News-Sentinel Editorial: Weeding is fundamental for modern libraries

The Allen County Public Library isn’t the first library to confront public outrage over the practice of weeding. Far from it.

In Berkeley, California, protesters staged an attempt to get patrons to check out the maximum number of books to save them from weeding. The Urbana, Illinois, library became known for #book-gate, thanks to a large-scale weeding project that created public backlash in 2013. In Fremont, California, thousands of books were found in a library dumpster. In 2014, residents of Chattanooga, Tennessee were shocked to learn nearly half the public library’s collection of books had been discarded over the course of two years.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Allen County Public Library’s count of items — including books, periodicals and other items — went from 3.58 million in 2014 to 2.1 million in 2017.

Some employees of the library said Executive Director Greta Southard, who took over in 2014, is to blame for the aggressive weeding of books. Part-time employee Kimberly Fenoglio brought the issue to public attention with a letter to library board members questioning the weeding of books. Speaking at a public hearing last week on the issue, former employee Eric Fry described the weeding as uniquely aggressive.

“Never have I worked for a library system where branch and unit managers had zero input over the very collections they were tasked to manage,” Fry said. “I was told what to weed and when to weed, and when you didn’t weed thoroughly or fast enough, members of the Collection Management team would contact you directly.”

Southard said part of the difference between the 2014 count and the 2017 count could be a number of factors, including changes in the way the state counts items, to duplicates that were cleaned up. But make no mistake, she said, the library weeds books regularly, and discarded about 63,000 books in the first nine months of 2018.

Those in the newspaper business understand, as much as anyone, the value of the printed word. But what is the alternative? Libraries, like other organizations, have been wholly disrupted by technological change. They are no longer just repositories for reading materials; they are community resource centers, hosting events and offering public access to not only books, but also an array of media, including computer and web access.

The library’s policies, adopted last summer, make clear that weeding materials is part of its mission.

“The purpose of the library’s collection is to pro-vide the most high-demand and high-interest mate-rials for the community,” the policy states. “With the exception of the previously noted Special Collections, the library is not to serve as an archive of historical materials, nor as an institute for advanced scholarly or professional research. To maintain a vital, cur-rent collection which meets the needs of the community, continuous review is necessary. To make space for in-demand materials, less popular and out-of-date items must be reviewed and withdrawn on a regular basis.”

Certainly the library could have done more to educate the public about the process, and it’s bothersome the staff can’t provide a better accounting of the weeded items. These are lessons for the future.

But amid all the hand-wringing over the weeding process, there is little evidence that library patrons have missed what’s been discarded.

That being the case, perhaps it’s time we accept that book weeding is simply a necessary process for the library to achieve its mission of “enriching the community through lifelong learning and discovery.