De-accessioning is the title of an essay I’ve just been reading by Penelope Lively.  It begins

De-accessioning is the inelegant euphemism used by librarians. Getting rid of books, they mean.

It’s a fascinating essay and I may well come back to some of the other points the writer makes at a later date, but today I want to consider this opening statement because for me it really hit home.  Locally we have two major new libraries being built.  The one in the city centre is well on the way and will open in September next year.  The other, at the city’s main University, is still just a set of blue prints, but already it is clear what the priorities behind the design have been.  In neither case has the place of books been of prime importance and therefore in both cases de-accessioning is very obviously going to figure high on the list of tasks to be completed before opening.

If I mention the new central library to my non-librarian friends they all talk about how wonderful the new building is going to be with its atrium and its places for public performance.  What they don’t refer to is the question of books.  However, when I discuss it with the librarians from the branches serviced from the centre they immediately talk about the number of books that are being de-accessioned; that is, either sold off, given away or simply dumped.  I don’t know how you feel, but much as I appreciate first class public spaces, what I really want from a library is books.  I actually thought that was what libraries were about, but probably this is just me being seriously old-fashioned.

Never mind, I am going to get a superb new University library and indeed one about which the student body were consulted to discover what they wanted from a state-of-the -art building.  Be encouraged.  They wanted more books, or at least more in the way of multiple copies of set texts.  They also wanted more places to study and more points where they could plug in their laptops.  Guess what.  The building is going to be smaller than the present one yet will have to house more of the special collections currently dispersed around the campus.  That to me suggests that there isn’t going to be enough space for the existing stock let alone the capacity to extend it.  This suspicion was further fed last week when I was proudly informed that part of the building was going to be given over to a magnificent new display area to allow other areas of the University to foreground their work.  Why can’t they foreground their work in their own space?  Or is that far too obvious an idea to be considered.

Oh, and in case you were wondering there are fewer study stations planned, despite student numbers rising.  I can’t speak for the laptop plugs.

No one has yet mentioned de-accessioning, at least not in my hearing, but what would you like to bet?

Am I being hopelessly old-fashioned?  I use new technologies.  I have not one but two e-readers.  I really appreciate being able to access articles on-line rather than having to wait in line for a new journal to be available.  But libraries are about books and whatever you choose to call it throwing books away is throwing books away.  Not quite as bad as book burning, perhaps, but nevertheless I feel a protest coming on.


24 thoughts on “De-accessioning

  1. I am an old (in many ways) proponent of libraries and more recently of the reading of books printed on paper. But I made the observation almost thirty years ago that our Public Libraries were the last place to go for that Gissing novel you want to read or a less known work by John Steinbeck. I found a library not too far from my house that still had a couple of Dicken’s novels on the shelf and even a smelly old copy of Tristram Shandy, but I had to pay for the privilege of using this library since it was in the next county.

    At that time I discussed this situation with my wife who was a librarian and she looked at me piteously and offered: “Why should I have a copy of Pamela on the shelf that hasn’t been checked-out in fifteen years when I need the shelf-space for the next Jackie Collins … it may be crap but they line-up to get a copy and the waiting lists are in triple-digits.”

    So I now only use the library for contemporary novels, generally the newest by a favorite author.

    One thing I have never been against is digital books (eBooks) but have expressed my preference for real thing. Now that I am getting older I am finding great value in eBooks. There are four reasons: first, I can make the font large enough that I don’t have trouble reading it; second, I can have at my fingertips hundreds of books that can follow me on trips, to Books & Brew, or out on the lanai where I can watch the alligators and enjoy the breeze; third, I can get a copy of some really obscure old books from numerous sources including Project Gutenberg; and fourth, I can purchase a new book over the internet and have it delivered directly to my iPad in seconds.

    That last value held me up for some time: I figured that digitally distributing books for an unexciting discount was a scam to make more money for the book sellers. It probably is but being more and more house-bound, I find all the above values enhance my daily life and although I may think it a scam, I even save money over buying the books themselves.

    So in conclusion: I find library collections of dwindling value and digital editions gaining rapidly. Consider E. M. Forster, “It is a mistake to think that books have come to stay. The human race did without them for thousands of years and may decide to do without them again.”

    1. I do know what you mean, Mike. I think that perhaps what concerns me is that in both cases I feel that what for me is the primary purpose of a library is being undermined and that they are being designed as places to make a statement about the ‘institution’ behind them rather than as places where people can go to study, to learn and to celebrate the written word in whatever form it may be presented.

      1. We should differentiate between Research Libraries and the local Branch Library where most people go for books. When I lived in New Jersey the system had many local libraries and one research library; in this state the multi-library function allows access to the State Library collection (other areas in other states even partner with the University systems).

        But I think you miss the point: the local library isn’t a place to study and learn anymore (unless you’re still in the Juvenile section) but is more concerned with making their collection track with the preferences of the community: celebrating the written word often involves some ghastly examples of the written word.

        Remember, there was a reason The Da Vinci Code sold 81 million copies and it wasn’t because the woman down the street wanted to do research on Renaissance artists.

        1. No, Mike, that is precisely my point. Neither of these libraries are local libraries. One is the library of a major British University and the other the central library of the country’s second city. Both are places which have been and should still be sites of major academic collections to which people travel for study in specific areas and I have real problems if that element of their purpose is being downplayed.

          1. We are really in agreement. My statement was concerning local Public Libraries … the places where local residents get a Free Public Library card and can read free copies of books they either cannot afford or do not care to purchase for themselves. I happen to live in a development that is adjacent to a branch of the State University and I have library privileges there. When I want to research a Roman poet, even in the best of times I would not go to the Local Public Library but would head on over to the University Library.

            Here we might have an element of what you describe: the Republican leadership and extremely wealthy conservative plutocrats are using their power and money to strip the opposition of a voice, even in the universities of this country. At one large state university the extremely right-wing billionaires generally referred to as the Koch Brothers have received in return for their donation the right to pass judgment on the hiring of professors in the Economics Department.

            There is even a movement to “clean-up” many of our time-honored books to remove anything controversial … including dangerous political thoughts.

            In America, Money is King and if you don’t go along with the oligarchy and be a nice wage-slave, you run the risk of being crushed.

            1. Yes, I think we are. It is definitely a question of money rules, although as far as I’m aware we don’t have anything quite that blatant as yet. I hope I haven’t jinxed things by saying that otherwise we might really go back to book burning.

  2. I have found a soul mate Alex. The public library is very dear to my heart having spent many hours there just exploring the shelves when I was a youngster. But what’s happening to the service now is truly appalling. Libraries are not it seems meant to be about books any longer – in the so called county library in my area, you would be hard pressed to find any of the classics of English literature but you can find multiple copies of ghost written ‘autobiographies’ of football players, Big Brother participants and the like. It that’s what interests people and it encourages them to read, then great but why can’t the interests of multiple types of readers be served? The reason is that they didn’t build in enough shelf space and instead created a DVD library, a CD library, children’s play area, and banks and banks of computers.

    1. Exactly. I know that one of things that worries my local librarians (who draw a lot of their stock from the central source) is that in our area the majority of readers are people who are not particularly computer literate and need ‘real’ books and a good selection at that.

    2. I agree with your enchantment with the library but times have changed and perhaps we should define the mission of the local public library as: to provide access to information and entertainment that is not available to a large portion of the population.

      I applaud collections of alternative formats like DVDs and CDs. I don’t use or recommend digital editions of books, but many others find them valuable. Additionally, movies and music are very important to the people (even Oingo Boingo?). As far as computers in the library: online access is probably as wasteful as it is on any computer at home, but for the most part, these are people, and especially students, that have no other means of accessing the internet. As access becomes more ubiquitous and campus or city-wide access is common, these computers will become less important in the libraries.

      1. I think my point (though maybe I wasn’t clear enough) is that there should be plenty of room for people who want printed information and those who want it in another version. But the new age of info is seeming to push out the old…..

    1. Stefanie, it’s in a collection called ‘The Best of Books and Company’, edited by Susan Hill, published by Long Barn Books in 2010, ISBN 978-1-902421-42-1
      Be warned though, only those first lines reference librarians, the rest is about her having to de-accession her own collection when moving into smaller property.

      1. Thanks for the title. As a librarian it is more interesting to me to read about people’s personal difficulties with deaccessioning than it is to hear about librarians 🙂

  3. Although the digitization of libraries is an anathema for those seeking only printed information, there is a significant flip-side to this argument. With digitization the world’s art and those precious books and documents that you have heard about but never seen, let alone read, become available on the internet. Although I still prefer real books, digitization is actually increasing the availability of the world’s literature.

    Visit the British Library in an iPad app and read a facsimile of the 1863 edition of Silas Marner or an early edition of Bleak House. The available “free” collection is limited but the concept is unlimited.

  4. Before the public libraries here went “self serve” they sold off a LOT of stock so they didn’t have to stick the identifying tags in so many books. The library staff were not happy about it, but the directive came from on high. Fewer books to process equalled fewer staff needed to process them. The council has built two new library buildings in recent years, but the book shelves are so bare now. In one library there is a room where you can watch cable TV, and the main area is taken up by rows of computers. There are a few study tables, a children’s section, and several rooms they hire out for meetings. I have been informed that they are now “learning centres”, not libraries.

    I have stopped going to the library because they seldom have any books I want to read, and when I request them online they don’t honour the reservation system and give them to other people ahead of me. I have complained, but they just shrug their shoulders. I can no longer walk into one of the libraries, I mean learning centres, and browse the shelves and fiind interesting books the way I used to to. They no longer have many classic novels, just a link to a site where you can download public domain files to your computer.

    It worries me that kids are not going to have the pleasure of discovering books the way I did, by browsing the shelves and finding treasures. There were a lot of eReaders on display the last time I went to the “learning centre” and a couple of women explaining the benefits of eBooks and advising people which eReader to buy. *sigh*

    1. Violet, that’s really interesting because living as I do on the boundary between two different authorities I make use of both library services. One uses self-service and the other doesn’t. The one using the self-service system frequently tells me that I have failed to collect a book I have reserved when I’ve never seen hide nor hair of it and last week it told me I hadn’t collected a book I had in my hands. Equally, it doesn’t always register the fact that I’ve taken books out. I could have kept the entire Orange short list forever and no one would have known who had it. The other authority is just about to go over to self-service. Perhaps I should warn them. On the other hand, our University library has a different self-serve system which works very well. Try walking out of there with a book it hasn’t registered and it’s like putting on The One Ring, all the hellhounds of Mordor are on you before you’ve had chance to breath let alone walk off campus.

      And I have to agree about not being able to browse. That is still my favourite thing to do in a library or a bookshop, but bookshops don’t let you take them home without paying!

  5. i share all your thoughts on the need for libraries and for browsing books. Right now I am being forced to “deaccession” my own personal library which is painful. I don’t mind giving the books away, but I wish I could be sure that they found good homes and don’t just get thrown out by someone else who doesn’t appreciate them.

    Have you seen Zadie Smith’s article in the new NYRB about libraries and why we are losing them? It’s at

    1. It’s so difficult, isn’t it? When I left work I had to clear my office shelves in six hours with no place to put them at home. Nearly all had to go straight to the charity shop, it was heart breaking.

      Thanks for the link. I hadn’t seen this but will go and investigate now.

  6. I’m a librarian, too, and deaccessioning has certainly been the trend. I work in a large urban public library system in Canada (24 branches serving about 500 000 people), and our Central library has deaccessioned enough books to reduce the building by an entire floor. I’m not in agreement with deaccessioning (or ‘weeding’, as we call it) by condition or age alone, but it does have a place. We have liberal access to hundreds of thousands of academic journals and encyclopedias through our databases, and more often than not, the information found from these online resources is more timely and pertinent to high school and undergraduate students than what we can offer in print. Our novels focus more heavily on bestsellers than I’d like, but we do maintain a decent collection of classic and literary fiction, too. And I don’t have a crystal ball, but I predict that in future, people will either read from nicely crafted paper editions of books or from e-readers, eliminating the drugstore paperback that is neither lasting nor beautiful. I think de-accessioning can be beneficial if it’s done to create a library offering the best possible resources in the best possibe formats for patron need.

    1. Naomi, for me the nub of our local problem lies in your last phrase. I’m not sure that for ‘current’ patron need the best possible formats are being retained and that is what really concerns me.

      1. And I agree with you wholeheartedly that random, widespread deaccessioning can be a real problem. You end up with a weaker library if you throw out the good stuff. I guess I just think that if it has to happen, then do it judiciously so you’re not really losing anything – like eliminating serious paper journals if you can provide all of them through databases, etc.

  7. I suppose libraries can’t just keep taking new books without having a bit of a clear-out now and then. Having said that, my local library has recently been renovated and my first response was ‘where are all the books?’ It’s now a light and airy ‘flexible’ space, hosting music sessions and various clubs. The books are on wheeled shelves that can be pushed to one side to accommodate these events. The books seem like more of an optional extra than the library’s heart and soul. Sad days.

    1. Karen, I was told over lunch today that one of the new libraries I’ve mentioned will only have shelf space for one in five of the current stock. Enough said, I’m afraid.

  8. The real problem about getting rid of books and libraries is that the motivation is not to make room for new books or ebooks but “austerity.” At least in the USA. We think we need to spend money on wars and subsidies to billionaires rather than providing libraries so that a wider public to read can read. Ebooks take up less space and they are cheaper.

    I love my NOOK because I can read books that would not be available otherwise. Gutenberg version for older books and some publishers such as Spinifex Press in Australia are producing ebooks which eliminate high shipping fees for international readers. But reading an ebook just isn’t the same as the reading and mulling and rereading that I cherish doing with real books. Even if people continue to read, it will be harder to do so thoughtfully if all they have are ebooks.

Your thoughts are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s