Berkeley’s Central Library on Kittredge Street: its collection is being weeded and not everyone is happy and how it’s being done. Photo: Kaia Diringer
Berkeley’s Central Library on Kittredge Street: its collection is being weeded and not everyone is happy and how it’s being done. Photo: Kaia Diringer

When librarians from the Berkeley Public Library were examining books that had not been checked out for three years to determine which ones to keep and which to discard, they reviewed “The Housefly: Its Natural History, Medical Importance, and Control,” written by Luther S. West in 1951. It was retained.

So was “A Guide to Shrubs for Coastal California,” by Harry Morton Butterfield, published in 1980, and the memoir “The Peacocks of Baboquivari,” by Erma J. Fisk, which came out in 1987.

But the librarians agreed that Yingxing Song’s “Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century,” described by its publisher as a “1637 classic on the history of traditional Chinese technology,” didn’t need to remain in circulation. Neither did “Creating Color: a Dyer’s Handbook,” by Judy Anne Walter or “Strip City: A Stripper’s Farewell Journey across America,” by Lily Burana.

Some more modern and popular authors got the boot, too. “The Angela Y. Davis Reader,” was withdrawn, as was “Race Matters” by Cornel West. Berkeley author Michael Lewis got culled as well: the librarians decided it had too many copies of “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” and got rid of a few. (Eight remain in circulation.)

These are some of the details that emerge from the list of books the library has either reviewed or withdrawn from the system since January, a process that Library Director Jeff Scott has described as a routine – and much overdue – weeding.

But his critics, which include a number of former librarians, believe the weeding is too aggressive (some have characterized it as “hemorrhaging”), and contend it is degrading the quality of the collection. They have held two rallies in front of the Central Branch on Kittredge Street in downtown Berkeley to call attention to the weeding process. They also called for a moratorium.

The weeding process has stopped for now, but not because of the protests, Scott said in an email. “We normally take a break for collection maintenance,” in August, he said.

The Berkeley Public Library system has close to 450,000 books, so getting rid of a tiny percentage should not seem like a big deal. But the process that Scott deems routine and his detractors characterize as devastating has created a schism in the normally staid library community. The fierce criticism has put Scott, who took up his position in November, on the defensive.

For former BPL librarians like Pat Mullan, no less than the heart and soul of the library is at stake.

Berkeley is using a weeding process developed in 2012 by the University of Texas called CREW (Continuous Review Evaluation Weeding). The idea is that any library system has a number of damaged or out of date books and they should be eliminated to make room for newer books.

The sorting begins by extracting and evaluating books from shelves that have not been checked out from the library for three years or more (10+ years in the case of art and music books). These books are reviewed and assessed. Some are retained, some are given to the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library, which runs two used book stores, or another non-profit, and some are pulped. A good percentage of the titles that are pulled for assessment turn out to be missing.

In a letter to the community explaining the process, Scott wrote:

“Why do we weed?
-To enhance the library’s reputation for reliability and currency
-To provide feedback to current selection teams on the collection’s STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES
-To provide a continuous check on the NEED FOR REPAIRS/REPLACEMENTS
-To make the collection MORE APPEALING
-To save TIME
-To save use SPACE efficiently.”

Scott is facing criticism about the process because he changed the number of librarians who are participating. Under the former director, Donna Corbeil, a group of 25 librarians with different specialties weighed in on which books would be discarded. When Scott took over as director in November, he heard from a number of librarians that they were overworked and did not have sufficient time to do their jobs properly. So he created a committee of two librarians to oversee the weeding. They consult with four other librarians in the system — a much smaller number than previously.

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
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

Pat Mullan, who worked for BPL for 25 years and was once head librarian of the Art & Music Room, said the streamlining is “decimating” the collection.

“Maintaining and weeding a collection is an essential part of the librarian’s job,” said Mullan. “A librarian has years of experience building a collection.” Taking weeding away from the specialists, she said, “robs individual librarians from their professional role, and robs the community from the access they deserve.”

Mullan told the Contra Costa Times she thinks the library has discarded 20,000 books since January.

Former BPL employee of 18 years Roya Arasteh told Berkeleyside in July 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 disagreed with the numbers being tossed around and said many people are “making wild claims, but have no facts,” in what amounts to a “disinformation” campaign. The total number of books that have been weeded out is around 2,200, said Scott, not tens of thousands of books. He also said that the books are first offered to the Friends and other non-profits. They are not immediately pulped.

A Berkeleyside examination of the spreadsheets of the books that have been reviewed put the number of discards at 2,274.

Here is a breakdown:

Library staff identified 1,858 books in the applied sciences that had not been checked out in the previous three years. The staff determined that 477 of those titles, or about 26% of the total, were actually missing. They weeded out 280 books, about 15% of the low-circulating books, and retained the rest — about 1,101 books, or 59%.

In the natural sciences, library staff identified 930 low-circulating books. About 307 of those were missing, or about 33%. The staff decided to discard 526 books, or 57% of the low-circulating titles. 97, or around 10% were retained.

Staff identified 2,880 low-circulating books in the social sciences. Upon inspection, staff discovered that 691 books, or 24% of the total number of low-circulating books were missing. They weeded out 1,198 or 42% of that group. They retained 34%.

Staff identified 5,920 books in the arts and entertainment category that had not been checked out for 10 years. Out of that, 418, or 7%, were missing. Staff decided to weed out 270 books, about 7%, and are still reviewing 5,232 or 88% of the collection.

The Board of Library Trustees, which approved the CREW process in May, will take up this issue at its Sept. 9 meeting, where Scott is slated to do a presentation on the weeding process.

In the meantime, you can see a list of the books the library has reviewed: Click on the Google doc, then click “open” at the top. Once the spreadsheet opens, go to the bottom and click on report to see the list of books that have been reviewed, discarded, kept, and those that have not been decided upon. There are four different documents, one for social sciences, (300s), one for natural sciences (500s), one for applied sciences (600s), and one for arts and entertainment (700s).

Scott says other categories, such as fiction, will be reviewed later this year. Once the process is completed and new books are purchased, the total number of books in circulation will actually increase — rising from 452,000 to 470,000, he said.

Protesters rally over library weeding (07.14.15
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Op-ed: The Berkeley Public Library — shelter from the storm (12.12.14)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...