Sunday, May 28, 2006

Weeding memento mori

So, you might be wondering where I've been. If it's between 8 AM and oh, say, 5 or 5:30 PM on a weekday, chances are that I'm weeding. Books, that is. Turns out that due to work issues too complicated to go into here, I may have to pack up and/or move the library for next year. All 12,000 or so volumes. So, I'm weeding the stuff that hasn't been checking out.I've cut out some of the end-of-year stuff I usually do, so that I can weed and weed and weed. I'm even going in to weed today for a few hours.

In library school they teach you that weeding is important, maybe as important as acquisitions (i.e. buying new stuff). First, if you don't weed regularly, obviously you'll run out of room pretty quick unless you have an Expand-O-Library. Second, people check out more new stuff if they don't have to slog through all the old stuff to get to it. It's true! They've done studies!

But you know how it is with the stuff you don't have to do immediately-- often, it just doesn't get done. I did weed a few sections a few years ago. But in the last couple weeks I have weeded more than half the library. That means I have picked up each book in my very own dusty hand and, with practiced (well, I'm practiced by now) professional speed, evaluated it based on the following criteria:
  • Checkouts (has it checked out even once since I put in the date-due stickers back in 1999? No? Well, maybe it could go),
  • Physical condition (is it falling apart? Does it have an ugly buckram cover that a 21st-century kid will never pick up of his or her own free will? Is the cover illustration dorky and dated?)
  • Currency of information (The classic example is the "one day man will go to the moon" book, but there are lots of others. Computers! Atlases! Dinosaurs! I'd hate to think some kid grew up believing the wrong stuff about dinosaurs, all because of my sloth.)
  • Presence of other books like it in the collection (How many biographies of Helen Keller does one library really need, anyway? A lot, to judge by the checkouts, but maybe not that one falling-apart paperback I remember from my own childhood...),
  • Literary or curricular value (Newbery winner? By a famous author? Only book we have on that particular topic? Probably it stays, even if all it will do is sit there forever and friggin ever)
...and kept it or pitched it. I must've weeded over a thousand books by now.

Weeding brings on all kinds of fleeting thoughts about the impermanence of, well everything. Weeding the fiction section was especially hard; fiction doesn't date in obvious ways the way nonfiction does, and I'm painfully aware that each book might represent years of the author's life. Plus, lots of them look like they'd be fine to read. And each one is unique; it's not like nonfiction, where I have no trouble making the call that, say, one or two books on each planet is plenty.

I'd look over the book, note the undistinguished cover, the one lone checkout stamp from six or seven years ago, and then I'd read the inside jacket and think, "hey, this looks pretty good! It's about a kid with divorced parents-- I'm sure that'd speak to some kid now. And aw, look, the author's a school librarian too. She must've been so happy when it got published! I could read this, right now! Maybe if I read it over the summer, I could come back in the fall and convince some kid to read it, and its shelf-sitting days would be over. I'd have rescued a book from oblivion!"

Then I think of all the new books on my own personal summer reading list, and the unlikelihood of me getting to it, and the even further unlikelihood of a kid actually reading it, and I remember my weeding mantra: not "will anyone possibly read this book?" but "is this book likely to be actively missed if it's gone?" And into the box it goes.

It's surprisingly emotional work. The other day I weeded some books by Paula Danziger, a wonderful children's author who died two years ago. I kept her "Amber Brown" and "Longer Letter Later" books, but I pulled some falling-apart 70's-era paperbacks, even though I remember loving them: "The Pistachio Prescription," and "Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?" People can find her books in other places if they need them, I thought defensively. There are the big public libraries, and university children's book collections. Not to mention abebooks.com. But still, when the books hit the box I felt like I was shoveling dirt into her grave.

This book had its time, I remind myself, over and over. The author probably loved writing it, and lots of people read it, and now its time is over. We have newer books, more likely to be actually read. And this isn't a historical archive; it's a small, working, school library.

Just like it says on the Six Feet Under DVD cover: everything, everyone, everywhere ends. Even buildings named named for people get torn down, and replaced with new buildings. Even cities end. Even civilizations.

So, that's the kind of stuff I've been thinking about during work every day, as I listen to archived "Fresh Air" interviews on my laptop and pull one book after another off the shelf.

Now that I've written it all out, it does sound like kind of a downer. But it's not. For one thing, it's great to have a job for once where I can actually see the results. At the end of the day, I look over the emptier, brighter shelves, and at all the boxes on the floor waiting to be deleted from the catalog and taken away by the guy who will sort them and donate them to tutoring programs, and I feel light and airy and cheery. I wash my dusty hands, and head out to the parking lot.

One day I'll be gone too. But I'm here now, today.

And summer starts in a mere four weeks.

17 Comments:

Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

Ack! Ack! Ack! The Pistachio Prescription was my very favorite! Ack!

God, I feel so dated all of a sudden....

11:12 AM  
Blogger ALG said...

Ack, redux! "The Pistachio Prescription," and "Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?" were both favorites of mine, and I even wrote a letter to Paula Danziger after I read her book about summer camp (can't remember what it was called), and SHE WROTE BACK! Beverly Cleary also wrote back, by the way, with a handwritten letter which I subsequently lost. (One of the more traumatic moments in my pre-teen years.) Two fabulous authors.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

If you're donating them somewhere, they've got a bit of life in them yet. But yeah, it can be depressing for sure. I used to be a buyer at a used bookstore, and it's UNBELIEVABLE how many books have been written that no one ever reads any more. Justifiably forgotten, most of them, but still -- they were somebody's BABIES, you know? Somebody worked hard to write them, and thought "Finally - immortality! I'm IN PRINT!" when they were published.

2:18 PM  
Blogger That Girl said...

I loved those books too! I could never do your job - the library was my church when I was a child - severe asthma (before it was so popular) kept me home (I did 53 days of 5th grade) but I could make bi-weekly visits to the library for as many books as I could carry,
Sometimes they were stacks so high I had to look around them to walk out.
Most likely one of my childhood favorites would have gotten weeded out - my personal tragedy is I cant even remember the name of it now - but it had all the characteristics you described, dorky cover, dated story, I was the lone checker-outer every year.
Then again, most books I can buy now and I adore the shiny new covers.
But in my heart I wish for the Expando-Library.

4:21 PM  
Blogger GuusjeM said...

We're weeding at my end too. I hate weeding fiction too, but it has to be done.

And having moved my library twice in the past 10 years you have my deepest sympathy. Packing the place up is the PITS.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous peripateticpolarbear said...

I'm weeding clothes today. It hurts. "But so and so gave it to me!" "But it was such a great deal!" "But I might fit it someday!" Painful, painful...T shirts from great events....ouch.

BUT nothing, absolutely nothing is worse than weeding books. I'll run bare nekkid before I'll purge my shelves. This would be one reason why i'm not a librarian.

6:41 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

ppb--I feel your pain! A few years ago I made a "T-shirt archive" for the shirts I knew I'd never wear again but couldn't bear to throw out. Now they're all in a clear plastic storage tub. One day maybe I'll make a quilt out of them. When I retire. Or something.

guusje-- you moved twice in 10 years?! Ack!

that girl--If I knew what your book was, and I had it, I'd send it to you! I have to admit that I saved a few of my old favorites, on the rationale that as the librarian on site I *might* be able to convince someone to read them. They'll probably go in the next round, a few years from now, though.

rachel--Yeah. Working in any area the Book Biz brings on a certain unsentimentality about books after a while. But I figure it's actually good for an author (or in my case a would-be author): it really brings it home that there's no such thing as immortality, and the only reason to write a book (unless you're established and someone is paying you) is because you love it and just really want to.

alg--that's so cool! Paula D. sounds like she was a terrific person as well as a terrific writer. She's much missed in the kid-lit world.

phantom--join the club! Pulling those books and seeing how 70's the covers looked made me feel like I was ready for the discard pile myself. Weeding my own childhood favorites is almost (but not quite) as bad as weeding the books that *I myself bought* for the library, that have just sat there for years and never checked out.

7:29 PM  
Blogger liz said...

Triple ack over the Danziger books. I loved her books. Phoebe (The Divorce Express) lived my life before her dad up and moved to Woodstock, The Pistachio Prescription was simply unbeatable and, though they weren't the best of her books, I always enjoyed Remember Me to Harold Square, and This Place Has No Atmosphere.

I met her a few times during my adolescence - she was friends with friends of my mom's.

I'd probably take some of your "chaff" off your hands, if it's not already promised elsewhere.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Coulter said...

Hey, I loved "Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?" too. And "The Cat Ate My Gym Suit."

A college friend of mine used to go through the stacks and take off the little stickers the library put on books destined for retirement to the archives, in a futile attempt to keep them in "active" circulation. The advent of fully electronic circulation makes me a bit sad, too, because you can't see when something was last checked out.

Have you seen this?

8:42 PM  
Blogger heather said...

wow i think this would almost be harder than weeding through personal books. you know what those mean to you, but what could these books mean to kids in varying situations? tough. good thing you have your checklist! thanks for sharing, too, good story.

10:59 AM  
Anonymous jessica said...

I remember Paula D wrote this great book called "Remember me to Harold Square" about three kids exploring New York City. The father gave them a huge list of places to go, foods to eat, museums to explore, etc. I remember promising myself I'd do everything on the lists. I think I even marked it up with places I had already been to in NYC. (my problem was that my mother was a native of Queens and she never wanted to do anything touristy when we went back there. She never wanted to be mistaken for a tourist)

5:51 PM  
Blogger wen said...

I remember those Paula D books (I'm a child of the 70s) and I also understand how hard it is to weed books, be they a library or personal collection.

I loved your mantra of "will it be missed?" I'm going to adopt that for my own decluttering!

9:55 AM  
Blogger wen said...

Oh and one more thing...back in Ohio in the "good old days" the Lesbian Avengers (yes, there was such a group, started by Sarah Schulman, the writer and activist) would periodically go into libraries and check out the gay and lesbian books, keep them a day (or even a few hours or a few minutes) and then drop them back off, so that they were seen as actively circulating. It was our attempt to keep these books on the shelves in small town libraries, where they might otherwise get tossed out. (We figured that perhaps gay kids--or adults--would sneak off to the stacks to read them even if they couldn't safely check them out and take them home.)

With that in mind, I urge you to keep those books that kids might really need (on divorce, abuse, sexuality, alcoholism etc) but be too scared to check out.

10:00 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Oh, Wen, I do! Don't worry. I can always tell the books on hot but sensitive issues are being read, because they're *always* reshelved in the wrong place. (and I remember Lesbian Avengers! I thought they/you were so cool.)

The "kid of divorce" book I used as an example is one of many "issue" books that have newer counterparts--they're about the same issues, but more likely to be read by kids in 2006. So the older ones can go. It seems like a clinical way to look at fiction, but us librarians have to be hardasses.

10:27 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:09 PM  
Blogger GuusjeM said...

I'm done for the school year -and we weeded 70 boxes of books - I got to count them today so I could have surplus come and get them and haul them to auction.

Whoo-Hoo!

7:36 PM  
Blogger bihari said...

I love this post. Starting with the verb "weed," and going right through to the last sentence. I'm going to print it out and keep it in my special Posts To Remember folder.

Which, someday, I guess I'll need to weed. But not today. Today I'm...doing acquisitions? Is that it?

2:36 PM  

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