I took on the care and feeding of the children’s chapter book collection in the fall of 2008. This collection, spanning three buildings, is about 8000 books and hadn’t seen much weeding in several years.

I would be handing off the branch collections at the turn of the year to the newly hired assistant branch manager, and before I did so I wanted to make sure some pruning took place. Print outs from the tech services department in hand, I spent several afternoons wading through the collections at the LPL North and South branches. Some series were pulled en masse and others we debated keeping despite a decrease in circulation (e.g. Brian Jacques). Extra copies of Harry Potter books went into storage-one really only needs three or four copies of book seven during the off season between films. And I started lists of things that needed to be replaced or purchased at both locations. We have heavy plastic weeding bins and I filled up a number of them at both locations.

Then I started at Main. As my work was done sporadically as I had a free afternoon here or there, deep weeding took the better part of a year. I saw and touched nearly every single book in the collection. If it was on the shelf, I looked at it, checked it off my list, made a decision on condition, and either replaced it on the shelf, put it in a pile with a note to check the series or be replaced, or it went into a weeding bin. If it wasn’t on the shelf, I needed to know why. Was it missing? Was it checked out? I learned quickly that my work card only allowed 100 holds as I started placing holds on the materials checked out. The staff hold shelf was constantly crammed with books with my name on them. The “missing/lost” lists still haven’t recovered. I discarded an average of four-five weeding bins per range of shelves (we have 4 units containing chapter books– 8 ranges of 16 shelves each). I’m still working on a solid grasp of series and suggested reading lists but I’ve certainly made a start.

My goal was not to bar access to great literature. It wasn’t to limit reading options or discard beloved children’s classics. I don’t get some kind of strange pleasure out of getting rid of a book your child read once ten years ago and loved. And yes, I got the occasional horrified look as I’d grab a series that was yellowed and crumbling and fling them collectively into a bin bound for the Friends of the Library Book sale (e.g. Magic Attic). Whether it was horror at the condition of the books or horror that I was weeding varied.

But it was time for housekeeping. All collections, whether they are your home stash of elephants or the library juvenile fiction books, need pruning. The shelves here were stuffed to the point one was afraid to take something out–you’d never get it back on the shelf. This hindered browsing and meant I had no space to turn anything cover out. We all pick up things based on the cover. There were series that weren’t complete or had long outlasted their time. Yes, the Mary-Kate and Ashley books still occasionally checked out but not nearly often enough, in my opinion, to keep all four series now that both girls have dropped out of college.

And books with ratty, dated, beat up covers have a limited appeal, particularly the children. The majority of the kids I know come in looking for something shiny, bright and applicable to them. If they are greeted with yellowing pages, early 80s clothing and hair cover art, and “library edition” stickers –kids will leave thinking that the vast majority of the books aren’t interesting to them. And they won’t want to come back.

I replaced a lot of classics, generally with newer versions that I thought would circulate better. We might have had a copy of the book but if it looked old or boring or a little too well loved, it was time to wade through for something newer. The book doesn’t do anyone any good sitting on a shelf collecting dust. There’s a reason they have been reissuing Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters with covers that look remarkably like the Twilight books. And I’m a big fan of the new Beverly Cleary/Judy Blume covers.

That we would replace a book when, technically, we had a perfectly readable copy has surprised some patrons. It has been perceived, I suppose, as a waste of money. But I would argue that the Matt Christopher books are circulating much better now and boys are reading them. Or that the Blume and Cleary books are far more likely to be in the hands of a child–and purchasing those classics in a format that helps kids to enjoy them is, in my mind, an excellent use of money.

As I’ve weeded, there has been a lot of adding/replacing. Books in our collection get a lot of love and life out of them and bindings crumble, covers fray, pages get ripped out and some get lost or stolen. It’s the nature of a public library. The 2009 year alone I added nearly 1000 books to the collection, between replacements, filling out series, and newly published titles. Our “new” shelf has been fully loaded all year with cool options and that makes for a very pleased hedgehog.

The weeding and ordering and wading through reviews has well been worth it in terms of happy kids and increased usage. Over the summer months I saw a 16% increase from 2008 to 2009. That number has flattened out a little now that everyone is back in school (October we were only up 10%), but the books displayed face out keep needing to be refilled and the new books are circulating quite nicely from their display area. So, as I pause to indulge in a little self-congratulations, I’m doing something right. In this case, a focus on quality rather than quantity has revitalized the collection. And lest you think I “got rid of everything”–there are currently 4759 books in the chapter book section. By no means are the shelves bare.

Amusingly, I had one patron tell me that as long as I was buying new copies of Newbery books, things would be fine. She was pretty surprised when I responded that while yes, I bought current Newbery winners and replaced ones still relevant to our collection , it wasn’t my current plan to find obscure early awards winners that circulate only to the rare person wanting to read “all the Newberys” (why we have interlibrary loan) or the last college student of the third section of the children’s lit course who has to read one. Besides, Daisy Meadows has another set of Rainbow Magic Fairies books due out soon….