Personal libraries: weeding

One big question about personal libraries is deciding what to keep.

The library term for this is ‘weeding’. And yes, that’s an intentional gardening metaphor there. Read on to learn more about why you might want to, and some practical questions for helping you figure out what to keep.

A hidden bookcase opens out, revealing a room behind. The bookshelves are full of leather-bound books.

A lot of people find the concept of weeding a collection horrifying – they can’t imagine getting rid of books.

The reality is, though, that our lives change.

Sometimes that’s in very pragmatic physical-world ways: we move across the country and have to think hard about what we take with us and what we don’t. Sometimes it’s about moving to a new apartment and the space for bookshelves is less than ideal. Sometimes it’s about deepening a relationship and deciding about whether and how you’re combining libraries.

It might be about moving to a different stage of our life – from a larger house to an apartment or assisted living space. It might be about when and how we read changing so that the old format doesn’t work as well for us. It might be about our bodies changing – maybe we can’t really hold a large hardcover comfortably now, or we need to be able to adjust the size of print or colour to read more comfortably.

It might be that when and how we read books, indulge in books, enjoy books, has changed.

And, just like weeding a garden, weeding our shelves can allow more of the things we want space to grow and flourish. Weeds are not inherently wrong (many of them are beautiful and fascinating) but they aren’t helping us have a garden that does specific things.

Why do libraries weed?

People have done studies that make it clear that packed shelves with old-looking books mean that even the newer titles don’t circulate as well. Books circulate much better when there’s space for people to easily take things out and explore them, and when books that look obviously dated

But there are other reasons to weed.

The world changes.

My first library job was an independent high school, and a history teacher there had strenuously resisted any weeding in the history section. She retired when I’d been there for a couple of years as the assistant, and we immediately looked closely at the books there.

There were lots of great books that had been of great service but were now not going to be useful for our current students. Or that are just dated.

The most extreme of these was a book about the history of the Jewish people.

Written in 1936. Before the Anschluss. Before the Second World War. Before the Holocaust. Before Israel. Before so much more history for that particular community. That is a book someone should have, to show what we thought then. This is why research libraries and storage collections exist.

But we can probably all agree it is not an optimal book for a comparatively small secondary school library collection (we had about 15,000 books total) to have. We were only going to have a couple of books on Jewish history – our kids deserved to have books that included the last 60 years of what’s happened in the world.

In other areas of the library, our weeding turned up books with very dated language and assumptions (especially about race and gender). I’m not talking about fiction, here, I’m talking about things on the shelves in the Dewey 300s, about sociology and society and culture.

In our personal libraries, we may choose to keep some of these books, because we want them for different reasons than a high school student doing research papers or preparing for class or extracurricular projects (we had a strong Model UN and debate program at that school, and kids who would cheerfully do additional background reading.)

But we should still be thinking about why we’re keeping something.

I know a bunch of authors for whom ‘how did people talk about this thing in the 1930s’ is in fact a totally legitimate research need. But if that’s not your research need, maybe you need different books. (Or other sources).

Questions to ask

When I’m reviewing my personal collection, here’s what I ask myself.

What’s the physical condition?

Is this book still usable as a book?

I’m actually really hard on my physical books as objects. (Not ones I’ve borrowed, but ones I own.) I read in the bath. I dogear pages. I eat while I’m reading.

My books usually last pretty well, but if we’re talking about 1980s and 90s paperbacks – well, the glue and the paper have started going brittle, and older titles, that’s even more so.

Sometimes a book has done valiant service, and it is time for it to stop being a physical readable book. Or at least for us to expect it might be.

Does it duplicate other things in my library?

Duplication on purpose is one thing. I have a whole bunch of intro books about Wicca, religious witchcraft, and Paganism. Not all of that kind of book out there, but a good cross-section.

That’s because I want to know what’s out there in commonly recommended books, so I can help with questions about things better, or suggest specific titles (since one book will handle a particular thing better than another one.)

Having five books that say the same general things, and make it hard for me to figure out which one to use, however, is not so helpful. Maybe I went through a thing about a particular topic several years ago, read a bunch of books, and I have a couple I come back to, but the others I don’t touch.

And if I’m looking at my books because I need to reduce space or complexity, thinking about duplication is a good place to start.

This question of how things relate to each other is complicated. I’ll be talking about it more in a future part of this series.

Do I have a strong sentimental attachment to it?

Sometimes I do! I have a box of books I have moved across the country twice because I can’t bear to get rid of them. A box is pretty manageable. But if it were multiple boxes, that might be a bit trickier to manage.

Knowing that I’m resisting getting rid of something because of the sentimental attachment also helps me figure out what to do about it. Do I have memories of reading this book with my father? Borrowing it from someone particular? Sharing it with friends? Maybe there’s another way to deal with the memory but not keep the physical book. Sometimes there is.

Maybe I keep a few representative books for that person/memory/situation, but not every book in the relevant series. Maybe I replace the books in an easier format to manage. Maybe I look for a piece of art or jewellery or another non-book object that reminds me of the memories.

Do I have an emotional aversion to it for some reason?

There are a couple of movies I loved, and don’t really ever want to watch again because they are tied to memories of my ex-husband. Nothing bad about the movie, just – it’s tangled and iffy.

I was lucky not to have that happen with books, but I know people that’s happened with. Sometimes we may just need to let something go, so we’re not looking at it all the time, or coming across it when we’re not prepared.

(If you’re not ready for this one, try packing things like this in a box, label the box with a reminder, and stick it in a closet for a year. If you actively want something from the box, go get it. If you haven’t touched something in a year or two, consider whether you really want to keep it. This works well with other books you’re not sure about getting rid of, too.)

Can I replace it if I change my mind?

When I moved from Minnesota to Maine, I knew I needed to cut down my physical books a lot (both because of the cost and logistics of moving them – they were going by media mail, and because of limited space on the other end.)

I used to spend an awful lot of mental energy making sure I always had a book (and a backup book, if I was within 100 pages of the end of the current one and might have to wait for more than 20-30 minutes. Downside of reading fast.) Which cascaded into “How much space do I need for books in this bag” and suitcases for trips that were half books.

I made the decision to swap more actively to ebooks. Which, it turns out, I love, because I can now carry my entire ebook library around on my phone, and I never run out of book. (I might run out of battery, and I usually do have a print book in the car or while travelling, for times I can’t read on the phone. But I don’t need half a suitcase a trip anymore.)

In practice, I ended up keeping books like this:

  • The physical object had sentimental value (a smallish number: maybe 25)
  • Pagan books I might want to lend/use with people in person (ebooks are tricky to lend.)
  • Books I couldn’t replace in ebook (and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to.)
  • Books where the physical version is more practical for me (like cookbooks and books about specific crafts)

Which means most of my print collection these days is Pagan books, books unavailable in ebook form (older non-fiction, mostly) and some books I’m nostalgic about and haven’t wanted to replace in ebook versions.

Even without the ebook aspect, used books are often pretty widely available. Some aren’t, of course – speciality titles or small press runs, for example. But if your book came from a large well-known publisher in the last 30 years, there’s a pretty good chance you could replace it fairly easily if you changed your mind later.

If you’re not sure, make your pile of possible discards and then check in used book searches and see what comes up, or libraries where you live or are moving to (depending on your situation)

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