of each item, bringing those which are questionable to light.

Next, subject librarians examined the culled items to insure that nothing of seminal importance, the absence of which could compromise a collection’s credibility, was up for withdrawal.  After that, students checked remaining titles against the University catalogue; any unique titles, with no other holdings, were immediately transferred to the Graduate Library.  Books still marked for weeding were then corralled in a holding pen, where selectors from other University libraries had the option of claiming them for transfer.  Only if rejected at every step of the process would a book finally make it to the University book sale, then finally the recycle bins behind the loading dock where, after dark, some sad student might go digging for treasure.

A law library—even an academic one—is of course very different from the UgLi.  For starters, most of our clients wear more than pajamas when they visit.  But the lessons are transferable: when weeding, objectives must be clear; non-arbitrary criteria must be developed to support them; all potentially-affected clientele must be considered.  The UgLi was only interested in the monograph collection; we have additional considerations, as well.  How do print materials relate to, or duplicate, digital collections?  Are we comfortable leasing information via databases, or do we need an archival print copy?  What can we afford, and what do we do about print material no longer kept current?  Each answer is part of the decision and each decision deserves consideration, because mistakes can’t be un-shredded.

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