Tag Archives: Practical Advice for Weeding in Small Academic Libraries

Practical Advice for Weeding in Small Academic Libraries–Collection Building (v. 26, no. 3, 2007), p. 84-87

Practical Advice for Weeding in Small Academic Libraries [DRAFT]

by Michael W. Handis

Small, academic non-research libraries do exist. The libraries, when created in the past, were in not expected to house huge research collections. However, over time, idiosyncratic items have been added until the day arrives when the collection is too unwieldy and things need to be weeded in order for the collection to continue to grow. Administration cannot give up more space or build a new library. Educated decisions need to be made in weeding the collection. Following are tips I found useful while weeding the Mina Rees Library in the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY).

CUNY and the Mina Rees Library

The Mina Rees Library serves the 34 graduate programs housed at the Graduate Center. The Graduate Center is the doctoral-granting institution of CUNY; all doctoral degrees are conferred by the Graduate Center regardless of where the classes, programs or library collections are housed. All CUNY graduate programs have offices in the Graduate Center. For example, the Business Ph. D. program, while housed at Baruch College (faculty, classes, offices and the library), has offices in the Graduate Center, from which the Ph. D. in Business is conferred.

A university of the consortial model, CUNY has 18 campuses throughout the 5 boroughs of New York City. CUNY librarians have faculty status and go through a tenure process. There is no university library system. A Council of Chief Librarians headed by the University Librarian coordinates all programs and services across the libraries.

Two types of teaching faculty are appointed at the Graduate Center. Permanently appointed faculty has the Graduate Center as their main campus. Cross-appointed faculty are those whose main campuses are one of the 17 other CUNY schools; they teach only one or two classes a year at the Graduate Center.

The Mina Rees Library, named for the first president of the Graduate Center, evolved into a library over time. The Graduate Center was founded in 1961. The library per se started as a reserve room for materials needed by graduate students and slowly grew into a library. CUNY agreed to allocate money to the New York Public Library-the Research Libraries (NYPL) to support CUNY graduate student research. At that time, the Graduate Center was located on 42nd Street, across from the main NYPL research library. In 1999, the Graduate Center moved to its current location in Manhattan at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. The move consolidated a library which had, up to that time, been housed in different rooms on different levels of the building. No interconnectivity existed between the areas of the old library. The increased floor space in the new library allowed for the consolidation of collections which, up until that time, had been “specialized” because of where they were shelved.

No major weeding project had ever been undertaken in the Mina Rees Library up to 2002. With space projected to run out within 5 years, the library faculty set up the liaison program whereby the 34 graduate programs were divided up between the librarians. As liaisons, the librarians would not only do outreach to students and faculty in their respective areas but also review gift materials that came in on a very regular basis as well as review library materials in their areas for discard. Before this liaison program, most gifts received were added to the collection with no review. Now with review by professional librarians in specialized subject areas, many of the gifts were rejected as unsuitable for adding to the library collection. Rejection criteria for gift materials were based not only on whether or not they fit into the collection areas but also their condition. Simple rebinding of damaged books is performed for the library by a professional bindery. Because of no budget allocation for the cost, the library has no other preservation or conservation activities done to damaged materials. Also, because the library collection is in many ways transient in regards to the changing needs of the graduate programs, no provision was created in the library budget for such advanced preservation activity. Therefore, any materials in bad condition were either thrown out or put on the rejected shelves.

The collection policy, such as it was, dated to 1982. No updates or modifications were made to the document. It was therefore decided that a new library collection policy was needed.

The Collection Policy

Any collection development/management activities must have a collection policy to guide what is done. The collection policy serves a two-fold purpose: first, it states what is collected and what is retained, what criteria are used in collecting, and how materials are discarded; and secondly, and maybe more importantly, it protects librarians in times of trouble. As Intner (2006, p.15) states, “This notion, that weeding destroys valuable library materials, is both false and dangerous. It flies in the face of reality and encourages the pack rats among us to force everybody to bow down to clutter, no matter how unappealing it makes their libraries or how discouraging and inefficient their collections become to patrons.”

Many institutions have their policies posted on their web sites. The Mina Rees Library’s collection policy at <http://library.gc.cuny.edu/INFO/collpolicy.asp&gt; started as an amalgam of three or four policies found on the Web and merged into one Word document. From there, changes specific to the Graduate Center were made until, through editing and rewriting, it became a document specific to the Mina Rees Library. The collection policy began by reiterating the vision and mission statement of the library. This information came from the academic bulletin put out by the CUNY Graduate Center every three years and approved by the Graduate Council. In effect, this justifies what follows in the policy.

Once I had a working copy, I took it to a faculty meeting and let my colleagues make suggestions and comments. Take the rough draft, make the changes, and send out the revised copy via email to the librarians for revision. Before the next faculty meeting, send out the final draft and ask that everyone be ready to approve or make their final recommendations.

Once the policy is finished and approved, the library director must get it approved by upper-level administration. Make sure that this is done, since approval from administration makes it clear that the library in no way hides its activities. Once the collection policy is approved, it cannot be so easily changed:

“To change a current collection development policy would require a meeting of the board of directors, administration or some kind of governing body. Any decision made by such a body would be corporate, and one that would have input from all parties involved in the library” (Strnad 1995, p.30).

The collection policy functions as protection as well as a tool to guide weeding.

After achieving administration’s approval, be sure to post the collection policy on the library web site. This is done to make sure that the information is available to users. The library hides no of its procedures or activities from users.

Collection policies should be amended on a regular basis as changes in the curriculum are made and the bibliographic needs of the institution change. In most cases these changes are minor and do not require going through administration approval again. The collection policy is an active document and should not be allowed to languish.

Weeding, the Collection Policy and the Mina Rees Library

Section XI of the Mina Rees Library collection policy deals with weeding <http://library.gc.cuny.edu/INFO/collpolicy.asp#weeding&gt;:

“To keep the collection current and to maintain adequate shelf space for new acquisitions, out-of date, older editions, outworn, or damaged copies of materials will be weeded routinely.

Replacements of older editions and damaged materials will be made at the discretion of the selector. Currently, there is no budget for replacements.

Material of historical or reference value will be retained only if it continues to support the current curriculum in the Tier I programs.”

It was decided to divide the 34 CUNY graduate programs into two groups. The Tier I programs are those whose faculty, classes and library resources are housed at the Graduate Center. Tier II programs are those programs that have offices in the Graduate Center but whose library collections, research facilities, etc. are housed at other CUNY campuses. This made the most sense and it allowed the librarians to concentrate on the Tier I programs while not ignoring the Tier II programs.

Because the Mina Rees Library is so small, Section XI is the library’s weeding policy. The collection must be kept current and relevant to the present curriculum and old materials will be discarded unless they are of some value. Simple and direct, yet it puts the responsibility for weeding decisions solely on the librarians.

Teaching Faculty, Librarians and Weeding

Library faculty must be made to understand how important the weeding of the collection is. My job entails being the collection manager, so I oversee the overall weeding project. I use an Excel spreadsheet to record the stack ranges and the names of liaisons responsible for those areas. Discussing weeding goals in faculty meetings is one way to ensure that librarians continue to weed on a regular basis.

There are problems with weeding, especially with many librarians: “Some librarians lack the assurance needed to make these complex decisions and feel their judgments may be challenged by patrons or colleagues” (White 1994, p.50).   It is better for a librarian unsure about what to weed to ask advice from colleagues. Do these librarians have any tips on how they weed their collections? What have their past experiences been with weeding projects?

Many librarians prefer to ask teaching faculty in their subject areas for help on weeding. If good relations between the subject librarian and the teaching faculty in that field are good, it may pay to ask for help. Teaching classes and doing research takes time, and teaching faculty may not have the time to help.

Teaching faculty has a vested interest in the library. They want as many resources in their field as possible in the library. This is where teaching faculty and librarians differ. Librarians are trained to take the entire collection into account. In general, teaching faculty are very agreeable to assist in weeding, but finding time in their schedule to come to the library and look at the books is difficult. If you are on a timetable you may have to forego their help.

One colleague at the Mina Rees Library sought input from the executive officer of one of the programs for which she is responsible. The response she got from the faculty chair was that every book in the subject was important and nothing should be discarded. This type of useless advice from a faculty member can undermine a less-experience librarian’s confidence in being able to weed:

“Weeding materials has always been a difficult exercise and one we avoid assiduously. We rationalize that unwillingness with comments like ‘Insufficient time’ or ‘someone might want it sometime.’ The reality is that most of us just can’t bring ourselves to throw books away. Even when the shelves are full, we find it difficult to free valuable space by discarding less desirable items” (Engeldinger 1999, p.50).

Everyone must do their fair share. The director of the library can ensure that all librarians and staff are working for the same goals. Without the support of the director, a collection manager’s job will be inhibited, if not impossible.

What to do with Withdrawn Materials

New York State law prohibits the reselling of state property. In the case of the Mina Rees Library, CUNY is a New York State university. Therefore, once materials are received in a state-affiliated library and property-stamped, the materials are state property. Westchester Community College, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, would give away materials withdrawn from its collection. A truck located near the entrance to the library would offer withdrawn materials free to anyone to take.

Though the Graduate Center increased its space in 1999, lack of adequate space is a problem. Besides the 34 graduate programs, the Graduate Center houses 28 specialized research centers and institutes. In addition, the CUNY Baccalaureate Program and the School of Professional Studies as well as the Continuing Education and Public Programs are all housed in the Graduate Center.

The space crunch has also affected the Mina Rees Library. Offices needed for Information Technology staff caused a reshuffling of reference librarians’ offices as well as the moving of the Assistive Technology office to where the photocopy room used to be located. Photocopiers were relocated to the seating area across the hall from the room. The library has no room to store or unpack gift boxes, so donations are stored along the wide hallway outside the librarians’ offices. This is also where bindery shipments are left for pick-up and drop off.

With no room for gifts and exchange activities, limited staff and an on-going book sale, there is simply no room for the discarded library materials, so they are thrown out.

Sensible Weeding Suggestions

The following are tips that make help make weeding decisions easier.

ILS Reports. Generally your ILS can generate circulation reports. By identifying materials that have not circulated in years (or ever) these materials can be pulled for review. Library staff can pull these items and forwarded them to the subject librarian, who reviews the titles. If your ILS doesn’t generate reports, or you lack internal control over your ILS (like the Mina Rees Library), read on.

  1. Dust settles on everything when it isn’t used regularly. If an item has not been touched in years and there is a coat of dust on it, my inclination is to withdraw it.
  2. Anything found with mold on it should be withdrawn immediately. A book covered with black and red mold on its covers was once sent to me. I promptly discarded it. If the item is heavily used, order another copy. Mold is hazardous; do not endanger your health or the health of your colleagues or patrons.

Item by Item. This means going through a selected range item by item. A graduate student working for me was given the criteria to examine the date due slips to determine when (or even if) the item ever circulated. (At the time, the Mina Rees Library still stamped the due dates in the books.) Items that had not circulated for 5 years were pulled and sent back to me for review. I sent back about one third of the materials pulled to be reshelved.

Item Records. Item records give the date of the barcode’s creation, sometimes who created it, and a count of the number of times an item has circulated. Most ILS systems also allow a count for browsing. Browsing is when an item is removed from the shelf, used in the library, and left somewhere in the library. A stacks clean-up by students or staff retrieves these items. By using the circulation module to “discharge” the item, the ILS records this action as a browse, since the item was not charged out. Item record information can usually be generated in a circulation ILS report. (See ILS Reports.) Materials browsed but not charged out are candidates for retention.

Serials and Weeding. The battle over the retention of print serials already available online in Project Muse and the like continues. Countless articles have been written, pro and con, on keeping/tossing the print. Things to remember include: does any other library in the area have it in print?; is the online version of the title from a reputable vendor, such as JSTOR?; inter-library loan requests can get articles from other institutions retaining the print title, if necessary; your institution is an academic but not a research library. With this limitation, you must be careful what you do. Should heavily used titles be retained even if they are online? If it comes to a space issue, hard decisions on which titles to retain and discard must be made. Remember that users miss serial titles more readily than monographs. How do your library colleagues feel about the title? What field is it in? Some humanities faculty prefer print to online.

Primary Resources. I am not talking about archival collections or rare books but published primary resources, such as the different series in the British Parliamentary Papers. Though your collection policy may clearly state that research materials are not collected by the library, I have never worked in a small institution which did not contain some published primary resources. These materials may be in microforms or in print. Microforms generally take up less space. Even print primary resources in small libraries rarely fill hundreds of shelves. I am loath to throw out primary resources. Perhaps additional shelving can be added to a wall where these materials can be transferred? This would create a new collection of primary resources that do not circulate but are accessible to everyone. It also takes the materials out of the shelving mix and solves the problem. Otherwise, you may have to discard.

Final Thoughts

Weeding is an essential part of collection management. Because of time constraints, lack of interest or fear of discarding useful materials, librarians avoid performing this important task.

Mistakes will be made. Materials will be discarded that may well need to be reordered at some point. Remember, “… college libraries are not research libraries. They need not keep everything. Their role in preservation is not pivotal” (Engeldinger 1999, p.51). Interlibrary loan exists to get materials for users not housed in their library. Weeding is an essential job that must be performed on a regular basis.


Collection Policy 2005, Mina Rees Library, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, viewed 13 October 2006 < http://library.gc.cuny.edu/INFO/collpolicy.asp >.

Engeldinger, EA 1999, ‘Weeding naturally,’ College & Undergraduate Libraries, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 47-51.

Intner, SS 2006, ‘Weeding, collection development, and preservation,’ Technicalities, vol. 26, no. 3 (May/June), pp.1, 14-18.

Therapeutic Goods Administration 2004, Department of Health and Aging, Canberra, viewed 13 October, 2004, <http://www.tga.gov.au/recalls/index.htm&gt;.

Strnad, B 1995, ‘How to look a gift horse in the mouth, or how to tell people you can’t use their old junk in your library,’ Collection Building, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 29-31.

White, L 1994, ‘Weeding library collections: get around to it.’ Colorado Libraries, vol. 20 (Winter), pp. 50-51.

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