Weeding Grows the Garden

Removing worn-out and outdated material is a surprisingly effective circulation booster

April 16, 2010

Michael Sawyer takes pride in weeding books. In fact, he estimates that over the past 30 years he has overseen the removal of more than 500,000 items across eight library systems. As you can imagine, this has not been without controversy.

“Many librarians have an emotional attachment to their collections,” Sawyer observes. "They think of the books as a literal part of the library, as part of their family.”

Sawyer takes a more utilitarian view of library materials by believing that most items in the average library will eventually fulfill their purpose and need to be discarded.

As director of the Calcasieu Parish Public Library in Louisiana, Sawyer feels that weeding the collection is one of the most essential practices that a library can do. While there are many benefits, the main reason is that it helps to improve circulation.

“When the library gets rid of those ragged, smudged, damaged, and unattractive rebound books, circulation increases every time,” Sawyer maintains./p>

He believes that public libraries in particular have a responsibility to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information possible. Weeding not only allows for this, but also presents the library as a more credible source for information and enables patrons to find what they need more easily.

However, routine weeding has not always been an easy task, and Sawyer has shown his dedication through leading by example. With the CREW weeding manual in hand, he has personally trained staff on the subtle art of weeding.

“It is one thing to have a philosophical conversation about removing materials, but when you are out in the stacks handling books that are damaged or that have outdated information, people start to understand why we need to do this.”

While Sawyer’s passion is weeding, he also focuses on public relations. One of the library’s most successful programs, the Yard Sign Project, almost didn’t get off the ground due to staff reluctance. The project was inspired by Louisville (Ky.) Free Public Library and rewarded kids who read 10 books over the summer with a yard sign that proudly stated: “A library champion lives here.” The response was phenomenal. Sawyer said that the initiative demonstrated in a very visual manner how much support there is for the library. In addition, it created a sense of positive peer-pressure that generated excitement for children and their parents. Sawyer’s persistence paid off; staff embraced the project and the library earned the 2010 Public Library Association's Highsmith Innovation Award from the American Library Association.

Sawyer strives to make his library the heart of the community, but in order to do so he knows that he has to appeal to its mind. In 2009 his parish was set to vote on a tax renewal to cover library funding for the next 10 years. Knowing that the majority of the money would be collected by local businesses, Sawyer circulated a white paper that outlined the economic benefits of the library for the community. In addition to digital billboards and television ads, he developed a series of talking points that distilled funding into relatable terms. A homeowner with a house valued at $100,000 would pay a tax equal to about two candy bars a month. A business owner with property valued at $600,000 would pay a rate equal to a monthly home internet connection. The community responded emphatically by passing the tax with a 91% approval rate.

While a strong vision and managerial prowess are important qualities of leadership, perhaps one of the most critical aspects is the ability to generate buy-in. Whether it is building trust among staff, convincing the board to embrace a new project, or presenting the value of the organization to the community, developing support is essential to success. Having a great idea is one thing, but convincing others to collaborate, implement it and make it their own is the key step in the process.

Brian Mathews is a librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Marketing Today's Academic Library, from ALA Editions, 2009. This column spotlights leadership strategies that produce inspirational libraries.


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