Weeding, or the culling of unwanted materials, is an integral part of any healthy library collection. Librarians constantly add new items to their collections, and need to make room for them somehow. Physical space is restricted, so old materials must go out to make room for new ones. Besides, design goes in and out of fashion; facts get out of date; new ideas or works are generated. Old and worn editions are culled, books that are no longer being borrowed have to go to make room for the new. Collections are never stagnant, but flow with the times.
Weeding is also one of librarianship’s nasty problems. It is often carried out by librarians in a sort of clandestine way. Cartons of discarded books are disguised in the trash so as not to arouse suspicion. Books are sneaked out to the dumpster at night just before the garbage truck is to arrive. Where I currently work, a large percentage of the materials that schools discard are processes through our central services, out of sight from the public eye. Many people have difficult with what they see as the waste of these items. Librarians recognise the importance of maintaining a vibrant collection, and dismiss the public concerns as uninformed, or worse: misguided or even risible. I think we do ourselves a discredit in not heeding closer attention to the objections.
Tidy and attractive shelves are much more inviting and easier for students to browse than cluttered stacks. As an individual librarian at a single school it’s easy enough to justify a few boxes of books being discarded every month or two, but on the institutional scale, the volume becomes alarming. Every week my school board deletes a thousand or more items from our collections. Every week we fill a couple of 100 gallon recycling bins with old books for disposal, and that number doesn’t include a great many that are recycled at the local school rather than being sent in to our warehouse space.
We do our best to minimise the damage. We recycle the materials, of course, but how effectively can our products be recycled? Sure they’re mostly biodegradable paper, but often with many layers of plastic tape from repeated repairs, laminated or mylar coated covers, all manner of adhesives and labels, and the ink, naturally. It must take an awful lot of chemicals to break down library materials. After all, we intentionally fortified them to make them more durable.
So what’s to be done to avoid this unsustainable waste?
An enhanced reliance on electronic resources may solve some of the problem. Ebooks and online resources certainly don’t have any physical presence that needs to be managed like print resources. Yet, they bring with them the trouble of hardware. How do we ensure that all students are provided with the equipment to read electronic resources, and what do we do with the waste created by all this electronic gadgetry? Perhaps the fact that the equipment can simultaneously serve a host of other functions mitigates the latter concern to a degree; especially if we focus on multi-use technology over limited-use equipment, e.g. tablets over ereaders. Still, we have a long way to go before we’ll have the infrastructure to implement digital collections in school libraries. We also have to wait for our teaching staff in general to become more accustomed to digital media. Currently the majority of teachers are comfortable living in the print realm that they grew up in, but the times are changing and with them societal attitudes.
While we wait for the tide to turn fully toward digital format, we seem to be stuck with books. at least if we want to continue providing for our students in the way we’ve become accustomed. Maybe, though, we should take a deep, soul-searching examination of the role of libraries in public schools instead. Can we afford to keep purchasing so many resources that have such a transient life? Books are an essential part of the educational environment. I know there are sound pedagogical reasons for having engaging materials at hand for our students, and for providing a wide assortment to appeal to as broad a sector of our population as possible. But if we start and end at this premiss then we are stuck with a model that is clearly unsustainable. Funding cuts to public education are a reality. Canadians are seemingly loath to pay sufficient taxes to maintain the public education infrastructure we established through the last century.
We should remember that the school library collections that we have come to cherish as a very recent phenomenon. For millennia, humans educated their young with no books at all. Through the Middle Ages, even the best academic library collections consisted of only a few hundred titles, carefully copied by hand and chained to desks so that they didn’t go missing. In Canada, the broad public educational system that we enjoy today dates back only to the second half of the 19th century. Through the first half of the 20th century, school libraries continued to be mostly feeble collections, with strict government controls over the types of materials that were added. The flourishing school libraries, with hundreds of popular titles added annually is a very new phenomenon, really only began to develop in the 1960s.
Fifty years later, is this the best model for our educational system? It seems to be great at building a love of print culture at the very least, but I’m not convinced that we’re necessarily building better scholars with these libraries. Most students today have enormous difficulty reading books written for their age group even 15 or 20 years ago. The language and sentence structure of the last generation is too complicated for the youth of today. When I run statistics on top borrowed items in our high schools, the vast majority of the top 100 titles are all graphic format, comic books essentially. Sure these can be great materials to read, don’t get me wrong. They are a great way to encourage literacy, but that is hardly the be all and end all of education. Most of these materials are popular because they are written in a way that is not too intellectually challenging, and if schools are not the place for intellectual rigour, then what is? By relying too heavily on materials like these in our school libraries, we leave ourselves open to accusations of providing little more than edutainment.
I don’t mean to be too dismissive either: edutainment does have its place, but school libraries, like the public education system itself cannot be all things to all people. We have to draw a distinction between what we are able to provide for our students, and what we cannot. As funds dwindle, we will be forced to make sacrifices. Perhaps schools libraries should begin once more to limit their scope to supporting the research process, and abdicate the responsibility of providing pleasure reading to bookstores, the public library system, and a few shelves at the back of every classroom. At least then the books we purchase could be closely aligned with the curriculum. We could focus our efforts on teaching students critical thinking, research skills, and how to find and assess the best resources for their needs. In this way we could more easily avoid the poorly constructed pop material, sold in semi-disposable format, cheap newsprint pages weakly bound between a soft cover. These items, often pawned off on schools through fund-raising book fairs but also available at most bookstores, are usually the first into the recycle bin since they’re intentionally made not to last.
The publishing industry is a big part of our consumerist society, and churns out titles with immediate but temporally limited appeal. School library collections have increasingly become full of items with a limited lifespan through marketing. What are we to do with all the biographies of yesterday’s teen icons, unheard of by the children of today? These popular titles might go over well with students in the short term; it’s easy to convince children to pick them up, but what happens after that? I’m not sure that we even know. Do the students read better because of them, adopt lifelong learning skills, or do they merely stare at the pictures? It’s easy to get children to eat junk food, and much more difficult to have them acquire a taste for healthy alternatives. That doesn’t mean we feel it’s okay to simply set kids down in a candy store to eat and assume that they’ll develop a taste for brussle sprouts in doing so. Perhaps we, as educators should take on the challenge of teaching our students the complexities and nuance of language and meaning.
School libraries are already trying new and alternative approaches to library services and collections. With less reliance on print materials, we can offer our students more for less: more content with less waste. It’s going to be a struggle to get there though; there are still many challenges to overcome, but relying on mass appeal won’t help move us forward.
1. Gaffield, Chad. “History of Education” in The Canadian Encyclopedia.
2. Dickson, Terra (2001). “The Advent of Public School Libraries” from The Homeroom: British Columbia’s History of Education Website.
3. Barack, Lauren (8 Jan. 2013). “School Library Thrives After Ditching Print Collection,” in The Digital Shift.
Illustration: “Books on shelves at UWI Library, Trinidad and Tobago” In the public domain