One of my earliest memories as a librarian is of a huge skip that appeared, as if out of nowhere, in the car park of Senate House, full to the brim with discarded books and journals. It would have been 1990, the year that the University of London Library, as it was then known, decided to get rid of its science collections. Leaving work that summer’s evening, I was confronted by the sight of a handful of academics, in a state of some agitation, clambering up onto the container and over the mound of books, desperately pulling out volumes to be saved. One was filling a suitcase. Looking back now, I can’t quite believe that it happened.

I was reminded of this strange scene a few weeks ago, when Mary Beard published a post on her TLS blog entitled ‘What happens to dead library books’. In it, she described her recent purchase of some ex-library items from AbeBooks, including one from my own place of work. She expressed the view that librarians generally (and, by implication, my own, specifically)  should take “a little more care” in disposing of “valuable” books which she “suspects but does not know” we routinely sell as a “job lot” to secondhand bookshops.

This was the second time this year that my library had been exposed online for withdrawing a book. In February, a respected North American academic posted an entry on his Facebook account about a volume that he, too, had recently acquired from an internet seller. Announcing that “a grail of mine arrived today …”, he gleefully described his purchase of said item which, he was pleased to emphasise, had been deemed surplus to requirements here. You could tell it was one of ours because he had helpfully taken a photograph of the date label and published that too. The post created quite a stir in the medieval history community, receiving twenty-two ‘likes’; four, I later learned, from active or emeritus historians in the UK, two from tenured professors of history at Yale and Columbia, and three from assistant professors in the US. Other readers weighed in with emoticons, or “pictures of people pulling funny faces” as my furious academic colleague put it.

Whatever interesting light this sheds on the way even medieval historians have fully embraced the mores of social media, it was, as you can imagine, deeply embarrassing, as was Professor Beard’s intervention. Both incidents strained our relationship with academic staff we would normally consider strong supporters of our service. Clearly, serious errors had been made and all there was left to do was apologise and make sure nothing like this ever happened again.

But was it that simple? Actually, no. After the dust had settled, further investigation revealed that there were reasonable grounds to have withdrawn at least one, if not both, of the items.

To take the Facebook volume first, this was a collection of articles by a well-regarded historian, published by a respected imprint in 1988. However, as the picture of the date label showed, it hadn’t been borrowed for over twelve years. It is available in the library next door. Under pressure to create space for an impending refurbishment, we were forced to make decisions rather more quickly than usual. Circulation data was used, perhaps less discerningly than it should have been.

Even so, our North American friend called the item “the rarest of volumes” when, in fact, it was nothing of the sort. One effect of the internet on bookselling is that temporary lack of supply can absurdly inflate the price of second hand books. Unfortunately, at the time of his post, Amazon showed the item costing several hundred pounds. Actually, we recently re-purchased a good quality copy for around £50 and others are currently available.

The case of the book mentioned in ‘A Don’s Life’ is even more contestable. Briefly, it is a facsimile, again not borrowed for many years and widely available for under £10. Other copies are held at nearby libraries, including the original manuscript. I am satisfied that our decision to withdraw it was a reasonable one in the circumstances and I’m not sure it merited highlighting by an influential public figure with a large audience.

While we don’t exactly hawk them to any old second hand bookshop, Professor Beard is right in her suspicions: we have, until now, used Betterworld books to help us dispose of withdrawn books. They pay us – although nowhere near the value of the items – and, just as importantly, arrange for the collection and dispersal of the stock. They also use a proportion of their profits to promote literacy around the world. Unfortunately, I am not sure we will be able to use them in the future. It is too much of a risk.

How should librarians weed library books in this age of social media? Ours is not a research library and we are very short of space, including off site storage. The leading source of dissatisfaction whenever we survey our students is not our lack of medieval history books but our dearth of study spaces. Yet with the arts and humanities especially, a good case can be made for keeping pretty much anything; weeds can, of course, be very beautiful.

My view, therefore, is that we have to be both more robust and more nuanced in our approach. We ought to consult but must also be prepared to disagree sometimes. Statistics, such as lending histories, should be used but not inflexibly. Most importantly of all, we need to work more closely with our academic colleagues to agree a framework for how this essential but controversial work is carried out. On our part, that probably means being more sensitive to the requirements of specific disciplines and adopting different criteria for certain subject areas.

However, academic staff, too, need to be more thoughtful about the practice of library weeding and, in the best traditions of their profession, prepared to weigh the evidence in each case. In particular, I would urge them to avoid the temptation, so hard to resist in the online world, of rushing to shout about examples which apparently show others in a bad light. The irony is that, if they don’t, they will push librarians like myself back towards the big skip option, except this time we certainly won’t be leaving one out in broad daylight for all to see.

Thanks to Mary Beard for responding to this in the comments to her post.

The image is from Flickr and by kingcrusty