Lost in the Weeds

Old alphabet book
This wouldn’t go out at a library…

Amanda sent me this link earlier in the week.  You should write about this, she said. I looked at the article, and thought a couple of things. One, I am not sure this is the whole story, and two, I’ve done that job… As I mulled it over in my head, I realized there are some relevant points for writers in the process of weeding.

Weeding in a library is as much an art as it is a science (So is weeding in a garden, but that’s a whole ‘nother metaphor). Sometimes it’s obvious that a book should come out of a collection. Especially in children’s books, where heavy use can leave a book tattered, worn, and with suspicious stains. It’s easy to say ‘ok, this hasn’t been checked out since before I was born, maybe it’s time for it to go’ (and the record for this in the small library where I was weeding was last check-out stamp of ’69. Alas, I no longer remember the title, only that it was a collection of anecdotes and essays on New England farm life). When you are weeding non-fiction, I learned, setting a rough criteria of last check out ten years previous was a good place to start. And weeding books on countries that no longer exist is good when you hit the World Geography section.

Once you have a stack of books off the shelf, you look at them again and decide if you need to replace them. Books on sharks for kids? Oh, yeah, we need those. Books on sharks for adults? Not so much, anymore. A lot of non-fiction isn’t going out of a library because the patrons can walk in, sit at the computer and google their topic of choice (and this is if they don’t already have internet at home). In no time they have more information than a small library can offer.

And it’s about space. The library where I worked was a lot larger than it had been when I moved to town twenty years before. Then, it was a single large room (maybe 20×16) crammed full of shelving to the high ceilings. It had been generously expanded a couple of years before I went to work at it, but it still wasn’t enough. Fiction, in particular, and the young adult section, was just growing too fast to possibly keep up with it.

The God's Wolfling
New book cover that is attracting interest.

And how, you are wondering, does this relate to writing and publishing? Well, here’s the thing. A topical book has a shelf-life, and so do covers, and as authors we need to anticipate this and roll with it. Topical is easy enough to anticipate. Covers? I keep hearing ‘oh, I never look at the cover, I just read the blurb’ and perhaps for a few that is true. But for the majority of people, and especially young people? That cover makes a huge difference. They aren’t going to readily pick up a book that looks old. They will instead reach for the new, shiny, slick cover of a new release. That classic copy of Black Beauty that was re-bound in dull maroon? It’s never going out unless a parent insists. The re-released book with a terrific art cover? Yes, little girls adore horsey books and you won’t be able to keep that thing on the shelf.

This goes for most adults, too, although I saw it more clearly with the children’s collection. So… as indie authors, your covers do matter, and it’s not about the art, it’s about marketing. Conveying a clear image that looks modern, bright, and clean. We haven’t seen it yet, but in time, I think I will plan to update my book covers every few years, to keep them in the trends. I’d rather not have prospective readers look at a cover and think, ew, that’s old…

Once they do pick up a book and start to leaf through it, another thing that will put them off is the old feel of the text. I had to fight my kids to get them to read some of the classics I had loved as a kid. Little Women, the Borrowers, Swiss Family Robinson… I grew up with them, being read aloud from them, and reading aloud myself when I was old enough. But my kids were more comfortable with the composition, pacing, and ‘feel’ of books like Harry Potter and the Magic Treehouse. They were bored and befuddled by the slow pacing and dated technology of older books. My SF reader put down Have Spacesuit and wandered off, and it about broke my heart. As authors, we need to keep this in mind. Write old-style, and it may not sell to the younger set.

One thing ebooks give us, as authors and readers, is an almost unlimited ability to expand our library. We don’t need to worry about shelf constraints. On the other hand, being able to find anything in there? When you are putting up your book on Amazon, you need to make sure it is properly keyworded. There is a terrific list  for Science Fiction and Fantasy here, and you can backtrack for other genres. This is what will help your readers find you on those endless digital shelves (I have this mental image of a library with vaulted roof, shelves on every side, stretching off into the distance, little wisps of mist obscuring the far end…). As readers, it will take a little more effort to stay on top of your library if you are a Kindle user, as they haven’t yet bothered to make that an easy process. Maybe if we all ask for that…

As for your local library, and weeding –

Antique books
There is a beauty in old books. But they won’t go out of the library often…

it was one of the hardest jobs I have done. I kept having to resist the urge to take piles home with me to rescue them. We did use the option to keep a book ‘just because’ fairly often, and a lot of times would track down and buy a new version of a book with a nicer cover, knowing that if it looked new, it would start going out again. We created a display of books with a sign that read ‘read me, or I’ll be weeded! Rescue a book today…”

Understand that a physical library is torn between lack of funding, lack of space, and need to keep their patrons happy. Is the school in the original article doing something wrong? I’m not sure… It’s rough to see the shelves so empty, and to know as a former librarian the kids just aren’t using the library like they once did. But reality is that young people don’t read like they used to.

It’s not that they don’t read. It’s that they don’t read paper books as much. They are far more likely to tap a screen and grab the latest thing that catches their eye, than they are to pick up a worn-out copy of The Swiss Family Robinson. This isn’t a bad thing. And perhaps the old books, available free, will get some attention again, too.

Speaking of free, want to win a shiny new print copy of The God’s Wolfling? comment on this link and enter to win a signed, and possibly sketched copy. Winner will be chosen at random (not by snark level in the comment, as tempting as that is) and announced on August 2, the day after the book is launched. Good Luck!  


  1. I was sorely disappointed to find that the library i used most often as a teen had weeded a late 1970s book on Aerodynamics that was an excellent text and still perfectly valid. Too bad the library didnt store our phone numbers at the time, because last time i checked it out, the previous two checkouts were to me….

  2. I had a book I’d checked out two months before get weeded. The lady in charge of thinning the shelves went strictly on age – adult non-fiction more than 15 years old? Out it went. I bought a replacement copy for my own reference and showed the librarians how much they could have sold their copy for (they were trashing them at the time). They now have a volunteer who checks value on good or better quality weedees, and they opened a little shop for the collectable books. And a few get moved to special collections/reference (which is what should have happened to this one, but hey.)

    1. they were trashing them at the time

      That is criminally stupid, even more so than throwing away everything that’s 15 years old. It takes no effort to put a box of the culled books by the check-out with a “pay what you think it’s worth” box.

      1. You should have seen the trove in the annual sale pile when they had to ditch all the kids books (that or test each one for lead). Gaawd, what waste.

  3. The main county library used to be stuffed into a house. Then one of those Evil 1% families built a spectacular big edifice . . . and three satellite libraries. Fort Bend County, Texas, is lucky in it’s Evil Citizens.

  4. I worked in two different libraries: one public, one community college. Now I teach. When they weed the high school library, I always check the shelves. The policy for the public library (this was 40 years ago) was to trash the books. I did sneak a couple out: one had amazing plates of butterflies. The local public library has two big sales a year, both donated books and pulled ones.

  5. I used to love being able to buy books from the library’s culls in the US. Treasure hunting!

    Don’t know if they do that at the local library here. It’s a two and a half hour bicycle ride for me to the nearest one, just one way, so we haven’t gone there yet.

    The other night I was reading some of Shakespeare’s sonnets out loud, and my son, all of 7 years old, asked me not to stop. He might not understand the words yet, but I’m hoping that with his saying “I like poetry,” I’m planting a seed…

  6. My mother works at our local library. She and I have spoken a few times about updating some of their older books. Michigan has a great state wide system for interlibrary loan. Because of this, they have found that our local library is one of the few with access to many older books you can’t get anywhere else in the state.

    This loan system makes for a great pathway to so many more books and is a great use of technology. Even more interesting about this system, you don’t see the covers of the books when you order them.

  7. Library weeding scares me. I once looked for a book written by the Engineer of New Haven Railroads electrification project at the turn of the last century. The only copy in the world of this book in worldcat was at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. I have no connection with Yale and Yale does not have interlibrary loan. Fortunately I was able through the auspices of a friend at work to get my hands on the book. Which was a very good thing for future historians who might want to research the history of electrification, electrical grids, Westinghouse electric, high speed rail or engineering history in general because the book hadn’t been checked out for decades and was falling apart in my hands. I was able to get the book reprinted and saved, which is my good deed for the century. But suppose somebody at Yale had decided to weed out this seemingly useless book.

    1. Fortunately, there do exist archives and places which seek to preserve old and rare books – there is a Depository on the campus where I go to school, for instance – but I do agree that some books are worth keeping even if they haven’t been out in a long time. This book sounds like the perfect candidate for scanning and conversion to ebook.

  8. Perusing a book dealer’s booth at a science-fiction convention, I once came across a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s THE CHALLENGE OF THE SEA from 1960, a non-fiction juvenile book about oceans. It was illustrated by Alex Schomburg and had an introduction by Wernher von Braun. With that line-up, how could I resist? Well… it had apparently been a school library discard. For twenty or thirty years, class after class of little squirts had used that book for school projects and book reports. I swear, the pages were…*greasy*. Too many years, too many grubby hands. Much as I would have liked to have a copy of the book, this was one book that was probably weeded for good reason…

    1. Yes. I’ve weeded books that looked like they had been used as a plate for lunch, had puppy toothmarks (and drool) all around the corners… and sometimes had just been loved to death. We tried to get new copies of those (like the Snoopy comic books, which are still popular with the kids!).

  9. Our local library has sales of culls once a quarter hosted by their ‘Friends of the Library’ group. The funds generated go to library projects, buying new books and materials, offer programs to “enhance library services” (their term), ect… I’ve had some great finds there.

    1. Most libraries do this, and it’s a good thing. For one thing, we had patrons bring us boxes and boxes of books we couldn’t use, and this allowed us to dispose of them and raise some funds. I always enjoyed doing the book sale, both as librarian and reader-buyer.

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