This week, I’m going to address more of the manager/HR/legal side of libraries. Specifically, liability. Recently, ABC News reported about a library that threw away 100,000 books and the uproar it has caused. The Alameda County’s East Bay Branch, located in Fremont, CA, has indeed thrown out thousands of books and is now a witch hunt by citizens over the books they’ve thrown away.
“This is an outrage, Justin! How dare they throw away books!”
NO. STOP RIGHT THERE.
If your first thought is, “all those poor books!”, then you’ll need to take a minute and breathe, because you won’t like what I’m going to say next.
The truth is that many of those books probably needed to go. I know hearing that might raise your blood pressure, but please hold your tempers until I finish with my reasoning. First and foremost, I want you to keep the following phrase in the back of your head when reading:
BOOKS THAT DON’T CHECK OUT DON’T STAY.
With that phrase in mind, let’s dive further into the world of collection development and the reasons why books are thrown out:
Weeding for damaged books
Books get dirty. Books get damaged. Nobody wants to read a book that’s ripped, smelly, or stained (Especially if it’s 50 Shades of Grey.), and Alameda County Library Director Carmen Martinez didn’t mince words about that. Martinez confirmed about 172,000 books were discarded over the past two years, saying, “Some things have to go. They’re outdated, they’re worn out, a dog chewed them up, they have coffee stains”; Martinez told ABC News they were forced to make shelf space after spending about $3 million on new books.
We come across books all the time that come back in terrible condition. The spine is broken, pages are missing, mold or mildew stains, coffee rings, cigarette burns, corners torn, odors from cigarette smoke to cat urine – many of these are books you wouldn’t want in the first place. I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving a book like that to anyone, would you? A dirty/ripped/smelly book doesn’t get checked out, so it just sits there taking up space that a perfectly good book could be in. In other words…BOOKS THAT DON’T CHECK OUT DON’T STAY.
Weeding for unpopular books
By now, I’ll trust that you’ve read the article, so let me address some snippets from it:
Yes, many of those books were unpopular. Maybe the book was a passing fad that has outlived it’s 15 minutes of fame. Maybe it was just a boring book and nobody wanted to read it. Maybe it fell behind a shelf and hasn’t seen daylight in a decade. Either way, they haven’t been checked out in years and they’re taking up space that a popular book could be in.
How would you feel if you walked into an Apple store wanting the iPhone 6 and they only had iPhone 4S? The 4S came out in the last 5 years (2011), so you should be okay with it, right? Of course not! You’d demand to know why you can’t get the product you want. Many people have trouble accepting the simple truth that the library is a business, and we can’t be offering a product nobody wants to buy (or check out). If Apple didn’t have what you wanted, you’d take your business elsewhere. Likewise, you’d find an alternate means of reading your book if you didn’t find it at the library or through interlibrary loan.
Let’s say they had the iPhone 6…but ONLY the commemorative Willie Mays edition. Would you still get it? If yes, cool for you. If no, why not? Don’t you want to shroud your phone in our “collective history”? Just because it’s available doesn’t mean people want it. If the book hasn’t been checked out since the day it was put on the shelf, then it’s just taking up space.
An iPhone 4S wouldn’t sell today, and things that don’t sell in a store don’t stay on the shelf…likewise in a library, BOOKS THAT DON’T CHECK OUT DON’T STAY.
(Sensing a pattern?)
Willie Mays might be part of our collective history, but its cultural significance won’t matter if nobody ever reads it. Besides, that’s your cultural history, not mine.
Anyone here heard of Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi? Probably not, but he’s the oldest living ninja master in the world at the time of this article. My brothers and I have always been into martial arts, and this guy has been practicing Ninjutsu, Aikido and Karate for over 60 years; Dr. Hatsumi has been writing about martial arts, ninjas, and other topics since before I was born, and I read his books as a kid. Speaking of which, his latest book came out in 2014 – 83 years old, still fighting and writing! However, I doubt you’ll find his books in most libraries either, because most people don’t have a burning desire to learn about ninjas.
Even if there was a sudden surge of requests for ninja books, I’ll bet it wouldn’t be for long and they would be weeded a few years later. (Sorry, Doctor.)
Weeding for Inaccurate and Dangerous Books
As time progresses, information changes and gets updated. In the education, financial and medical fields, this is very important. Let’s look at this next bit here:
Maybe you like older stuff to see how things were back in the day, but that’s what history books are for. If you want “historical value”, read a history book – there’s a difference between “depth for research” and “updated depth for accurate research”. A science book from 1955 would be fun to look through for historical value, but you’d be crazy to read it for accurate research…sometimes, we have to weed these kinds of books to stop people from unknowingly/accidentally using it for that.
Financial/legal information changes all the time. Tax information, the legal fine print, investments, money strategies…that stuff is always changing. Don’t laughed out of a bank, investment office or law firm because you were using data from 10 years ago.
Education information changes all the time. Would you want your kid using a 2010 SAT or ACT book? Of course not! The test format changes every few years, and you wouldn’t want your kid to fail. How about regular school books? How would you feel if your child came home with a copy of You Will Go To The Moon by Mae and Ira Freeman? A riveting book about the future of space travel, PUBLISHED IN 1959. I chose this book in particular because I actually weeded it at a previous library.
Medical practices are the most important, and change all the time. New studies, new research, new methods, etc make it important to keep updated information. Why is it the most important one? I’m going to give this one it’s own line:
OUTDATED MEDICAL BOOKS KILL PEOPLE.
I’ve seen several libraries in my time where a little old lady – be it a librarian, assistant, volunteer or even patron – holds onto a Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR) like it was their baby.
“No, you can’t weed this from the library! It’s a PDR! Everyone uses the PDR! You just CAN’T take it!”
Um, yes I can. It’s from 1987, and that could kill people. Nowadays, every business needs to protect themselves from liability and the library is no exception. Here’s how it works:
- Grandma uses 1987 PDR to diagnose a problem with Grandpa
- Old and inaccurate information leads to misdiagnosis and therefore wrong treatment
- Grandpa dies or suffers serious harm
- Grandma sues the library for letting her use an outdated book
- County/City gets into hot water
- Public outcry ensues
- Long legal process
I’m happy to replace it with a 2014 or 2015 PDR, but you can’t keep the one from the Reagan administration. Oh, and I know you’re lying about how often it’s used; the PDR is still sitting on page 60 where I left it…FOUR months ago.
This also applies to damaged books – it’s so easy to hold someone liable in this sue-happy world. Take Iris Clay for example:
Well, Iris, I would say here’s what would happen:
- Books with small amount of mold get donated to school
- Child with allergies affected by the mold, has some kind of reaction
- Parents sue the school for having dangerous books
- Library gets sued for donating dangerous books
It’s a crazy world out there, and we need to protect ourselves at all times from such lawsuits. With that, I’ll say BOOKS THAT DON’T (belong on the shelf because they’re too dangerous to) CHECK OUT DON’T STAY.
Weeding For Shelf Space
If we keep all the old, dirty, smelly, inaccurate and dangerous books that haven’t been checked out in 5 years, then it becomes crowded, gets dirty, starts to smell and looks like a crazy cat lady thrift book shop.
The nasty books need to be disposed of to better serve the library and to make room for sparkling new books – or at least fresh and clean replacements of the nasty ones.
This makes the whole process safer and easier – patrons can find the book they want more easily, and they won’t be grossed it when they find it; library staff won’t feel the need for gloves when touching books and moving them around. Everybody wins!
Liability in Donating/Selling Books
Now once we pull it from the library and replace it with a newer version, we DO NOT put it in the book sale. Why? Same legal liability as above. Donating or selling these books to somebody who then later causes serious harm or death to themselves or others results in the same lawsuits. This is like donating toys with lead paint to a preschool center, or Johnson and Johnson donating expired Tylenol.
There are some states however that limit liability under the Good Samaritan Law which offers “legal protection to people who give reasonable assistance to those who are injured, ill, in peril, or otherwise incapacitated”; while they mean this in the medical sense, it also applies to organizations that try to give reasonable assistance to others. If the local church gives the homeless canned food and the homeless person dies from it, should the church be held liable? Most people would say no – they offered it in good faith and were only trying to help. Libraries do the same offering books, but the library would rather throw them out then donate or sell an old PDR and be held liable if anything happened.
It’s very possible that Alameda County does not have Good Samaritan Laws or any limited liability and they threw these books out to protect themselves from potential lawsuits. I’m not a lawyer, nor have I consulted with Alameda County for their legal stance on Good Samaritan Laws. Can you really blame them now? Library Director Carmen Martinez isn’t some ruthless tyrant who needs to be fired – she’s a defender of the library and protector of her patrons who seems to be well-versed in HR and legal liability.
Hopefully, the moratorium will allow them time to establish some liability protection so everyone can benefit!
Okay, NOW you can let your tempers flare! What do you think – understandable and sometimes necessary evil, or still a director with no soul who needs to be fired? Comment below or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and share your thoughts!
Justin Brasher, Brash Librarian
Loved your article. And for the record, I have been working for Pasadena Public Library for 13+ years. One of the first things I did when I started (back in 2001) was to weed. And I have never stopped. It is a continuous project. If a library wants to keep up-to-date, even with fiction, it never stops weeding.
My name is William Simpson, Inter-Library Loan librarian for PPL.