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THE MEDIA CENTER: Weeding, From Alphabet Books to Zip Drives

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted May 1, 2010
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If you have been diligently weeding your media center, there may not be books full of dust bunnies or obsolete technology around. But for many media specialists, weeding is a continuing need and a frequent topic of inquiry in discussion groups such as LM_NET. In our state group, there are often questions about what to do with specific items such as VHS tapes or offers to sell AV equipment or materials. Get your garbage cans ready as we examine the task of weeding.

Can I throw this out? Yes, it’s OK to weed and toss. Changing formats, more appealing books for kids, increasing digital content, our changing world, needs of 21st century media programs, and, most importantly, the needs of our students make it imperative that we weed our collections—print, nonprint, and electronic. If you are frugal, don’t let your own personal frugality get in the way. Providing outdated, unappealing resources to students is a disservice.

Complaints from staff about throwing out good books or tales of trash cans filled with discarded books and videos returned to media centers are not unheard of. Be prepared to explain that there’s a difference between being in love with books and being in love with content. As an LM_NET member noted: “It’s what’s between the covers that’s important. ‘If the data ain’t great—you’ve got to eliminate.’ The number of books you have is subordinate to their quality. And you can, in fact, judge a book by its cover. If you’re not going to get patrons (kids) inside a book that looks old and nasty, it may as well not be on your shelf” (LM_NET, Jan. 4, 2010).

In the long run, weeding enhances the collection and makes the media center’s collection more appealing. Shelves not crammed with old books make the newer, up-to-date titles stand out; circulation will increase. If shelves are empty, people notice the need for funds to purchase more. Weeding is another part of collection development and another task worthy of inclusion in the media center’s policies and procedures manual. Include criteria for weeding, a rationale that fits the district’s needs, and a process for handling discards in all formats. Search the web for “media center weeding policies or guidelines.” You will find many helpful examples.

There’s no time to weed! It is hard to find a chunk of time to methodically go through the collection shelf by shelf, but there is time to weed as you go along. As you come across items worthy of the discard pile, set them aside to be dealt with as soon as possible. Aggressive, methodical weeding is in order when moving to a new media center or dividing a collection for redistribution to other schools. Major collection overhauls and grade level restructuring also call for aggressive weeding. If you’re leaving for another job or retiring, don’t leave the mess behind for the new person who won’t know the weeds well enough to take quick action. Take time to weed; it pays off and people notice.

Technology and Data Ease the Job

Automation system data reaps benefits. Gone are the days of looking at hand-scribbled checkout information and copyright dates before you make a decision about tossing an item. Automation systems provide details about circulation history and statistics. Be sure this feature is activated in your system. If you manage and circulate audiovisual hardware and miscellaneous technology items, make sure you also track that usage history in the system.

Collection assessment tools provided by media center book vendors are useful. The online analysis process provides detailed information on the age of the parts of the collection you choose to examine through a process of exporting MARC records and analyzing the data with vendor-provided tools. Data provides information about copyright dates in list and graph form and suggestions for titles to weed. Once you have learned how to complete the analysis, you will find it’s easy enough to do regularly. Of course, the results are only as useful as the data you submit.

Spreadsheets are useful. For compiling the results of the analysis, understanding the cumulative data, and providing concrete information needed to justify weeding and develop budget requests, spreadsheets are a great tool. When a teacher recently questioned our current weeding process, I was able to quickly provide the collection’s age. Data on the age of the science books communicated the “why” of our weeding clearly. That same spreadsheet spoke volumes when we requested funding for a major districtwide collection improvement. Both the superintendent and business manager advised me to ask for more money. That same spreadsheet has helped me prepare annual reports so we can thank those who have a say in providing the budget. Update the spreadsheet frequently so the information is current when you need it.

Keep or toss? Don’t know where to start or what to do with a specific item? Trust your instincts and the data. A very helpful tool is Weed of the Month, available on the web. The site is organized by Dewey Decimal Classification with specific suggestions, including particular considerations for each topic area. The general guidelines, as well as specific title suggestions for weeding, will definitely help your decision making. The titles and types of titles recommended for weeding are very typical of what still exists in many media centers. Aviation Electronics, published in 1970, might be lurking on the shelves. Refer to the references and resources list at the end of this article for more help.

Can volunteers help? Absolutely! We relied on supportive and qualified volunteers to assist with weeding two collections prior to moving to new facilities. I conducted workshops for the volunteers. Topics included a rationale and step-by-step procedural guidelines. We were fortunate to have a retired English professor and a retired social studies teacher in the group of community members who recognized and supported the need for collection improvement. They sorted books into appropriate piles and used a checklist to note suggestions (see box). They packed, labeled, and hauled hundreds of boxes (more about that later). We could not have completed this immense task without their help.

One of my online grad students suggested, “You can even have students help with weeding. I have had teen clubs help select books to weed just on [their] condition. It didn’t save me decision-making, but at least it got the books onto carts. (Of course, I had one teen who hated romance novels, so she pulled every romance paperback off the shelf with glee!)”

Of course, school media specialists and I worked with the volunteers and made all the final decisions. (The most memorable situation was when a volunteer got excited about a “squashed spider in [a] book.” It made a great story at a school board presentation!)

Technology needs to be weeded too. What’s this thing for? What’s a Zip drive? Obsolete, useless audiovisual equipment and resources and old computer technology needs to go to—at least most of it.

Resources such as VHS tapes, one-of-a-kind pieces of audiovisual equipment, and assorted cables can be a little trickier to deal with. One of our schools is currently weeding out VHS tapes that are never used but keeping those that are, because all classrooms have dual VHS/DVD players. Schools with streaming video services may want to hang on to items that are not available in other formats. Sometimes it’s good PR to hang on to items that are used, as long as they have a valid curricular use, you have the needed equipment to use them, and there is adequate storage. It never hurts to make the teachers happy by permitting them to continue using their favorite resources. We hung on to a few old 16 mm films until the teacher who used them retired!

Keeping a few older, seemingly obsolete peripherals around might pay off. Our old Mac USB keyboards are appreciated by teachers who would like a bigger keyboard to use with their PC laptops. Microphones that came with older Macs work with our lab machines that don’t have built-in mics.

Several media staff members have asked me what to do with old opaque projectors. Sometimes they are needed. Another media specialist recently asked about an old seal press laminator. It still works, but it may have to go since storage space is limited. Do consider keeping equipment that is one of a kind and hard to replace. If storage is a problem, see if there is a central location you can retrieve it from if needed. Oh, and don’t throw away the last copy of a software manual if it’s something someone might have a question about.

Weeding audiovisual equipment and technology varies with school and district policies along with the organizational structure. Dealing with these items may not even be your responsibility, but if it is, they are items to consider for weeding as well.

What do I do with this stuff? The details will depend on district or school policies and guidelines. Be sure you are familiar with them before you move forward. The general consensus in a January 2010 LM_NET discussion is to tear books up and take them to the trash. One media specialist said she discards items in small packages and personally delivers them to the dumpster to ensure they get where they are supposed to go.

Not selling weeded books is also a general consensus on LM_NET. There may even be prohibitions about selling student or staff items bought with taxpayer dollars. Some schools donate them to charitable organizations.

As a general guideline, our media centers throw away weeded books and do not redistribute them to classrooms. If it’s not good enough for students to use in the media center, it is not good enough to use in the classroom. One suggestion worth considering, though, is to give discarded books to art teachers who make altered books. It’s a good use of an old book. Another use is to move materials that are no longer needed in one school to district programs that do not have full access to a media center and resources, providing the resources are current and in good condition. This is working collaboratively within the realities of budget constraints.

A few years ago, we shifted gears when we built three new media centers and began districtwide collection improvements. Instead of throwing thousands of books in the trash, we worked with community volunteers who coordinated a collection and donation plan. A library vendor provided hundreds of boxes and picked up a truckload of books to deliver to a donation location.

Getting rid of equipment can be more complex. Guidelines and laws other than the district’s, including those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, must be followed when discarding televisions, computers, and some peripherals. Your district quite likely has a plan based on city and county recycling guidelines and works with recycling vendors. Talk to central office staff members who are responsible for recycling in your district.

No regrets. I’ve always enjoyed weeding and have never regretted a discarded book, filmstrip, VHS video, 3.5" floppy disk, interactive videodisc, or computer that didn’t work. What I have regretted is not weeding even more. Yet, there are items you should never throw out. Yearbooks, books written by school alumni, and books about the community that may be impossible to purchase are prime examples. Out-of-print books that still circulate even though they are in tatters might be worth keeping if the content is unique and students are enjoying them. Just as collection development varies from school to school, so does weeding. Local curriculum and needs always must be considered. Media specialists have many challenges. One is keeping the real reading and information needs of today’s students and teachers in mind. Instead of thinking about weeding, just do it.

Mary Alice Anderson is the lead media specialist for Winona Area Public Schools in Minnesota and is an online adjunct instructor with the online professional development for educators program in the school of education at University of Wisconsin–Stout where she teaches the courses Teaching Information Literacy with Primary Sources and Innovations and Opportunities for Media Specialists. She received a Top Online Educator recognition from SurfAquarium. She is a member of the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Direct Professional Development Review Committee and is available as a workshop presenter on primary sources and other topics. Her personal websites can be found at and Communications to the author may be sent to

Resources and References

Baumbach, Donna J., and Miller, Linda L., “Less is More: A practical guide to weeding school library collections,” American Library Association, 2006. (Includes guidelines by Dewey area and topic and a thorough list of weeding resources on the web or in print)

LM_NET Archives, October 2009–January 2010. Accessed Feb. 8, 2010.

Larson, Jeanette, CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries, Revised 2008. (Continuous Review, Evaluation, and Weeding)

Weed of the Month,, an initiative of the Florida Department of Education, School Library Media Services Office, administered by the SUNLINK Project Office in the College of Education at the University of Central Florida.

Use Discards to Create Teaching and PR Tools

Create two stacks of books (a physical graph) to depict how much $100 purchased in 1970 and how much it purchases today.

Create a timeline displaying appropriate books. Tie books published at the time with a display of books about the time.

Make a technology archives display. One such display holds a Macintosh Classic, an Apple II, a record player, an 8" floppy disk, records, a filmstrip viewer and much more. Parents and visitors love it.

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