“But It’s Historical!”

It seems like every few months we get a flurry of angry comments, emails, etc. on how a certain title would be important for “historical preservation” or in a study of history.  History buffs, collectors, and other lovers of the odd item seem to bristle at the concept of weeding.  (If my tolerance is low, I will roll my eyes and whine to Holly about the more humorless elements in society.) No matter how many times we say that community standards and a library’s mission trump any comment made by a couple of cranky public librarians in Michigan, the comments still come.

As librarians, I wonder if we aren’t communicating to the user effectively on our collection missions.  My small library is not New York Public or the Smithsonian. It isn’t even the same as the library ten miles away in a different town.  Our library collection mission is to support popular materials.  We also have a strong local history/genealogy collection which does include some preservation goals. I would imagine that many libraries, even very small ones, attempt some preservation of materials in local history collections.  However, that scope probably does not include a career book for women from the 1970s. Does it have significance in a historical context?  Probably, but that isn’t what my taxpayers have hired me to collect or maintain.
I wrote the above quite a few years ago and to this day, we still get people arguing with us about the importance of items for the “historical record”. Of course we support preservation, but at the same time, a public library is about current information needs of your customers. Unless you have unlimited room and unlimited funding, choices have to be made. Of course the random patron might come in to ask for something wildly out of the realm of collection objectives of my library and it is still my responsibility to see that person get what they need. To the best of knowledge, no public library patron, in my experience, has asked for

 Of course, your mileage may vary.  No two libraries are the same nor are the patrons. However, I still think that probably all libraries can shed some junk and freshen things up now and again.


Updated 11-7-14 HH
Updated 2-14-15 MK


  1. As I’ve said before, the only reason someone would want any of the above books is if they’re a writer. I could see a writer for the tv series Mad Men wanting a tax book or a travel book from the 1960s. I could see someone who writes medical mysteries set in the 1980s wanting a medical book from then.

    But the general public – NO WAY! I wish others would get that through their heads.

    1. Agreed, and if they are a writer / someone who does that kind of research, they would know where to look – and it probably wouldn’t even occur to them that their local library *might* have something that is (should be!) the preserve of academic libraries and/or archives!

  2. I’m a fan of nostalgia, but one must draw the line at some point. “My” library (where I work) simply cannot do that. We just do not have the space.

  3. I am right there with you all. Your motto hording is not a collection development policy is so true.

    I am in favor of shifting the copy right date of 1923 up to 1950. Then having it move forward every year. It would help immensely. Digitizing some of this, will help with the “its historical” crowed.

    1. This will slowly start happening. In 2019 the date should advance by 1 year, assuming Congress doesn’t F up and extend it again.

  4. I was once, years ago pre-Internet, in a used bookstore where the proprietor kept the place warm with a wood-burning furnace in the basement. He also had a chute running straight down, through a series of flaps, to the furnace, and every once in a while a book would be heard clattering its way down there.
    “So what books go down the chute?” I asked the proprietor.
    “You can pretty well guess. Old World Almanacs, old Guinness Books [of World Records], outdated AAA Tourbooks, old legal manuals…. I was throwing a LOT of Harlequin Romances down there before I figured out some people actually *wanted* that cr@p!”
    By now, of course, there are, indeed, LOTS of books that are ONLY valuable for their BTU value, starting with old user’s manuals to Windows 3.1/95, kazillions of copies of bestsellers like “Iacocca” and “Megatrends” and Y2K “survival guides,” “What Color Is Your Parachute,” etc.

    Separate topic: I once had my brother-in-law make an impassioned plea to a local library system to remove two somewhat popular books from the system, making the case that 1) the books explicitly advocated illegal tax-avoidance and “investment” activity without advising the reader of the illegality thereof, and 2) the author himself was now in prison on investment fraud convictions.
    How do you librarians approach such a dilemma?

    1. I would remove the books from the Useful tips-shelf and reshelf it together with Great swindles and Stories of famous crimes. Or whatever you would call these categories… But that is just me I guess 🙂

      1. The problem was that these books were in the business/personal finance section, and the crime/fraud involved was not generally known among the public, only among astute financial managers. This was no Bernie Madoff or Enron. I’m not even sure, but it may have even been cloaked under the guise of “Christian” advice. No one save someone researching the promotion of deceptive business practices would be looking for this book, and meanwhile it sits innocently attracting people that might take its promotion of illegal activity seriously.

        This is on par with keeping books that tell you how to deal with “the coming Y2K disaster” that never was, or a book telling you the world will end at a certain date in 2008. The book space in Fraud and Deception (Dewey 001.9 or 902) is better served with books actually explaining why and how these practices are deceptive, not promoting such practices as good.

    2. Probably wouldn’t apply to this, but we handled situations like the books A Million Little Pieces and The Education Of Little Tree by moving them to fiction and pasting a disclaimer inside the front cover. Though I think some people still stick the former in non-fiction, but keep the disclaimer. In fact, I only recently had to inform a coworker that AMLP is mostly made up.

  5. I am an archivist and see this all the time – the assumption is that I must want to keep everything, and everything ‘historical’, forever. The reality is I want to identify and preserve the important stuff and get rid of the rest. What is important in the archive I work at is different to what is important elsewhere, so collection management policies and criteria for preservation is essential. A public library is not a national archives or national library and is doing its patrons, the national bodies and itself a disfavour by acting like one.

  6. Books of “historical interest” only should be stored in a few research copies at your local National Library to be sent for when requested, and not stored in local libraries where nobody looks for them. Sigh. THis is soooo hard to understand! Libraries pay rent for their buildings, and need to optimize their content for their public.

  7. I know since I started working in my library, I’ve had to weed a lot of “classic” YA novels that were published over 30-40 years ago which I know the students will never touch. Granted there are a few titles I’ve kept for topical reasons (ie: interracial relationships, discrimination, bullying, sexuality, etc.) Because believe it or not, there were authors out there that published books on these topics before they became mainstream 😉
    – Krys

    1. Oh, you mean like the lovely “Sleeping Beauty” trilogy written by Anne Rice before she hit the big time? (For the unawares–think the Fifty Shades trilogy with a far more contrived plot and a lot more, um, “training” described endlessly…..)

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