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Looking for Answers among Tens of Thousands of Lost Books

Looking for Answers among Tens of Thousands of Lost Books

Brianna Henshaw

Books being “weeded out” scatter room 218 of William Allen White Library. Fifty thousand of the library’s 500,000 books are up for weeding, according to John Sheridan, dean of University Libraries and Archives.

I have been a Hornet for over four years and if the powers that be would let me, I would stay at this institution forever. However, I know I must move on and get that “real” job we are all working for. I have loved Emporia State since I was young and knew it would be the right place for me to earn my teaching degree and expand my knowledge.

As a graduate student, the connections I am making among what is being taught in my classes is both exciting and daunting, yet I am enthralled with the way this school has changed my way of thinking. Luckily, I am also a graduate teaching assistant and have been given the opportunity to share my love of the English language with my students. They sometimes look at me sideways when I get overly excited about a book or work of literature they have yet to read. However, their questioning gazes cannot squelch my overflowing excitement I have towards literature and reading.

The library has been many things to me over the years – a place to nap, work on group projects, find information and introduce my students to the ways of researching. Though it may not have always been the prettiest place to search for books and journal articles, the staff has made up for that with their knowledge and helpfulness. The fourth floor, a designated quiet zone, has proved useful beyond compare when I was in need of a silent area to study. After the first floor’s remodel over the summer, I was quite impressed with the facelift it had received and even more excited that students had access to it all day, every day.

One of the first things I notice as I walk up the steps to enter the library is the flora planted out front. In the warmer months, the smiling faces of the flowers greet me as I embark on my next literary mission. To keep any garden beautiful, it has to be weeded so the unwanted plants do not take over the rest of the maintained ones. As with gardens, libraries also have to be weeded, to make room for newer content and dispose of outdated sources.

Weeding, or culling, a library has to be a difficult task. What books are to be kept? Which ones are to be weeded out? I am certainly not brave enough to put any book on a chopping block, yet it must be done in order to keep our library up-to-date and as useful as possible to patrons.

The William Allen White Library’s weeding has been ongoing but really gained traction in October. Usually, a list of the books up for weeding are given to faculty for their input on what they think should stay in the library. The whole university works together in this process to make sure the students have the necessary materials to help them.

Unfortunately, this series of weeding seems to have been being conducted in shadows. There has yet to be a list produced of the books up for weeding, and a list of books which have already been destroyed is impossible to produce right now because, according to John Sheridan, dean of University Libraries and Archives, it does not exist. The books which have already been weeded have been torn apart with box cutters and are being tossed away. In trash cans. Like garbage.

When I saw these poor, mutilated books in person, my stomach turned. They were scattered in a huge pile, some already destroyed, and others awaiting the same fate. Across from them stood the trash cans where these books’ fallen brothers had been laid to rest. The scene was very much like one of those Sarah Mclachlan American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals commercials where you immediately turn the channel once you hear the song to avoid seeing the poor, helpless animals.

A long-winded yet congenial man, the dean invited me to his office Monday to talk about this latest weeding. The dean told me the books’ pages are being recycled, but the covers have to be trashed.

I spoke with Washburn University’s library to see what they do with their weeded books. They donate them to the Topeka Public Library for book sales. Other books are recycled, and books that nobody wants end up in the trash.

At the University of Kansas, some books are donated for a public book sale. Others are given to Better World Books, a company that works with librarians nationwide to rescue books from landfills. The company sells the books and gives a percentage back to the library. Whatever books they don’t sell go to non-profit organizations around the globe to increase literacy in second- and third-world countries. The company also donates a book for each book purchased and has set up scholarship funds for increasing literacy.

The business office here at ESU informed me that they are currently in communication with Better World Books. According to Kansas state law, because the library’s books were acquired with government money, the library itself cannot sell the books. However, they can be donated to charitable non-profit organizations (501C3). Although Better World Books is a for-profit organization, I was told by the business office there was a chance the library could donate the weeded books to them and still be within the confines of the law.

Apparently there is some confusion between the business office and Dean Sheridan, who stated the business office had told him there wasn’t enough time to work with Better World Books because of the accelerated timeline of the fourth floor remodel, which has yet to produce any finalized plans.

Though he had told frequent library patron Max McCoy, associate professor of journalism and adviser of The Bulletin, that the business office had said there wasn’t enough time to work with Better World Books, the dean told me Monday that Betty Norton, the library’s bookkeeper, was in communication with the business office and Better World Books was currently being looked into.

McCoy, a well-known writer, often uses books and materials in the library without checking them out. An irreplaceable set of materials, the Emporia City Directories, were found missing from shelves by McCoy, who frequently uses the century-old collection in his work. With this example of the library overlooking such priceless materials and sending them to be weeded, I worry that other important materials and books are being slated for weeding simply because they haven’t been checked out in the past 15 years.

During a meeting with the dean a week before mine, McCoy asked if there was any way to stop the destruction of the books while other alternatives, including Better World Books, were looked at. He was told there was not. And so the destruction continues.

The fourth floor, now a designated “quiet zone,” is the only floor left which houses books. Because of its potential to become a learning commons, the books on this floor are being “squished” among other books. I am not opposed to having another area where students can go to study, but if it comes at the cost of destroying tens of thousands of books, I say look elsewhere for the new learning commons area.

Typically, the library and other faculty work together to decide which books to weed. However, this cycle has been far from typical. Though a list of books slated for weeding has been requested multiple times since October, one has yet to appear. This means that the faculty, who normally have a say into what books are beneficial to their students and should be kept on the library’s shelves, are not being consulted in any way, and books that may prove to be invaluable to a field of study very well could be cut apart with no say from the instructors on campus.

In addition to the list, faculty across campus are usually asked if they have any interest in the books slated for weeding. If so, the chosen books are relocated to different departments around campus, or put up in displays, like in the cases lining the hallways of nearly every building on campus.

I asked the dean about the lists of books up for weeding and why the university faculty had yet to receive them. He responded that that responsibility was left up to the library faculty, who used their best judgment and academic freedom about which books to weed. The dean quoted me that 50,000 of the library’s half a million books were up for weeding. In a meeting with McCoy just a week before, that number had been 100,000, or 20 percent of the library’s collection. Either different people are getting different answers from the dean, or the number has been reduced.

The criteria for books to be weeded are as follows – any book that has not been checked out since 1999, books with multiple copies, and any book that has a large amount of dust on it. This “dust test” has proved a useful tool, according to the dean. It saddens me deeply to think our library is using dust as a measure of the value of a book.

In fairness, a book with a good amount of dust on it probably is a good indicator that it has not been used in some while, but who’s to say what the next generation of students will find valuable or useful? McCoy had seen Kansas history books being destroyed on the second floor of the library. Obviously a 1980s book about computers would be irrelevant today, but history books are timeless. Could not these books have been housed elsewhere than a garbage can?

In fact, McCoy, and Susan Brinkman, assistant director of the Center for Great Plains Studies, have volunteered their help in weeding and housing books and to prevent their destruction. Their offer was unanswered. They also asked the dean for a list of books that were up for weeding and were told they could not have one.

I, like many instructors I have spoken with, use books in the library without ever checking them out. Thanks to the scanning machines, I can digitize the books’ pages and send them to myself in an email. Because the books I use are not checked out, they do not have a circulation record of my using them, even though they are, in fact, being circulated. With the 1999 cut-off date, books that instructors use in the library may be tossed in the weeding pile simply because there is no record of them physically being checked out. When I questioned the dean about this, he stated that this is a situation which all libraries deal with and that more research about this scenario was needed.

In the past couple of weeks, the dean has had more attention than in his three and a half years here at ESU. I asked him why he thought that was. He believes it is because of the visibility of the weeding project, since the fourth floor is being remodeled into a new learning commons area.

The dean stated that this weeding project is no different than the ones in the past. If this is true, I am alarmed. With the misinformation and lack of communication coming from the dean and library’s staff, I can only assume previous weeding projects during the dean’s time here were conducted in the same manner.

“Libraries have always been in the learning business, not the book business,” Sheridan explained. As our world becomes more digital, more resources are available on the internet. However, when I think of a library, I don’t think of the internet, I think of books. There is nothing that compares to the musky scent of a decades-old book as you flip through the rough pages, looking for that one specific page or chapter you referenced in the index.

Maybe it’s because I’m an English major that I am so indebted to actual, physical books. But you shouldn’t have to belong to a specific major to appreciate a hardback filled with knowledge and ideas you have never come across before.

Just think if the destruction that is happening in the library was happening in your field of study. If beakers were being broken because of dust, if microscopes were being smashed, or paintbrushes broken in half. How would you react if something you loved was assigned an arbitrary date and value and then demolished?

When I feel the need to weed out my own humble book collection, I always place the books which have overstayed their welcome in a box to be delivered to Goodwill because I know that one woman’s trash is another’s treasure.

One last thing, before I let you go. The dean told me the whiteboards in the first floor learning commons of the library have been very helpful in letting him and the library faculty know what students want or think, so feel free to pick up a marker and tell them what you think.

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