Weeding: For Equity, Accessibility, & Relevancy Pt. 1

For more information on weeding you can see my first weeding post: “Weeding My H.S. Library”

I recently did a presentation on this topic for a school district’s librarians, and it made me realize it had been a while since I’d written a blog post on weeding! Which is a shame because I love weeding! This will be a two-part blog series, and will function as a good intro to weeding, provide some rationale & weeding philosophy to consider, and in part 2 we’ll cover practical tips to the actual weeding process as well as ideas for how to advocate about weeding to your community to help them understand the reason for. (If the practical tips page gets too long I may split the advocacy part into a third post instead, we’ll see)

    What Is Weeding

    Weeding is the (continuous) process of evaluating a collection, & of removing materials that no longer meet the needs of the user community

    Left is “before” weeding (actually it was during lol) and right side is “after.” You can see much more room for dynamic shelving, genre-fication, great and clear signage, color, etc makes more a much more accessible collection

    Rationale for Weeding

    People, both those within and outside of the profession, often struggle to understand the need for library weeding. This stems, I believe, largely from nostalgia and an emotional feeling that books are sacred objects which should always be preserved and protected. These are feelings often embedded pretty deep inside a lot of us, and so the removal of books can feel deeply anathema to some. However, its important to remember the purpose of the school library, and to keep that purpose at the front of our minds at all times. A school library’s purpose is not to function as an archive or museum. A school library is not an archive. It is a school library, which has different purpose than an archive (not better or worse, just different.) A school library’s purpose, in my opinion, is to facilitate access to the resources our current students need in order to meet their current and emerging academic, social, personal, or professional needs. Any resources that don’t meet current and emerging needs probably do not need to stay in a school library, even if we personally still appreciate, love, or enjoy the resource.

    A school library’s purpose, in my opinion, is to facilitate access to the resources our current students need in order to meet their current and emerging academic, social, personal, or professional needs.

    Thinking of a collection like its a garden can help us contextualize the need for weeding. Most people understand the harm that weeds can cause to a garden, right? And we understand why weeds need to be removed, in order to keep a garden healthy and accessible. To make sure there is enough room & resources for other things to grow. Library collections are much like that too! As time passes, the needs of our communities change, and the collection has to continuously change to keep up. There are a few different goals or incentives to weeding, let’s dig into a few of the ones I think are most important.

    Weeding For Currency

    Moving forward from the belief that the school library collection exists to facilitate access to resources which help students meet their current and emerging academic, personal, professional, & social needs helps us to determine what various criteria to include in our weeding. Collections should be current. It is helpful to run collection analysis on publication years to find out what the average age of your collection is, and to set currency goals to work towards. There isn’t really a universal standard (that I know of) for how old a collection can be, though the CREW Method provides some helpful goals per subcollection, with different recommendations for fiction and various types of nonfiction, and this really helped to give me a good starting point & context to work from. After years of weeding I eventually determined that my goal is to ensure the average age of collection generally does not fall outside of my youngest student’s lifetimes. Since I teach high school students, I ideally would like to work to ensure the collection’s average age falls after they entered middle school. I think its really important that the collection reflects their lived experiences and the world they are growing up within. The world changes so drastically and quickly now that this makes collection development more complicated but more important. Weeding out old, outdated, no longer needed items is critical to make room for new, relevant resources.

    Weeding For Equity

    Weeding for equity, in my mind, is all about keeping an eye on the collection and continuously evaluating it through a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Antiracist lens. We want students to have equitable access to a well stocked library, but we also want the representation they find on the shelves to be affirming, reflective, representative, and, hopefully, not harmful to any of our students, especially students who are members of our most vulnerable, underserved, & systemically excluded communities.

    Developing a collection which meets these goals requires continuous weeding, it requires that we be evaluating the resources on the shelves, always on the lookout items that promote:

    • Harmful stereotypes (via text or imagery)
    • Racist, queerphobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, ableist & other harmful ideologies
    • Outdated & harmful terminology
    • Inauthentic voice / harmful representation
    • Misinformation, Disinformation, Superseded information, etc

    When we find resources with harmful content, we need to evaluate them carefully to determine whether they really should stay in the collection. We should be able to answer the question “why is this book staying on our library’s shelf?” And the answer we can give to that question had better be really, really good. It had better be good enough to warrant any harm keeping it causes. Some answers that are not good enough, include:

    • “because of my personal nostalgia for it”
    • “because its a “classic”
    • “because it’s always been here”
    • “because it feels like censorship” (weeding is not censorship)
    • “because I don’t have funds to buy other books”
      • Remember, harmful representation is not better than no representation, they’re both not good
      • Weed as needed, empty shelves are a powerful motivator to stakeholders that funding is needed, or can be used as evidence in grant or fundraising efforts

    Please remember that this post is directed primarily at school librarians. I have never worked as a public librarian and therefore the weeding practices which make most sense to meet their goals is not something I can speak upon. Academic and Special/Archives Librarians likely also will have drastically different collection goals and needs, so this advice may not pertain well to those libraries either. But when it comes to school libraries, that I can speak to. We must remember that the children in our schools have no choice about being there. They are legally required to spend every school day in the school and therefore the library must be safe and representative for them. The library must be accessible, useful, and safe for them. Students of color deserve better than to browse shelves full of harmful anti-BIPOC portrayals, inauthentic representation, & racist stereotypes. Queer students deserve better than a library which either doesn’t reflect them at all or which only reflects stories in which queer characters experience only suffering and violence as a result of their queerness (the trope commonly referred to as “Bury Your Gays.”) Students who immigrated here, or who speak languages other than English deserve to see more representation beyond suffering, gang activity, or violence. White cishet students deserve better than to see only white, cishet saviorism and supremacy reflected on the shelves. All of our students deserve to access collections which affirm, uplift, and celebrate the various identities present not only in the school, but also in the global community we all share and are a part of.

    Building a collection that meets current & emerging needs requires that we are constantly re-developing our collections. We cannot just be adding new resources. We cannot build a strong, safe structure atop a crumbling or flawed foundation. The foundation has to be evaluated, patched, & corrected, continuously. Sometimes the foundation may need to be decimated before the rebuilding happens. Its not enough to just add new items to the library, you have to be also evaluating what’s already there and interrogating whether those things are still serving today’s current & emerging needs, whether their presence allows your library to meet its goal of being safe & useable to all of your students, especially your most vulnerable students.

    Weeding For Accessibility

    Weeding is also an accessibility issue. The fact of the matter is that even if we did want to keep every book on the shelf forever, we would not be able to do that because of limited shelf space. We will always have a limited amount of library space, and we need to be very intentional about ensuring that each inch of space is being used to its fullest potential in allowing us to meet our goal, which is to serve current & emerging needs. This means that we need to be constantly evaluating and re-evaluating every resource, furniture, tech, etc that takes up space & critically examining whether that is the best use for that space or whether it needs to be weeded out so the space can be used for something else that may better meet current & emerging needs. Weeding is not only about evaluating books, its about evaluating all of a library’s resources, policies, programs, etc.

    When evaluating library resources/policies, I find it helpful to ask the following questions:

    • Why is this item here/what purpose does it serve?
    • Which specific current or emerging need does this serve?
    • Could the space this item takes up be better used for something else our students need?

    In other words, every item should have a clear argument for why it’s present in the library, and that argument should be tied directly to an explicit purpose as relates to the library’s mission or goal: to facilitate access to resources students need for their current & emerging academic, personal, social, or professional needs. If you are looking at a book and can’t see any connection to current curriculum, current student needs, & it isn’t circulating, then it should go. The same goes for other things in the library like technology, furniture, policies, games, etc. If its not being used, doesn’t meet a current/emerging need, & doesn’t support curriculum then it is just taking up very valuable space that could be better used for something else that is needed.

    Believe it or not, a smaller more relevant & updated collection will circulate better than a large but outdated collection. More options isn’t necessarily better if the options aren’t relevant and needed. Shelves that are crammed full of books no one wants or needs, or which are dusty, musty, and unattractive, are an accessibility issue. It is difficult and stressful for students if they have to comb through tons of old, irrelevant, uninteresting books to try to find one that interests them or meets their needs. Sometimes too much choice is actually a hindrance, especially if majority of choices presented aren’t actually needed or wanted. Its actually best to weed regularly enough to keep the collection pretty tightly focused on current & emerging needs, so that the collection, while smaller, can be more successfully use-able and navigable to students.

    Weeding out unneeded items can make room for things like:

    • Making room for new things like:
      • more stories with great BIPOC, Queer, Disabled, & other representation
      • books to support new or changed curricular units, electives, etc
      • developing specific collections to be larger, perhaps you need more space for a better mental health collection, college & career collection, manga/graphic novel collection, or whatever your needs assessments indicate are needed
    • Reclaiming shelf space for better, more accessible organization strategies like:
    • Reclaiming floor space for things like:
      • maker activities
      • social spaces
      • collaborative work zones
      • flexible furniture
      • green screen/recording area/other tech resources

    Here are some examples of the kind of changes weeding allowed me to make to ensure our library better meets the current & emerging needs of our students. Next week I’ll post part 2 of this blog series, which will cover “practical tips & tricks for the actual weeding process” as well as “advice for advocating about weeding to your community”

    As seen in picture above, shifting and consolidating the collection (and weeding, of course) allows us to remove many large bookcase stacks, which reclaims floor space that can be used for comfortable seating and smaller displays, but also opens the remaining shelves up in ways that make them far more accessible. Its not as fun to browse in between dark, gloomy, towering stacks. Removing those allows more sunlight to stream into the room, more light, easier access to the books, a more pleasant browsing experience!

    On left of above picture, you see our old computer lab, which is inside the library. It used to have 30 desktop computers but our school went 1:1 with ipads several years ago and eventually had to stop trying to service & maintain the old, no longer needed desktops. Since I knew the lab wouldnt be needed for desktops anymore I proposed a different use. We use it now as a flex classroom/multi-use room for things like classroom collaborations, a quiet room, club meetings, department meetings, even greenscreen recording. The old use for this space was no longer needed, so I examined it, and figured out how to reuse that space to meet other needs. On right you see what used to be a display case that had locking glass doors. These used to be used for storing our physical audiobook tapes & CDs. Since we use e-audiobooks now, I weeded the physical unused ones and repurposed the display cabinets by painting them, putting wheels on the bottom, and removing the glass doors. Now they function great as mobile board game & makerspace shelving!

    As seen above, another space in the library which was being underused was our old magazine display shelves. These are on the fall facing the circ desk, so I spent years staring at these empty shelves and wishing that the shelves were not tilted at such an odd angle so that I could actually use the shelves for something. We had significant need of shelf space, I needed somewhere to develop a strong graphic novel collection and I spent 2-3 years dreaming about using that space for it. Then one day I thought to myself, “I wonder if the tilted shelves could just be removed” leaving only the flat shelves. When we examined the bookcases to see how they were attached we found that yes indeed, they could be removed from the wall and once removed you could easily see, on each side, the spot to simply unscrew the tilted shelves. I was going to just have only the tilted shelves removed, leaving the flat shelves that were underneath each tilted shelf, but then when one was disassembled I had a lightbulb moment brainstorm. I realized that having SOME tilted shelves would be great for displaying the thin, usually paperback graphic novels and comics in front-facing position. I just needed the tilt angle to be deeper than it was for the magazines. So we just re-installed some of the tilted shelves at a better angle! I left the bottom two shelves without tilt shelves so they can function as normal bookshelves, but we reinstalled the tilt shelves on the top shelf and top of bookcase. And now look at how awesome and functional the space is! It didn’t cost anything but a little bit of investigation and exploration!

    Above you can see how I repurposed another unused area in the library. At one point in its history the library had these bookbag cubbies for students to place their belongings in while in the library. That policy is no longer in place, as most students prefer to keep their personal items with them, and I prefer they do also. So we had these unused cubbies. Another stretch of wall space that I spent years being annoyed with because they were weird shapes instead of useable shelving (I thought). Then, last year when we began developing a manga collection I realized that the cubbies were actually great for manga, since each manga series can have its own cubby space! Regular shelves would be better, but you work with what you have and this functions pretty well at meeting a new need we had!

    So you can see that weeding isn’t only about evaluating the books to determine what needs to stay or go, its also about evaluating everything else too, whether its policies, furniture, programs, technology, etc. Everything should be serving current and emerging needs, and if its not, then maybe the space its taking up is better utilized on something that will meet current and emerging needs.

    Concluding Part 1

    To wrap up part 1 I want to share some of my library philosophy. I know there is this famous old adage in our profession that says “a truly great library should have something in it to offend everyone.” (quote by Librarian Jo Goodwin). But I don’t agree. Personally I don’t think trying to offend everyone should be our collection development goal, nor an excuse for “both sides-ism.” I think a school library’s goal should be to build a library which meet’s the library user community’s current and emerging needs and which causes as little harm as possible to the user community, starting with our most vulnerable, underserved, and systemically excluded community members.

    Because a truly great school library isn’t trying to offend everyone equally.
    A truly great school library seeks to meet the current & emerging needs of the community while causing as little harm as possible.

    A truly great school library can do that without promoting and platforming hateful rhetoric in a misguided bid to “counter balance” the promoting and platforming of affirming, uplifting, and representative information our most vulnerable community members so desperately need access to. Let’s not seek to offend, instead let’s seek to uplift.

    Part 2 of Blog (coming soon)

    Practical Tips & Tricks

    See the upcoming blog post, part 2, for tips & tricks!

    Community Advocacy

    See the upcoming blog post, part 2, advocacy advice!

    Leave a Reply

    Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s