The Secret Side of Collection Development

One of our goals in the Mercer County Library System is to have up-to-date materials available for our patrons. I do not think there is a librarian alive who does not thrill at the thought of seeing wonderful new books arrive and go straight into the hands of eager patrons. However, as we continually acquire the newest James Paterson novels, the latest season of Game of Thrones, the most current volumes of medical information, and DVDs and Blu-Rays of the most recent superhero movies, it becomes a question of…Where can we put it all?

I am going to let you in on a little library secret that covers both our need to have current items and a place to put them.

Shhhh! Sometimes we remove books from the collection. It is called weeding.
And here is how and why we do this:

We look at a number of factors. One is how often an item circulates. When a new blockbuster bestseller comes out, a medium-sized branch, such as the Hickory Corner Branch Library where I work, may have eight or ten copies of the book. And for a year or so, they circulate so briskly that often there are only one or two of them checked in. But time goes by. The people who are most interested have read it. There is a new must-read book, just published, and suddenly, we have all those copies taking up half a shelf. Maybe one is checked out every few months. And so all but a couple of them are removed from circulation. And space opens up.

Another thing we consider is the age of the item. Some books are classics, and even if our copy of Madame Bovary or Ship of Fools only goes out once every four or five years, we will not weed them. Indeed, when our copies wear out, we replace them. But other books date, some slowly, some quickly. At Hickory Corner, as soon as we get a new edition of a travel guide, out goes the old one. Who wants to find out about last year’s hot spots in Monte Carlo or see an out-of-date price list for hotels, especially now that you can find that on the internet? Medical books, except those that cover the history of medicine, also become obsolete fairly quickly as new advances are made in diagnoses and treatments.

Other books age too. For example, if the Little League updates its rules, it is time for the old rule book to be retired, even if it was new last year. We have to look at the nature of the material. A history of women in sports that states that, at one point in history, many sports were considered a strain on the female body is certainly acceptable. A book written for girls on how to train for sports that warns them not to try ice hockey, for example, because it is too much for their system, is not considered useful anymore.

Now you may have a couple of questions. What happens to the deleted material? And what if a patron wants an item that is no longer there?

The answer to the first is simple. If you visit one of our Friends’ book sales, you may see some of the old books. Most of them go into the sale, with the exception of books containing out-of-date medical and safety information or books so worn that they are falling apart. Others are donated to various places, including local military bases and prisons. At Hickory Corner, our Friends send deleted items to service members overseas. Individuals or entire units request genres, specific authors or books. The Friends of the Hickory Corner Library have sent well over 15,000 books to military personnel and their families via programs such as Books for Soldiers and Operation Paperback.

As for the second. Well, sometimes, rarely, we have a case of unfortunate timing. We weed all but the most recent biography of a movie star whose career peaked decades ago, only to find that he came out of retirement for a role in a little movie that ended up nominated for an Oscar and won Best Supporting Actor. The good news in that case is there will very soon be a new biography, full of lovely color photos and a chapter all about his comeback for us to order. But let us consider the patron who is interested in the history of the Little League and wants that old rule book. It may still be in the system: Lawrence Headquarters Branch holds onto items longer than the branches to keep them available for everyone. If the Headquarters does not have it, we can borrow it from another library outside the Mercer County system though interlibrary loan. While public libraries strive to have timely collections, others such as university libraries and archival libraries are a repository for older items.

We call it weeding, but I think a better name would be pruning. We take out old growth and dead branches, and let the newer material shine.

-Mary Elizabeth, Hickory Corner Branch


  1. Oh I love the idea of calling it pruning!

  2. Mary Elizabeth, this is a great blog! Very informative and, yes, entertaining.


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