the gardener’s hat

Wearing my volunteer’s hat, I am currently helping a colleague at a local school evaluate the collection and weeding all its sections in preparation for a major refurbishment later this year. At the moment all the shelves are cram-jammed full of books, many of which haven’t really seen the light of day since they were first placed there!  (You can tell because they are obviously unopened, are yellowing, have unused date due slips, have an “old book’ smell about them, in many cases a publication date of more than 20 years ago and it takes strong fingers to prise them from their neighbours.)


Unlike a lot of teacher librarians, I have no problems disposing of books and, working on the philosophy that if they are not good enough for our students then they’re not good enough for others – a view shared by my colleague – the recycling hopper is gradually being fed. 

But many have an emotional connection to books in print and find it difficult to throw them away, particularly if they are still in a reasonable condition.  It is almost like it is sacrilegious for a librarian to do such a thing.  Yet, we are quite happy to dispose of food that is past its use-by date, discard clothing that is no longer a good fit and even dig up plants that are growing in the wrong place in the garden in the name of “weeding”.

Not being prepared to put on our gardener’s hat is doing our clientele a disservice for unless we regularly appraise and evaluate the collection, the shelves just become more and more tightly packed, giving easy access to nothing rather than everything.  While non fiction seems to get a regular workover because information changes and we can’t expose our students to that which is out-of-date, how often do we turn our attention to our fiction collections – both novels and picture books? Many of the novels I’ve culled in the last few days were on the shelves when I first began my TL career 23 years ago; some were even around when I began my teaching career 47 years ago!  A quick check of the item’s record showed that if something had been borrowed at all, then it was done back in the 90s, so clearly there was unlikely to be a revival of its popularity.  Added to that, children’s reading habits and expectations have changed – now they prefer characters who represent their generation and at the very least, expect them to have access to the internet and a mobile phone (unless it is genuine historical fiction). Life has changed significantly in the last 30 years since the introduction of the World Wide Web and young readers expect this to be reflected in their reading materials.

Picture books are different, particularly those written for a young audience, because the themes of those are usually timeless, although there is a growing trend amongst authors to embed a message of either social or environmental significance within the plot, and so it is the battered and bruised of that format that generally find their way to the compost, hopefully with a newer brighter version of the most popular stories being planted in their stead.

Teachers’ resources seem particularly problematic because there are some who cling to old favourites of yesteryear despite the changes in best-practice pedagogy and curriculum.  However, when I was asked to tackle that section, I found it easiest to pull what was no longer current or relevant and place them on a table in the staffroom with a large notice saying “Help Yourself”. Those teachers who wanted their favourites could now have them permanently; that which was left filled the recycling bin!

Apart from teacher librarians having issues with disposing of materials, it also seems to be very wasteful to the non-professional eye and many have problems convincing principals, peers and parents that we have a duty to ensure that the collection meets the current needs, interests, expectations and abilities of our clientele.  To help combat this I have written Taking Stock which examines the need to undertake a regular inventory of the collection, and encouraging those who think it’s just an annual “counting of the books” to understand and share the underlying purposes and processes.

The Collection Policy should also address the deselection of resources in detail and the following is taken from the Sample Collection Policy I have written after many years of experience marking university assignments on this topic.   

De-selection of resources –the systematic and deliberate removal of unwanted items from the collection to ensure it remains current and relevant for its users—will be formally done during the mandatory annual stocktake, although it will also be an informal process undertaken throughout the year as needs arise.   The final decision for de-selection remains with the teacher librarian based on her professional knowledge of the needs, interests and abilities of the collection’s users, both staff and students.  This includes considering

  • regardless of age, retaining resources that are known to appeal to particular age groups such as the collection about dinosaurs for Kindergarten so their perceptions about the value of the library are developed and their expectations met
  • regardless of age, retaining fiction titles such as the Harry Potter series which have enduring appeal and use; works by authors whose appeal and popularity has been established and continues; and works which continue to support the curriculum such as historical fiction
  • students’ access to ICT within and beyond the school so there is anytime, anywhere access to information if required
  • students’ preferences for print resources over other formats, as well as the need, identified by current research, to develop literacy skills using traditional formats so that onscreen skills are enhanced
  • the provision of resources that will enable users to have a range to cross-check information for authority, accuracy, currency, objectivity and relevance

De-selection will be considered for items which

  • are dirty or damaged beyond reasonable repair   
  • are in a format no longer supported by available hardware
  • have information which is inaccurate, out-of-date, biased, racist, sexist or misleading
  • contain racial, sexual or cultural stereotyping as a predominant feature of the plot or characterisation
  • are unappealing in appearance or format
  • are inappropriate or irrelevant to the needs, abilities and interests of the library’s users
  • have significantly declined in circulation and unlikely to be popular or required again
  • have been superseded by newer editions that have greater aesthetic appeal
  • are unused duplicate copies

Digital resources will be deselected if

  • they meet any of the appropriate criteria above
  • links are no longer live
  • have altered terms and conditions of use which are unacceptable
  • have accompanying advertisements or other material which is inappropriate
  • have embedded links which lead to inappropriate sites
  • no longer comply with copyright
  • they are no longer deemed suitable for the use of students

In order to ensure the collection is up-to-date the following should be used as a guide to replacement times.

Dewey Classification Timeframe Type of Resource Timeframe
000 2-10 years Biographies flexible
100 5 -10 years Fiction individual basis
200 5-10 years Encyclopaedias 3 -5 years
300 2-10 years Reference individual basis
400 10 years Periodicals 3 -5 years
500 2-10 years Almanacs 3 years
600 2-10 years Ebooks Based on licence and hardware availability
700 5-20 years Audiobooks Based on licence and hardware availability
800 flexible Digital resources Based on curriculum needs, licence, hardware availability and software compatibility
900 5-10 years Teacher Resources Based on curriculum currency and compatibility
Maps, charts,posters, ephemera Individual basis

These criteria are to be used as a guide rather than a rigid set of rules. Consideration will also be given to keeping

  • classics, award winners, and titles likely to be in demand again such as the Harry Potter series
  • local history resources
  • school publications for archival purposes
  • titles on current reading lists
  • out of print titles that are still useful
  • biographical resources relating to prominent local, national and international figures
  • resources which might be of historical interest or for comparison at a later time

Culled resources will be written off in accordance with approved procedures, including amending the record in the library’s management system.  They will then be disposed of appropriately according to their reason for culling.  Most materials unsuitable for the school library are likely to be unsuitable for other libraries so careful consideration needs to be given to their final destination. 

Resources will be marked in such a way that it is clear they are no longer required, including defacing barcodes.

The sale of unwanted titles will to be within the guidelines of the educational authority’s financial procedures.

Disposal of resources is always a touchy topic – there are many who will be offended that those I’m dealing with now (and have in the past) are heading for recycling.  There are regular questions on the various TL networks for names of organisations that will take and re-home weeded resources, sending them to not-so-fortunate communities, often overseas.  But the cost of storage and shipping of such donations are exorbitant in many cases, and one wonders if it wouldn’t be better to have an in-house sale so students and staff could own their favourites and then donate the proceeds to those organisations and communities.

There is also the proposition that they could be shared in community refuges or other places where children might not have access to books of their own, but one wonders what message this sends to those children.  Are they only worthy of some old, musty second-hand library book with a defaced barcode and a blacked-out school stamp? Or would they, too, be better served by having books bought with the cash from those who choose to buy such a book?

Weeding books will always be contentious and controversial as people have an emotional attachment to books for a range of reason, unlike their relationship with other objects.  But if we are to serve our clients properly, in accordance with our mission statement, the school’s philosophy and ethos, and that of professional associations which guide us in best practice, then as teacher librarians we need to step beyond the personal into the professional, put on our gardener’s hat and weed our gardens regularly. That is how the rest of the collection will thrive.

This  article about handing the power and process of weeding the collection over to the students, is well worth your time for many reasons.  The process is linked to whatever the class is studying at the time and becomes a valuable selection skill that could be transferred to their selection of other resources for research in the future. The rubric is linked within in it but under “visual appeal” I would add something about the text’s layout because I have found that to be the first element a student uses to appraise the use of a book. 

This article from SCIS also helps by offering you starting points … How to start decolonising your library collection

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14 thoughts on “the gardener’s hat

  1. I always say the only people who think it is okay to throw out a book is librarians! I am going through another major fiction weeding right now. I am replacing moldy oldie classics, (like Shakespeare anywhere from the ’60’s to the ’80’s) with shiny new copies and voila, they are circulating again. I support your efforts! Administration insists I try to offer the books to teachers and students so I put them on carts where they sit for weeks on end. A few are snatched up by first year teachers building classroom libraries only to be “returned” to me later on as they learn they just take up space.

  2. Wonderfully written. I’m tending a garden this year which has not been groomed for quite some time and I’m dealing with many of the same issues.

    I’m totally “borrowing” some of your collection policy! (By which, I mean stealing wholeheartedly.)

  3. Thank you Barbara! You have put so many of my thoughts and considerations regarding weeding into this wonderfully written post! I have purged about half of the books from our primary school library for all the reasons you have so eloquently described here; it’s encouraging to feel like I’ve done “the right thing”. I too would like to use your criteria going forward. Thank you.

  4. As usual Barbara, this is an excellent post on an topic that often causes difficulties. I will be updating our collection policy soon, so it is particularly timely for me.

  5. Wow, how timely! I’m weeding the teacher’s resources and have to be ruthless owing to a crowded library space. Pinterest TPT, Twinkl have all taken over from the books. Yes I have found the odd due date slip and yellow card in the back, love to show them to the students and share about the past pre-computer life. Thanks Barbara

  6. I loved reading your post about weeding. When I first started in the role of Teacher Librarian I had so much difficulty with weeding. It seemed that I had an emotional connection to every book. Once I realized that no matter how I ‘marketed’ certain books they were never going to getting borrowed. I have become much better at weeding, but I face difficulty with other’s reactions now.
    I recently attended a workshop with Kevin Hennah. He is a guru in the world of library design. Something he said stayed with me. He said that we should be more worried about the amount of technology waste we accumulate and not so worried about pulping some books that will become part of the earth again.
    Thank you so much for sharing and for reiterating the importance of weeding. I also love how you title your posts using the hats theme. We do wear a lot of hats.

  7. I have just started my first unit at uni in Teacher Librarianship. Yes i am emotionally attached to books, and struggle with my own collection. I still have the study guides from my undergrad course in ecology. I know some of it is out of date, but some of it hasn’t changed at all. I am a teacher in a High School, where my last trip to the library saw the Principle and Deputy moving around the library looking at moving the furniture to enable it to become the Senior hang out space. The shelves are already so close together as a “larger” lady it is difficult to move comfortably between them, and they were asking the lady in charge (a teachers aide) if they could move them closer together. Also there is also a ‘classroom’ in the middle of it all which is a functioning classroom at least 90% of the week. So we see what becomes of the space over the next year.

  8. What a useful guideline, thank you so much for sharing!
    I am currently teaching at my children’s school and regularly volunteer in the library as a PAC member. We have struggled for years with having the semblance of “enough” books for our student population when, in reality, we were not weeding fast enough and replacing to maintain the collection. We are now at a severe deficit and must limit how many resources our students can take from the library. I really appreciate this topic you’ve highlighted and hope more TLs can keep this in mind so as not to experience similar challenges.

  9. What a perfect time to administer culling (during Covid) – there is something so satisfying about clearing the shelves making way for more up-to-date texts. Our wonderful library technician tackled our TR section last week and the amount of unnecessary and out-of-date resources was incredible. Your tip to offer it up for taking in the staff room is great – thank you!!

  10. What a wonderful weeding policy. Like others I hope you don’t mind if I ‘steal’ some of it to add to my own library handbook! One way that I found the process to go easier for the admin to approve books being let go was by making a take one leave one shelf in the school cafe. This way books that were becoming too old for the library could hopefully still be used by the school community. Although as a few others have mentioned, I also have seen those books sit for months on end without interest! I also try to give the most damaged books to the art department to use for collage projects. Thank you for your post and your advice! Much appreciated.

  11. Thank you for this practical post. For the past 3 years I have shared the teacher-librarian position with an amazing colleague who has worked in the library for almost 30 years. When I took the position, it felt like I was moving into someone else’s house and I was quite hesitant about making an significant changes. She has just retired and now I have the opportunity to make the library my own space. I feel like your article was the impetus I needed to do some significant culling. I know there are some “old favourites” hiding on the shelves that have not been checked out for years. I appreciated your out-of-date food metaphor – if we don’t hang on to old food why would we hang on to old books. Your de-selection criteria was extremely practical and I can see using this as a reference as I look at our collection. What suggestions do you have for dealing with “classic” books that now show themselves to contain inappropriate racial messages or language? I am debating what to do with Huckleberry Finn and the Little House series for instance. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and knowledge in this area. I recognize that “gardening” is only one of the hats that we wear as teacher-librarian but after reading this blog I am excited to get weeding.

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