An orchestrated clearing out of books at the Berkeley Central Library, ordered by the library’s director, Jeff Scott, has sounded alarm-bells for some current and former librarians, as well as community members. Their concerns, which they have shared with the city’s mayor as well as the Board of Library Trustees, center on who is doing the weeding of books — what is technically referred to as “deaccession” — the number of discarded volumes, as well as their fate.
Scott said the weeding — a standard library practice — is overdue, as it had been done irregularly prior to his arrival in late 2014, and that, once it’s completed, the library will actually see a net gain in books as new ones are brought in. He said the total will rise from 452,000 to 470,000. Full capacity for the main branch is half a million books, he said.
The method used to weed books is a process called CREW (Continuous Review Evaluation Weeding), Scott said, which begins by extracting and evaluating books from shelves that have not been checked out from the library for three years or more (10+ years in the case of art and music books).
The public outcry that has erupted over the past few weeks over what some are describing as a “hemorrhaging” of books prompted Scott to issue a statement about the weeding process Monday in which he explained the CREW process. Each book is assessed to see whether it is in dilapidated physical condition, contains outdated or inaccurate information, or does not fit into the scope of the library’s collection, he said. (Read Scott’s full explanation of the process.)
The deaccession plan was originally brought to City Council in January and approved by the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) in May.
However detractors claim treasured books are being tossed out, “decimating” a collection that should be filled with a great diversity of tomes, not just those that are most popular.
“A great deluge of books is being weeded out,” said Pat Mullan, who worked for BPL for 25 years, including as head librarian of the Art & Music Room. Mullan said it was her understanding that the books that were being discarded were being deleted from the library’s catalog, and that the majority of them were being shredded. Her biggest concern, however — one that is shared with many of the library’s current staffers — is that librarian specialists are no longer those assessing books for weeding. In the past, as many as 25 librarians weighed in on which books should be deaccessioned. Now the task has been centralized and is handled by two library managers with the help of four staffers.
“Maintaining and weeding a collection is an essential part of the librarian’s job,” Mullan said Tuesday. “A librarian has years of experience building a collection.” Taking weeding away from the specialists, she said, “robs individual librarians from their professional role, and robs the community from the access they deserve.”
One library fan said she was horrified to hear about what sounded like a “misguided book purge.” “I didn’t give to the Berkeley Public Library Foundation capital campaign with this in mind,” she wrote in an email thread about the issue.
Scott said he decided to centralize the weeding process after consulting with staff to formulate a new strategic plan for the library after his arrival in the director’s job in Nov. 2014.
“Many of them told me that they didn’t have enough time to perform all their different roles,” he said, citing as examples programming, reaching out to schools, open hours, and reference desk duties. To ease librarians’ workloads, the selection work previously handled by 25 librarians was handed to two senior librarians, Rachel MacNeilly and Rosie Merlin, working with four staffers, he said.
Scott said they have been making their decisions based on feedback from librarians, as well as other factors such as publishing trends. He said all the books are assessed by a professional. Scott said those that are selected to be purged are offered to the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library first, then, if they are not wanted there, to Better World Books, a nonprofit that distributes books to the developing world. The final option is a book recycler, he said.
So far, the library has reviewed and weeded books from the natural sciences, the applied sciences, the social sciences, and the arts, music and entertainment sections, according to Scott.
Putting the library collection under such scrutiny inevitably brings to light other issues. Scott said an estimated 25% of the books pulled for assessment will likely turn out to be missing. Many of those will have been checked out and never returned.
“This is a result of not consistently weeding at Central Library,” he said. “The big problem with that is that it might appear we are weeding good books, when in reality those books are no longer there (either from theft or not being returned). The new system I have set up at the library will ensure that books that go missing will be replaced more quickly. Furthermore, we are going to keep more careful lists of items that we are deaccessioning. Berkeley Public Library has never retained a list.”
Scott estimates the library will only keep around 5-10% of the books that have not been checked out in the past three years.
A delegation that included Mullan and other retired librarians met with Scott last week. They also raised their concerns at the July 1 BOLT meeting, which attracted many current and former librarians.
Current librarians made their opposition to the new process clear several weeks ago, when eleven of them signed a May 28 letter addressed to BOLT, requesting that the new development collection policy be postponed. “We believe the decision to change the way collection development has been done here for decades is one of the most consequential decisions any library board member has ever been asked to approve,” they wrote. (Read the letter in full on page 11 of the July 1 BOLT agenda package.)
The Berkeley outcry comes in the wake of a well-publicized flare-up over the deaccession of books by Alameda County Libraries that erupted last fall. Critics accused the library, whose branches include Albany, of discarding tens of thousands of good books. Library leaders said about 172,000 books were removed to make way for $3 million worth of new books, roughly the same number of volumes. They said they were guided by the “Living Library” philosophy whose goal is to maintain “a careful balance of new and classic titles, coupled with thoughtful refreshment of outdated materials.”
Critics of the Berkeley weeding process plan to rally on the steps of the Central Library at 2090 Kittredge St. on Tuesday, July 14, at noon. They are also encouraging people to check out the maximum of 50 items allowed from the library in a mass protest action.
Scott has agreed to make a presentation clarifying the deaccession process at the next meeting of the Board of Library Trustees on Sept. 9.
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