Weeding is Fundamental

My first ever library job was in my hometown. It was a vast improvement on my other summer job shoveling dog poop out of outdoor kennels in 100 degree heat. Though the temperature was significantly improved by my switch to the library, the poop related anecdotes I could tell did not fall to the appropriate level. To clarify, the number of poop stories I should have working in libraries should be zero. It is not zero. The number is closer to four, which is too many library poop stories.

So one day, I’m at this job at my hometown library and there’s a beautifully illustrated retelling of Cinderella sitting on one of the staff desks. There are three things I’m always in the mood for. Cinderella retellings, Spider-Man, and facts about death and death cultures. (Not always in that order.) With that in mind, it was only natural, dear reader, that I reached for this book. Before I could pick it up, one of my coworkers saved the cleanliness of my hand by screaming “WAIT NO IT HAS POOP ON IT!” It did, in fact, have poop on it. From what I was told, a young potty training aged kiddo brought the book to the bathroom with them and mistakes were made. Library books see a variety of ungodly fates. As library staff, we understand that sometimes accidents happen. Like the classic book says, everyone poops! We will not be mad that a book is damaged. We will, however, be plenty bothered if you bring that book back to the library after your child has pooped in it. Congratulations, it’s your book now. We do not want it. The patron had returned the poop-book to us in the hopes that we could “clean it up” and was fairly upset when we let them know the book would have to be thrown away. 

Everyone Poops

As the poop-book incident taught me early in my career, people can be VERY upset when they realize that libraries can’t keep every book, even and especially if that book is disgusting. Earlier this year, a photo of a dumpster behind a school library full of yellowing paperbacks caused certain Twitter denizens to feel “sick to their stomachs.” If I didn’t work in libraries, I may feel much the same way, but I don’t. This sparked a vicious debate over libraries and how we make room for new books. 

For those who don’t know, weeding is a process by which libraries remove damaged, out of date, or poorly circulating items from their collection. Public libraries often sell or donate these books if the condition they’re in is good. The poop-books and other irreparably damaged books may go to the big recycling center in the sky. Many libraries, ours included, have a phenomenal Friends of the Library who can resell weeded items. Not every library has that luxury, particularly in public school settings. Weeding is an essential part of libraries and librarianship. We only have so much physical space and weeding allows us to maintain a collection that is both relevant and in good shape. Having too many books on a shelf can cause damage to the spines and binding of otherwise healthy books.

Sure, librarians have a reverence for books. You have to in order to do the job. But more than physical books, you have to have a reverence for information and stories. Print books are a vehicle for information, but they aren’t the only vehicle on the library’s proverbial car lot. They also take up a lot of space and get extremely gross. Over the years working with books I’ve come across chewed gum, used bandaids, hair of mysterious origin, an apple core, mysterious stains and smells, two mostly finished lollipops in two different copies of Casey at The Bat, and more oddly sticky patches than I’d care to recount. While I love print books, the majesty of them has mostly worn off unless the book is particularly rare or well made. 

There’s an almost fetishistic obsession with print books in an age of mass market printing that I find troubling. While I understand why people have such an emotional attachment to books as physical items, the idea that holding onto damaged or outdated books forever is preferable to a newer fresher collection doesn’t hold much water for me. We can’t just have a Scrooge McDuck-style pit full of mouldering paperbacks from the 80s that we dive into because recycling them would make us sad. Every time I see conversations like this pop up, it makes me want to start eating books out of pure spite. 

This isn’t to say that you aren’t allowed to collect, preserve, and love books in all conditions. If you do, that’s fantastic. If you want a wall to wall, ceiling to floor home library, go for it. To quote The Mountain Goats, “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive.” I just get aggravated by the conversations that often arise around weeding in libraries. Weeding is an essential part of creating a thriving literary ecosystem. I think there are so many more interesting conversations to be had around print books, stories, bookish culture, and preservation that we could have instead. 

Here are some conversations, in no particular order, that I wish we could have instead of talking about weeding. 

  • Ebook Ownership - More often than not, if you “own” an ebook, you don’t. You own a license to access the material. You do not own the book itself. Corporations like Amazon do not allow libraries to access ebooks published through their personal publishing houses.

    How to Resist Amazon and Why

  • Ebooks, Audiobooks, and accessibility - For people with disabilities, mental health conditions, and neurodivergent folks, print books aren’t always accessible. Ebooks are useful to some disabled people who may have trouble holding or turning pages in print books. For people with ADHD, dyslexia, or a variety of other conditions, audiobooks are far more accessible than sitting down to read a print book. This is still reading. As a librarian with ADHD, I felt shame for a very long time that I wasn’t able to make it through books. With audiobooks, I’ve managed to read over 70 titles this year. Yet, I often hear people say that listening to audiobooks isn’t “real reading.” Why are we so caught up on the format of the book even though the information or story it presents is the exact same?
  • Books as medical oddities - Okay, so this one I basically just included because I want to talk about a really rad book I just read. As a geek of the macabre, I find anthropodermic bibliopegy fascinating. Anthropodermic bibliopegy, or the act of binding books in human skin, was often performed by English doctors and anatomists from the 1700s to the 1800s without the consent of the parties they took the skin from. If you’re at all interested in learning more about medical history or want a fascinating deep-dive on the topic, I’d highly recommend Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom. If you’re at all interested in the works of Caitlin Doughty or Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, I think you’ll find this book fascinating like I did.

    Dark Archives

I guess all of this is to say that I love books. If you’re reading this, you love them too. Books aren’t just important because of our ability to own them. Information is important. Stories are important. The meaning we create around those stories is invaluable and often intangible. Weeding is as important to libraries as acquisition in curating a collection. And please, if you’ve pooped on a book, keep it at your house. It’s yours now.

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