Column Description: As I begin my library career again, I’m seeing both how we’ve changed but also how we’ve stayed the same. Libraries flow between the new and old, the technical and the vintage, and the human and the computer. We’re always in-between and I’ll be looking at how that position allows libraries to remain an integral part of the community.

Weeding and What It Means Now

Librarians are information investigators. They are asked a question, and through a serious back and forth come up with the needed resources to get the answer to the question. We are a curious bunch and when asked a question that stumps us, we can’t stop searching until we find a satisfying answer. 

Over the course of the last year and a half, I’ve endeavored to touch every single book in our print nonfiction collection of about 25,000 volumes with the intention of weeding the outdated. Evolving out of that process came new ideas about the importance of a print nonfiction collection and how it can be melded with digital resources. 

Flashing back to 20 years ago, if someone wanted information, the repository was the library. The print materials were where the knowledge was, and librarians could access any tiny piece of trivia in a matter of moments. It was a simple yes or no situation: either you had it or you didn’t. Now we are no longer the hoarders of information but disseminators. We aren’t the repository, but the tour guide to finding the best source. As computers and networking have evolved, getting a particular piece of accurate information has become more like a web of numerous formats.

Our nonfiction collection was packed into 6 aisles of 20 upright bookcases, each with 4 or 5 shelves. It held a wealth of information ranging from the lives of the saints, the Guinness Book of World Records, how to play cricket, the history of World War II (many volumes), and how to treat diabetes, but it was time to make more room for the new and make some hard choices about what to keep. 

Beginning with religion, I found that our patrons wanted mostly Christian self-help and inspiration. It was such a well-used collection that I only had to withdraw damaged copies. In the midst of this weeding, I found newer books on other religions to augment the core collection.

Next in popularity were cookbooks. This huge collection was wonderfully diverse, but too numerous. We didn’t need 8 books on how to make smoothies; only 2 really good volumes would suffice for our population. 

Transportation, especially car repair manuals, was next on my schedule. This is where a new idea surfaced that changed how I evaluated print. For anyone that was a librarian in the 1990s or early 2000s, you will remember the Chilton’s auto repair manuals. When I was a library page we had many shelves of these heavy books, dirty from use in garages. Librarians were reluctant to get rid of them because of the huge amount of technical information they contained, but this information had to be online somewhere. Could it be accessed on a mechanic’s phone in his garage instead of going to the library to pick up a book? 

Car repair is an especially useful example of the need to meld print and digital. The print wiring diagrams were cataloged as a reference and prohibited from leaving the library. So the person who needed one or two pages from those volumes had to heft it to the copier and wrangle the thick notebook onto the platen to get a reasonable facsimile of the diagram. An online database would allow our patrons to access diagrams from home with a library card so they can take their iPad or smartphone out to the garage to compare the diagram with the actual car. We did find a database that allowed us to weed out many of the print volumes that were no longer circulating. After that, it was easy to provide a QR code next to where the last few printed Chilton’s manuals were to point people to the additional digital resource. So, while a book was a great tool in the past, the database has real-time usefulness without the hassle. 

That got me thinking. What other topics could be kept up to date through a few print books, but more readily through digital means? Many libraries or library systems have access to databases like Gale or ProQuest but often they don’t get fully utilized because it isn’t obvious where they are. 

What were the most difficult topics to keep up to date and what would benefit from better ways to point people to digital material that augments what we have in-house? 

Health comes to mind immediately and while we had great books on various topics, weeding specialists say to get rid of anything that is more than two years old. For our library, replacing that many books a year to keep it updated is not within our financial means. And again, our databases are great but underutilized. 

Nowadays it isn’t necessarily more difficult to find a particular particle of knowledge, but the variety of formats to check besides print has grown. It’s no longer a matter of whether we have a book or not, but getting to the actual information regardless of whether it is a printout, book, or database. Librarians are now expected to find anything with a few keystrokes, pulling the correct book off the shelf or printing out a journal article. 

The evolution is poignant but slow-moving. The subtle shift from our all-knowing print repository to navigating the sea of remote information has taken place over decades. We watched it approach, even feared the incoming digital age as a means of making libraries and librarians obsolete. That didn’t happen because while the majority of information is out there for anyone to access, people need help to get to their elusive answer quickly. Librarians have already practiced their skills in finding information. We are still useful.

Still, the format is key to some. Our patrons love their fiction books in print, in large print, and in audio CDs. With the pandemic shut down, more patrons tried our online options and some didn’t go back to print. Others couldn’t wait to get a print book in their hands. 

But in nonfiction, the format is usually less important than getting to the answer. Can we offer connections between print and digital in a way that blurs the lines between them so that we can focus on the information we need? Can we guide people to various options so that the independent patron can search on their own and those that need assistance can be helped? 

Melding digital and print resources together isn’t a novel concept but here at my library, we want to make it more transparent. We decided to use the same structure as with the transportation section. We posted a QR code to the database or digital materials right next to the books on that topic. When a person is searching for the latest information on breast cancer, we can point not only to print materials but also to a web page of the best online resources. Instead of forcing people to talk to someone to get at that digital information, the QR code next to the print material allows a more seamless transition between print and digital, allowing the focus to change away from format and to the information itself.  

It isn’t high-tech. In fact, it is very low-tech. We decided to first put up better signage so that the general subjects were easy to find without knowing the Dewey number. We rejected the idea of losing the Dewey system for newer subject-based models because no matter how we organize, we still have to separate some topics that should be together.

In the stacks at a certain topic, a smaller sign was placed with a link embedded into a QR code that points to a credible electronic source. So if someone is looking for information on breast cancer, standing in front of our health books, the QR code will point them to Medline Plus or the American Cancer Society. 

Ideally, we would provide access to a tablet that allows them to research without even a smartphone. At the moment we don’t have the funds to do that but possibly we will in the future.

There are times when print is so much better. I just weeded the art books and found some spectacular ones about master painters. The amazing pictures in large color and striking clarity are often far better than seeing the image on the screen. Or what about those sports tomes that show every statistic in baseball in gory detail? If a person is browsing, the book is a better option. If they need a specific item, the database is better.

Ever try to read a graphic novel online? I love the art in graphic novels but find following the story in that format difficult. On the computer, it is even slower for me. 

Last but certainly not least is the information that isn’t in digital format at all. Yes, there is information like that. Local history books generally aren’t available online. In fact, often these great resources of local importance, are not often even kept in print or widely purchased by anyone other than the local library. Here and in the children’s area is where books still shine. We can interlibrary loan many local history books and there is nothing like reading a picture book with a child. 

When we were finished weeding through every number in the Dewey system, we had more room and knew where the core collection was weak and what needed to be updated and what could be better augmented by a database. 

Ordering and weeding a print collection is never completed, but the journey we took to clean up the nonfiction section led to not only neater shelves but a better understanding of where libraries are headed and how to handle that transition to make it as easy as possible for our customers. 

Jacquie Owens comes to Baldwinsville from a varied background - performing just about every task in a library except being a director and custodian. Trying different jobs, she always came back to public libraries, the place she's the most comfortable. A few of the many positions she’s held are; Internet trainer, young adult librarian, school librarian, president of a nonprofit and member of a board of education. Through opportunity and serendipity, she has found a home at Baldwinsville and plans to give her library her all.