Tuesday 13 August 2019


Every so often a discussion about weeding school libraries appears on social media with many respondents giving anecdotes about how they’ve had to “sneak” old books out of the library and dispose of them in the recycle bin at home. And yes, I’ve done this too – numerous times.

I’ve tried to explain to staff why these books weren’t suitable but, for some, the thought of getting rid of a book is almost heresy. And yet school libraries are not archives or depositories, most don’t have huge store rooms in which to keep shelf upon shelf of books. And quantity should not be confused with quality.

At a time when budgets are low or even non-existent (yes, you read that right – some librarians are expected to maintain their usual service, run promotions and activities, encourage and support students reading - all with no money whatsoever) the temptation is to hang onto every book on your shelves regardless of their condition or age. However, weeding is an important aspect of collection management because:

  • It will improve the appearance of your library. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve weeded a shelf of old, worn stock only to be asked if I’ve bought new books. People just don’t see the new stuff on the shelves when it’s hidden by the old.
  • Getting rid of old stock gives you more space to show off your lovely new and much better books, which usually results in an increase in loans.
  •  Most libraries have limited shelf space. Every book should earn its place on the shelf. Thus weeding out those that are no longer borrowed (for many reasons) means you can make the best use of the space available.
  •  The curriculum changes. The needs of students and staff change. Thus, if a school library is going to remain relevant, its stock must also adjust to reflect these changes.
  • If your shelves are packed full of books that are out-of-date and irrelevant to your students then it will take them twice as long to find anything useful. Weeding saves them time. It also encourages them to browse and they are more likely to find something suitable, engendering repeat visits.
  •  A school library collection should contain a diverse and inclusive range of books written by different authors and illustrators, containing a myriad of characters in various situations. Older stock is unlikely to have this representation so it is important to replace it with newer and more diverse books.
  •  A school library collection should be dynamic, attractive and useful – and the only way to achieve this is via regular weeding.

So … having decided you’re going to weed your collection, how do you do it? A tip – don’t put “weed the collection” on your to-do list, it will never get done because that’s too large a remit. Break it down into sections such as “Fiction books with author’s surnames beginning with A” or “Dewey number 200s”.

  • The first place to start is with the condition of the book. Regardless of how important you think it is - sticky, stained, mouldy and smelly books are not nice - get rid of them! Likewise books that have become discoloured or been water-damaged so they’ve gone hard and crinkly. A book in any of these conditions is unappealing and unlikely to be picked up by anyone, even your most avid readers.

    If a book is well-used it will become worn and eventually fall apart. You can sometimes do a repair job to gain a few additional loans but eventually there will come a point when you have to admit defeat and let it go. I am still scarred by an Agatha Christie book I borrowed that had the last two pages missing so I never found out “whodunit”.

  • Check how old the book is by looking at the publication date and note if there have been any revisions or new editions. The general rule is that you should not stock books over ten years old (obviously different rules apply for fiction) but there are exceptions - have you seen the images in a computer book published more than ten years ago? And it’s not just images that date; facts change over time. East and West Germany no longer exist. This seems obvious to most of us but if you are 12, 13, 14 years of age then it’s perfectly feasible that, if you read about East and West Germany in a book, you’ll accept this as the truth. After all, we have North and South Korea so why not have other divided countries.

    It’s important for school libraries to have accurate and up-to-date books. It’s not our job to check every resource each student uses – we don’t have the time apart from anything else – our job is to teach students how to find (and hopefully evaluate) information. If we have stock that is inaccurate and they use it to do their homework or revise for a test, and get it wrong, who is to blame? I think students can reasonably expect the resources they are offered in school to help with their learning to be relevant and correct.What I would say though is don’t automatically throw everything out because it’s old. Poetry books by dead poets, art books about dead artists are unlikely to change much. However, check them as their presentation and language may be off-putting and unsuitable for your age groups.

    And … you need to consider each book’s place within the overall collection. Is it the ONLY book available on that topic and is it used? Many years ago I had a cohort of students who were very enthusiastic model makers and asked me to get some books for them. The only ones I could find were second-hand, online and rather dated. But I bought them and the students loved (and used) them.

  • When was the book last borrowed? This can give an indication of its usefulness although it’s not always an accurate measure for non-fiction as many information books are used just in the library but it’s a good rationale for fiction. If a book hasn’t been borrowed in at least five years then it is unlikely to be in demand in the near future. If your fiction shelves are jam-packed and you need space for new books then consider reducing this time to 3 or 4 years. The other aspect to think about is the cover as this can date a book. Is the cover still appealing for today’s teens and young adults?

    ore you undertake this cull you need to be aware of forthcoming books, what’s on award lists, what books are being made into films as well as trends in genres and authors as all these could have an impact on your stock usage. A film-from-a-book is likely to result in the book being borrowed.There will ALWAYS be exceptions; for example, books signed by the author. And personally I find it much harder to weed fiction; especially if it’s a book I’ve read and loved but sometimes you just have to let them go...

  • Another aspect to consider is representation; the depiction of people, races, cultures, religions, etc. Older books sometimes portray unacceptable attitudes and ideas that are better read together, put into context and discussed. This can’t happen with individual borrowing. Do all your fiction books have female characters as sidekicks in supporting roles? Are all the heroes or villains male? Have a look at images in your books - do they always show men and women in traditional roles? I recently removed a weather book from a library that showed jobs and activities affected by the weather – all being done by men – whilst the TV weather forecaster was a smiley woman!

Weeding allows you to assess your collection for accuracy, currency, diversity, relevance and usage, and it should be done on a regular basis. Ideally it should also be linked to a policy giving guidelines on selection criteria.

I hope I’ve given you some ammunition to back up your decisions next time you are challenged on why you are removing books from the shelves. Of course, if you manage to do this you’ll have lots of shelf space to fill with newer titles. How you can do this with a minimal budget will have to wait for another blog. Meanwhile I’ll leave you with the words of the Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell:

We need public and school libraries where the books look modern and exciting and relevant to the children’s lives, like sweets, not brussels sprouts.”