Photo: Francesca Paris
Retired librarian Pat Mullan (center left in brown jacket) encourages protesters to check out books from the Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library to save them from weeding on July 14, 2015. Photo: Francesca Paris

By Francesca Paris

A crowd of around 30 people gathered at the front of the Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library today to protest new procedures for weeding books from the library’s collection. The protesters believe the process, ordered by Library Director Jeff Scott, is being carried out irresponsibly.

Members of the group carried signs reading “Vive la bibliothèque” (it’s Bastille Day after all), “Put a tourniquet on the hemorrhage” and “Don’t pulp our fiction.”

In an effort to save books that are in danger of being weeded out, one of the rally leaders, Pat Mullan, who worked for BPL for 25 years, including as head librarian of the Art & Music Room, encouraged protesters and spectators to check out the maximum of 50 books from sections that have not yet been weeded  — including the 800s (literature), 900s (history) and musical records.

Weeding, technically known as “deaccession,” is a standard procedure used by libraries to keep collections in good shape. The central branch is starting by examining books that have not been checked out in three years (10 years for art and music books). 

Greg Sharpen carries 50 books out of the library, the maximum you can have out at one time, to prevent them from being weeded out of the collection. Photo: Francesca Paris
On July 14, 2015, Greg Sharpen carries 50 books out of the library, the maximum you can have out at one time, to prevent them from being weeded out of the collection and as a form of protest. Photo: Francesca Paris

The deaccession began in April under the direction of Scott and is being handled by two senior librarians, with the help of four staffers. Previously the process was the responsibility of 25 specialist librarians.

Scott told Berkeleyside that he took the responsibility away from the majority of librarians in response to their complaints of not having enough time to perform all their duties.

The protesters, many former librarians themselves, said they are in favor of weeding but upset with how the process has been carried out — particularly the fact that the responsibility has been stripped from the specialist librarians.

“We need to weed responsibly,” said Mullan, “and we need to give the librarians a chance to do their jobs.”

Former BPL employee of 18 years Roya Arasteh said that books are being removed from the library at a rate of 5,000 to 7,500 per month, about four times faster than weeding has previously proceeded, and are being immediately pulped, rather than sent to the Friends of the Library bookshop or communities in need.

Scott denies this, saying that the books are first offered to the Friends, then to a nonprofit that distributes books to the developing world, and finally to a recycler if neither of the first two wants them.

According to Mullan, at that volume of books exiting the library, it would not be possible for two managers to be going through the books responsibly.

CarolLashof Photo: William Newton
Carol Lashof, card-carrying member of the Berkeley PublicLibrary since 1983, protests the removal of specialist librarians from the weeding process on July 14, 2015. Photo: William Newton

Mullan added that books are being deleted from the library catalog as they are removed rather than being marked as “withdrawn” or “cancelled,” which had previously been standard procedure so that the library could keep a record of titles it had weeded.

Librarians are trained to look at a variety of factors during the process of weeding, Arasteh said, and to consider what titles are valuable to the community, location sensitive or of historical value, all of which the library has a responsibility to the community to keep on hand – even if they haven’t been checked out in three or more years.

“It’s so valuable to keep voices of time gone by,” Arasteh said. “How can we learn from our past if it’s not here to reference?”

Eleven current librarians expressed their concerns to the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) in a letter sent in late May (which can be found on page eleven of BOLT’s agenda).

In response, BOLT asked Scott to clarify the deaccession process at the board’s next meeting on Sept. 9. Arasteh said that will likely be too late for most of the books in the collection.

“It is extremely urgent to call for a moratorium now,” she said.

Related: Library fans voice concerns over weeding of books (07.08.15)
After outcry, library votes to change South Branch name (05.08.15)
Berkeley’s West Branch first net-zero library in state (02.19.15)
Op-ed: The Berkeley Public Library — shelter from the storm (12.12.14)

Francesca Paris, a summer 2015 reporting intern at Berkeleyside, is a sophomore at Williams College in Williamstown, MA. 

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