Hoarding is not collection development
Taking Your Library Career to the Next Level
PLA Weeding Manual
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Practical Librarian

This is the place that we put more serious discussions of librarianship.

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The Mission-Collection Connection

Practical Librarian - Mission statement

A library’s collection exists to help the library meet its mission. When you are having trouble letting go of non-circulating library materials, or talking the Powers That Be into allowing you to do some weeding, this is a great point to make. I love the fortune cookie message in the image above. Applied to library collections, it is a great reminder that collection management is an execution of public trust. Any publicly-funded institution would do well to remember where their funding comes from. This is particularly important now, when IMLS stands to be eliminated from the 2018 federal budget. (Fight for Libraries!)

There are a few documents that may help put the library collection into perspective:

  • The library has a mission statement. It may include values like lifelong learning, literacy, information needs, or curriculum support, for example.
  • The library also has a collection management policy that states how its collections will fulfill its mission. What will the library collect, for whom, and why? For example, perhaps a public library will collect audio books for children to enhance literacy efforts for auditory learners. Maybe a university library will collect science journals in electronic format to increase access to research materials for students and faculty.
  • Collection objectives detail the purpose of each collection and criteria for selection. They dictate what the librarian is hoping to accomplish with each collection and state criteria for selection. If you will collect audio books for children, which audio books will you choose? You may choose to only those collect classic fiction titles that are included in the curriculum. You may choose to only collect foreign language audio instruction in the languages that are taught in the school. You may choose to collect only unabridged audio books and avoid abridgements altogether. You may choose to avoid non-fiction titles in date-sensitive subject areas due to their short shelf life and high unit cost. Collection objectives help you select the best materials for the collection, and also to weed materials that don’t help the collection accomplish its goals.
  • Then there are collection benchmarks. They set a standard or expectation for a collection. You can then follow data to see if the collection is performing as expected. Of course, expectations are different for different materials. You wouldn’t hold a Latin dictionary to the same age or circulation benchmark as a James Patterson novel, for example. Benchmarks are a great way to weed because it becomes very clear which items are “working” (ie. helping the library meet its mission) and which aren’t.

This is a more holistic way of looking at collection management. So often a library has a mission statement and a collection policy, but they don’t consider how those two items relate. Adding the collection objectives and benchmarks add even more layers of analysis that encourage holistic collection management.


*Image labeled for reuse. Attribute: https://www.flickr.com/photos/glennbatuyong/3291425515

Primary Source Material in the Public Library

You may be tempted to keep older history materials, such as those written during the time the event was happening, because they are “important” or as valuable primary source material. Here’s the thing about primary sources: they are valuable and important; crucial to good research, even. Here’s the other thing about primary sources: they rarely belong in your average neighborhood public library.  Why not? I can hear you shaking your heads! Why on earth would a public library weed primary source material?

If your public library’s mission includes a statement about archiving and preserving, then yes, primary sources are for you! If your public library’s mission involves providing college or professional-level research materials, then yes, primary sources are for you as well! For everyone else, whose public library missions are to support the educational, entertainment, and life-long learning needs of the community through popular materials and programming (for example), primary sources are not for you. You’ll be better off with books that put history in its proper context: the past.

Public libraries can serve the research needs of K-12 and maybe even community college students, as well as interested laypeople, through popular history books written in the last decade or so. Our public library customers are not doing deep historiography research requiring them to put their hands on primary source material. (And if they are, they can easily be referred to a library whose mission is to provide that kind of research material.)

And by the way, “preserving” does not mean keeping dusty volumes on shelves forever. It involves climate control and white gloves. You’re not doing the books, or society, any favors by piling primary sources in back rooms or cramming them into overfull shelves “in case someone needs them.” You’re not preserving anything. You’re actually damaging them, spreading mold, and encouraging dust.

There are plenty of good reasons why public library patrons might be interested in primary source material, but they rarely need it in the form of a book. The beauty of digitization means that diaries, speeches, plays, manuscripts, maps, and artwork are widely available to anyone, anywhere, any time! If Mr. Jones, who loves to read about history, wants to read the Emancipation Proclamation, or Susan B. Anthony’s speech on women’s right to vote, or Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech to Yankees fans, I can put copies of those documents in his hands in seconds! I can even get audio copies sometimes. (http://www.history.com/speeches is great, you guys!)

Here are some great links to digitized primary source material:

What about people in areas of the country without the internet? Yes, they do exist! Those may be the areas where primary sources are more appropriate on public library shelves, depending on their building’s organization, structure, size, staffing, etc. If they can’t manage to keep these materials appropriately stored or don’t have the space, they should consider sending patrons to their state library, a local university, or even special libraries or museums where appropriate. Perhaps locally-relevant primary sources could be kept at City Hall, in the county clerk’s office, at the local historical society, or even at a school, church, or service organization hall.  It is better to refer to an institution that exists to archive and preserve primary sources, or at the very least one that can store or display them appropriately, than to handle them badly. Damaged primary sources help no one. Even closed-stacks-by-appointment-only is a better service than randomly interfiled primary sources on too-full shelves.

We’re all ears for other ideas on this subject! Let us know what you think!


Size Matters: Estimating Shelf Capacity

crowded-shelf1Once upon a time, Holly mentioned that I had a special formula for determining shelving capacity. This brought about a flurry of requests from many people. The reality is that I had little scraps of paper with a few notes and a half-baked spreadsheet estimating the linear feet of available shelving in my library. I have been swamped with my day job, and I have been meaning to write up my process for a while now. I apologize in advance if this doesn’t live up to the hype.

I used to work in a very tiny library. We were literally spilling out of our shelves. In order to make my case for more aggressive weeding, I felt we should talk about the maximum capacity of physical items for our library. It was time to get down and dirty and determine maximum capacity for each shelf and thereby the entire library. I was also interested in making sure we had enough wiggle room to allow the Pages to actually shelve items without jamming.

I have a caveat: my project focused on library and collection capacity and was only an ESTIMATE. Obviously, library items are of different sizes, and I certainly wasn’t going to measure every item. I decided to use an estimate for each item type or each collection. This was most appropriate for my small public library. I already knew we were over capacity by just looking. I was only trying ballpark a number for planning purposes, as well as for future building projects.  This is only a SWAG number (Scientific Wild Ass Guess), as the engineer in my life would say.

Length of your shelves

My stacks were pretty consistently three feet long, except for a section of my easy reader collection, which was an irregularly-sized shelf. Depending on their height, your stacks might have between 3-8 shelves per stack. This also depends on the spacing between shelves.

Number of shelves available

Count the number of shelves in a section. I counted every shelf in every stack, since my library was small enough to do so. If you don’t use the bottom or top shelves because of difficulty reaching, leave them out of the total (unless that shelf space could be used in the future). Again, adjust your count based on your library’s set up. If the stacks have a consistent number of shelves, you can simply multiply stacks by shelves to come up with your number. For example, if every stack has six shelves and every row consists of six stacks, 6 x 6 = 36 shelves. My stacks were irregular in number of shelves, but consistently 3 feet long.  Now you can include length: 36 shelves X 3 feet each = 108 feet of shelving.

Average width

Obviously, a picture book takes up less space on a shelf than a big fat novel or reference book.  Since there is this distinction, I separated my collections into easy readers, picture books, juvenile fiction, adult nonfiction, etc.  Again, my library is small enough that I could come up with an average book size for each collection. For my purposes, I used about a ¼ inch as an average width for a picture book and 1 inch for the average fiction/nonfiction book.  This doesn’t have to be a “perfect” number. The point is to get a pretty good estimate. You can also estimate the number of books you can fit within 1 foot (12 inches). If each book has an average width of 1 inch, then you can use 12 books as an average number of books shelved per foot. I suggest going down to 11 inches to make for more wiggle room.

Break it down

Go section by section through your collection.  If picture books have dedicated space of their own, calculate an average number of picture books per shelf. Then calculate the average for DVDs, audio books, paperbacks, etc. Trying to make one average of all the books in all the sections of the library would be pointless, so calculate specific averages for each shelving range, collection, or item type – whatever works best in your particular setup. (For my project I did not count the oversized books since we didn’t have very many. I also hate oversized books since they mess up my estimate.)

Why bother?

Cramped and packed shelving is my personal definition of hell.  It looks terrible and it prevents browsing. Patrons and staff should be able to keep the collections useable by leaving enough room for shifting or display. In my perfect world, shelves 2/3 full would make it easy to browse and to keep tidy.

Create a spreadsheet with each section getting its own line.  I have included a portion of my spreadsheet so you can see how it works.  It really is basic math of books per foot multiplied by number of feet of shelving.  Of course this means a completely full shelf with no room for shifting and browsing. Because I want the Pages not to kill me for over stuffing shelves, I will reduce my shelf capacity (number of books per foot multiplied by shelf length) by an appropriate percentage.

Extra Credit for Collection Nerds

Holly’s Shelf Balancing articles are an interesting way to examine allocation of collection space. I also like to compare my shelf list to the estimated shelving capacity. My library was about 20% over capacity consistently according to my estimated number, and boy did it look like it.

Please comment and share your experiences, as I am always looking to a figure out a new way to parse collection data.


(Click for larger image.)

Estimating Shelf Capacity

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