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Crew: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries (2012) [pdf] (texas.gov)
41 points by Tomte 3 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments

It's interesting how it expects librarians to be arbiters of morals and ethics - they should recognize when ideas in books are good or bad (or in this case more accurately current and "outdated"). That includes explicitly mentioned "outdated" philosophies on ethics and moral values (are Aristotelian ethics outdated?) and "hot button" topics like euthanasia, genetic engineering, and sexuality. It suggest to "Be aware of changes in political rhetoric and discard books with outdated ideas." Also "Weed books that reflect outdated ideas about gender roles in childrearing."

And atop of being arbiter of wrongthink it expects librarian to keep abreast of scientific knowledge and review books on organic gardening "for accuracy and currency of information after five years".

> It's interesting how it expects librarians to be arbiters of morals and ethics

The author isn't trying to shovel that onto librarians. The author simply understands and is acknowledging that that is an inherent, inescapable part of the librarian's job. This would come as no surprise to the manual's intended audience, the people who brought you Banned Book Week. They know their business.

And, yes, discarding books with outdated ideas is a smart, practical move. These are often books that people are going to be less interested in checking out, because people would rather check out books that reflect contemporary ideas. For example, I'm not at all interested in checking out an etiquette book that reflects mid 20th century ideas about gender roles. I would be much happier to take advice from an etiquette book that isn't actively offensive to me, and I'm not alone in that, so it makes sense for the librarian to get rid of the old etiquette book in order to make room for one that people would actually check out.

There is obviously also some value in keeping old books that people don't want to read anymore. Where you strike the balance there is going to have a lot to do with the library's purpose. Research libraries and public lending libraries have different goals and responsibilities.

> It's interesting how it expects librarians to be arbiters of morals and ethics

First of all, nothing you can do in this subject is morally neutral. By calling this "wrongthink", you are also bringing in morality; and implying that perhaps librarians should be arbiters of morals and ethics by retaining certain works.

Secondly, it expects the people paying librarians' salaries to care about these things. Typically this will be the local taxpayers.

Obviously when you found a library, funded entirely from your own personal wealth, then the librarians will arbitrate what kinds of books are or are not kept based on your ideas of morals, ethics, and usefulness.

Note that this is a decentralized effect though. There's no grand authority saying to remove ideas, librarians are making the call themselves. But it is saying a librarian may not want to loan out to kids books claiming women are inferior or the like. It leaves librarians individually to decide if a book's historical value outweighs the negative values of its older views as well.

It doesn't expect a librarian to be an expert in all fields, but on nonfiction topics, many five year old books can safely be discarded in exchange for newer ones in fields like science and technology in particular. If one is regularly replacing books about the planets, one doesn't need to know that Pluto is no longer defined as a planet, every book in the last five years on the subject will do that for you.

Another important note is that CREW is for public libraries which can only maintain a collection of a certain size and which needs a high percentage of material to be frequently accessed. An academic or research library would have a very different strategy.

I would focus less on the nonexistent purging of Aristotle and more on the more modern issues. A library in 1950 would contain lots of works extolling the virtues of empire, white mans’ burden, segregation, etc.

Librarians are passionate people who think a lot about these issues.

Would have been nice to have an executive summary. Sorry the work is too long to read in its entirety.

The problem with most of the libraries that I have visited in the last thirty years is that they seem to have forgotten about the educational aspect. I can't speak for other fields than those in which I have some expertise but I suspect that most technical subjects are less well served now than their equivalents were a hundred years ago.

Specifically topics such as computer science, practical computing at a higher level than Such and such for Dummies, electronics, physics, are all pretty much useless in most libraries except university and major reference libraries. Partly the problem is that they simply do not have enough books in those categories but another is that they are frequently well out of date.

I'd like to believe that the reason is simply because the librarians don't have any expertise in those subjects and therefore are not able to see how useless the collections are but I suspect that it probably has more to do with a kind of market orientation so that libraries are filled with books that are popular rather than books that are useful.

This of course becomes a vicious circle because the few technical works are read so rarely on account of being useless that the library concludes that the genre is even less popular than it really is and hence doesn't buy any more up to date books.

Perhaps a librarian could chip in with some actual knowledge instead of my observation and speculation.

Pretty much any public library selector or cataloger will be the first to tell you to just go buy your highly specialized technical manual on Amazon and keep it in your personal collection. If you have access to a large research library you could also try that. A mid-sized city library has shelving for maybe 100,000 books with 10x that many books published each year. It's all about serving the entire community and making decisions on what will circulate. No public library has the budget or room to keep esoteric volumes that might appeal to a couple of people per year. Sometimes it has to do with lack of expertise, but generally librarians are expected to stay reasonably well-read in their selection area and just have to make tough decisions. It's more a tension between what will get used vs. budget vs. space rather than ignoring an educational mission.

> If you have access to a large research library you could also try that.

It would be great if public research libraries were more common - to be honest, I don't even know if such places exist.

I know that research libraries exist at most universities and certain other organizations (generally focused on what that organization is for) - but they either require you to be an active student to access them, or are private.

As an individual who isn't a student, but still wanting to do research, my only options are to purchase such research (in the form of books, magazines, or journals/articles), or find it on the internet in some form. Even then, I know that I am not getting everything - and likely missing out on a lot of information.

But what other choice do I have?

Most state university libraries are open to the public (some are actually required to be if they’re repositories of government documents). You’re free to browse when make use of their collections onsite.

If you need borrowing privileges, these can in many cases be purchased from the institutions for between $1-300 per year. They generally don’t include offsite electronic resource access, but every university library I’ve worked for have computers with guest access to all of these materials.

It’s a little pricey, but if you’re a regular consumer of academic or specialty literature, not at all a bad deal.

>It would be great if public research libraries were more common - to be honest, I don't even know if such places exist.

I don't know about elsewhere, but there's absolutely nothing stopping you from walking into any library that I've been to in the University of California system. You have to jump through some hoops to check things out as a non-student, but the access to information is there.

There are inter library loans so some college library that specializes in the field will retain the book.

Former librarian here: in the context of public libraries, access to these works is covered by regional sharing and interlibrary loan agreements. As other commenters have pointed out, local public libraries have limited shelf space and usually no offsite storage, so they have to focus on the items that circulate most in the populations they serve.

But getting access to these works is by no means difficult in states with robust library systems (both public and state university). This week, I’ve had two obscure, academic works delivered to my local branch library from universities in the state. It took about a week from request until delivery and there was no charge to me whatsoever.

That's a conundrum, isn't it? They focus on items that circulate the most - so they're driven by the lowest common denominator in their collection. Which leaves people like me out cold, so I quit using the library, so their statistics show even higher circulation of romance novels and juvenile fiction.

In my experience, libraries have dropped into a degenerate low-energy state of stocking junk for a subsection of the community.

I fail to see how it’s any different from how most modern, efficient resource distribution systems function, especially given how underfunded these systems are in many states. Access to long tail items is done by internet request and managed through better resourced, offsite storage, just like it is in the context of retail. Many well-funded library systems are actually better than services like Amazon at this. One of the books I received this week was so obscure it’s not even for sale on their or many other sites, but again, I had it at my podunk branch library in the Midwest, freely available to me within a week of my request. Your local library system probably offers similar services if you speak to its librarians.

If your argument is that we should have well-funded and staffed libraries of an academic caliber in more cities, I completely agree. But doing so would involved a broader conversation about the wealthy’s attack on public goods and upper income people’s disinvestment from them/preference for private services as a form of class signaling.

My argument would be (I didn't make one), canvas the public and provide what they want. The folks that show up, are there because they find what they want. Folks that don't find what they want, aren't coming. So its hard to tell what 'real' circulation statistics would be, for properties they aren't keeping in stock.

I’ve worked at just about every kind of library (public, university, corporate, museum) and they’ve all been happy to provide patrons with whatever they want, do extensive data collection about usage, both current and potential. What they can’t do, because of resource constraints, is provide everyone what they want, however they want it.

For example, most public libraries aren’t resourced or staffed to provide large, browsable stacks of items that rarely circulate. Managing collections like this actually involves a lot of daily, tedious work to keep them accessible and properly ordered. I’ve spent many hours doing it myself and managing students doing the same.

But they absolutely will get you just about any book you want, either by purchasing it or through a temporary loan. There’s not a conflict about “real circulation,” so much as their is a pragmatic inability to cater to every individual need, on demand.

If you want your library to serve you better, I suggest you start using it and communicating with them about your needs. You’ll probably find the staff more than happy to help and accommodate.

> Would have been nice to have an executive summary

That's Indexing and Abstracting, not Cataloging, a different area of librarianship/information science. Sorry.

More seriously: The poster must have had some context in mind when they posted this to HN and it would be interesting to learn what that was; even if it was just "TIL libraries don't keep books forever."

I have doubts about whether this is true. While libraries are probably optimizing for popularity, I doubt that libraries 100 years ago had very good expert level book collections, at least an average library. Reason why it may be more visible today is that due to the internet we have extreme access to information on a scale never before seen, so standards for expert books have risen sharply. Not only you can get the books online, but you can learn about the books online and get them as soon as they are released. Something that wasn't really possible before the digital age.

I quite deliberately didn't ask for expert, just higher level than 'for dummies'. Something to help people get started, to progress a little.

Libraries in the past had a lot of books on science and technology that was actually relevant to the times and places. You could go to a library in a medium sized town and the reference section would contain a lot of works of practical utility. I know they were there because I borrowed them. I didn't borrow them a hundred years ago but some of the books on loudspeaker design, acoustics, electronics, etc., that I referred to in my early teens fifty years ago had been published a couple of decades earlier and were sufficiently good to still be relevant. Let's say between 50 and 80 years ago then. If I look for books of a similar standard in modern libraries they are simply not present.

I agree that not every little branch library can have or did have a large collection of such books but the central library serving a town of, say a hundred thousand people should surely have more than a couple of dozen tatty "Excel for Dummies" style books.

I understand that libraries will get books on demand but there really is no substitute for actually dipping into a book to discover if it is worth reading and of a level that is comprehensible.

If I am to do all this online then what is the library actually for?

Perhaps my view is biased because I come from a town that for at least a century made its money from a work force of engineers, technicians, and mechanics, who could read and write and wanted to advance in their crafts.

I work in a rural library (not a librarian, however). Our computer section is abysmal. The books we do get, however, are expensive and don't check out often. This is not a good combination. What my system decided to do, though, was to get a subscription to the O'Reilly Safari Tech book database. That way the system can serve real needs. This is not as discoverable as I'd like, though.

Exactly, discoverability is poorer in modern libraries.

I completely agree.

I suspect sparse computer related book collections comes from the unlikelihood that people interested in those topics are getting their reference from libraries rather than the Internet in a lot of cases. Your mileage may vary based on the size and funding of your local library, though many basically buy books on request.

The local county library, which is quite a large system, doesn't have 3 of 16 books from the NY Times December 5, 1999 non-fiction bestseller list: HAVE A NICE DAY! by Mick Foley, THE NEW NEW THING, by Michael Lewis, and THE CENTURY, by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster.

All 15 of the fiction bestsellers from 20 years ago are available.

You should not have much problem requesting any of those via inter library loan.

I worked in an academic library for several years, from the IT side of things. For the last five, I was heavily involved in "weeding" in a few ways.

I think I could go on at length about this manual from a critical aspect, but suffice to say I think it is wildly optimistic, to the point of being pollyannaish.

The faculty: the manual ignores the agonizing battles one will have with the faculty over discarding a book that has not circulated in twenty years (note that this circulation number might be incorrect because the faculty member has instructed some hapless grad student to locate the book and then squirrel it away in a locked faculty carrel or perhaps in the ceiling tiles); the faculty will then wish to have each and every book to be removed to be up for debate by each and every member of the faculty. You can imagine how efficient this might be, with each volume treated as if one were callously pitchforking puppies and kittens into some kind of Moloch-furnace. My favorite offender was a duplicate of an index to some other library's special collections that was out of date by a few decades.

I say without a trace of exaggeration that faculty will also debate the language used in the process by comparing it to the verbiage of the Holocaust.

I may have missed it in my skimming, but I do not see anything about automated tools for comparing the catalog against the union catalog of the libraries in one's own local ILL system. I can find nothing on the long-term strategic outlook. While other libraries are trying to shovel books out the back door and out of sight, others are trying to win Hearts from the other angle by keeping what others would throw away, thereby becoming centers for inter-library loan.

Of course, the best code is the code you did not write; similarly, the easiest book to get rid of is the one you did not buy. Acquisitions should be rather tight and yet many libraries blindly pull great palettes of junk from a pre-determined approval list, typically formulated from best-sellers and the like, which results in your science fiction section being inundated with various Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and WH40k issues, starving out the rest. These circulate early and then not at all. Acquisitions are filled with these trivial mistakes which accumulate in the calculus of time.

I could go on and on about this, but the manual could use a more cynical approach to better effect.

Why not send these books to Google to convert before burning them?

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