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Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume IV, Issue 1
September 2007   

Under cover of night no more: Weeding and the contemporary academic library

Library collections are like fingerprints in the way their specific details uniquely characterize the communities and institutions they serve. Different kinds of libraries acquire, hold onto and remove different kinds of materials from their collections based on the needs and interests of their users.

Public libraries might, for instance, acquire 30 copies of a current best seller but keep only one of those in the permanent collection when the book's popularity wanes. Academic libraries, on the other hand, are often presumed to hold onto every item they acquire as part of their mission of preserving the intellectual record and meeting the research needs of future generations of scholars. In actual fact, only the most comprehensive research libraries can afford to behave in such a manner. And in this era of mass digitization of research collections as epitomized by the Google Books Library Project, the Open Content Alliance and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the very nature and purpose of library physical collections is undergoing some large-scale collective rethinking.

The first question most libraries are asking is "Who needs to hold onto what, and why?" There are no clear answers to that global question that fit all contexts. But, when faced with shelf capacity limits, academic libraries now have more freedom with respect to removing items from their local collections. This is especially the case in a medium-sized university library like ours at Villanova, with new, carefully chosen books coming into the collection at a rate of about 10,000 titles per year and no new storage capacity being added to a facility that is already quite full.

Over the past several years at Falvey, we have taken a number of steps to manage the library collection in a manner that is intellectually responsible, which means supporting the current and projected future academic needs of our community, while creating needed shelf space in our stacks for current acquisitions.

These steps have included:

  • the elimination of duplicate copies from our shelves (except in rare cases of documented high circulation of those items);
  • the removal of superseded and deteriorating paperback editions of common works;
  • the selective removal of print back-runs of journals that have durable digital archives (such as JSTOR) and for which the use of print versions has effectively ceased (based on careful collection usage monitoring);
  • the removal of reference resources that have been replaced by online versions; and
  • fine-grained title-by-title review of holdings serving particular disciplines, typically involving substantial counsel and advice from faculty about needs and research practices in their fields.

The goal of these weeding activities is always at least three-fold:

  • first, to create much-needed space in our crowded book stacks;
  • second, to sustain relevance and depth such that our collection is as historically rich and varied as possible wherever that is a factor; and,
  • third, to maintain pertinence such that the collection is not bloated by materials no longer valuable to our particular learning and research environment.

Faculty participation in the materials selection process is invaluable, especially in specialized subject areas. Dr. Douglas Norton and Dr. Klaus Volpert, mathematical sciences, examine Falvey's math holdings.

At a time when a "virtual collection" of some 35 million titles is discoverable within the mid-Atlantic region via E-ZBorrow (with two day delivery times common for requested items), and when WorldCat provides similar interlibrary loan access to almost 90 million titles internationally, the decision to remove items from our local collection is less daunting than it once was.

But it would be disingenuous to claim that the long-time issues related to stability of the print archive have been resolved. Our local decisions are contingent upon our mission. We have ceded the issue of comprehensive retention to the domain of full-scale research libraries.

Yes, this represents a bit of a culture shift. Not so long ago, it was anathema for academic librarians to consider comprehensive weeding of their collections. But recent technological developments, coupled with unrelenting space needs driven by the ongoing output of scholarly and trade publishers, have made it possible for us to cull our collections in good conscience.

Anne Ford and Mimi DiLenge ship discarded titles to Better World Books.
We have come to see judicious pruning of our holdings as just as critical to a strong library collection as the ongoing addition of new items. To make the process even a little sweeter, many of the books removed from the library collection have been shipped to Better World Books, an organization which finds homes for our unwanted items in libraries around the world.

Photographs by (top to bottom) John Welsh, Andrew Nagy and Laura Hutelmyer