The fate of books… and libraries

A piece on the disappearance of 250k+ books from Walthamstow, and on the fate of books and libraries more generally.

Firstly, it is a scandal that so many books were disposed of, with no apparent thought for alternatives. That some books need to be weeded is accepted by most people. But there should always be a robust policy in place to make sure that where possible books make their way to a new use, be that other libraries or through sales to locals. And when books are sold, they should get the best prices.

Secondly, those weeding policies should aim at minimising removals where possible. The length of time between loans is important, but should be generous. Repair of damaged books should be looked at. When planning libraries, room for bookstock is primary (hello, Library of Birmingham planners…)

Thirdly, rare and/or valuable books should not be weeded but used as promotional materials. A colleague of mine did so at one of our centres, with beautiful but not often borrowed art books being made into a new Special Collection.

Fourthly, where there is a Reserve Stock/ Stack it needs to be promoted and monitored.

Finally, it is interesting to see how many people in the debate over Walthamstow link the decline in professional posts to the book losses. The lack of any oversight in the weeding and cataloguing do seem to have had an impact. The policies of the councillors seems to have done the rest.

As for the eulogy to libraries of old, I am not so sure. Certainly we need to promote the value and power of reading, but it doesn’t follow that we need the reverent mystique around reading that is talked of.

Lots of books, nicely displayed, well chosen and enthusiastically promoted is the key. And that can all be done in a good Children’s Library and still leave room for the quiet and reflective Library, to which in good time those children who want it can move. And both can live alongside computer (and future multimedia) spaces.

If only councillors and architects- and librarians- had the imagination to build such a place.


8 Responses to The fate of books… and libraries

  1. Cliff Burns says:

    The role of library as depositories for books has changed radically thanks to the digital revolution. Now libraries have more and more of their funding directed toward computers, DVD’s and emerging technologies. Fewer books, less money to replace books. It’s all about providing information…which, as we all know, is a far cry from WISDOM…

  2. Pete says:

    Welcome Cliff.

    I think part of the problem is, as you say, that libraries have become identified with the provision of information. Now, that is and will be part of their job. But it is not the whole of their job- well, it shouldn’t be.

    As I have said, there’s room for all sorts of information access in libraries. But right now books are the main source of all the other stuff- entertainment, challenge and so on- and the presence of books also has a role in establishing the nature of the library as a place.

    Wisdom, though- I wouldn’t want to claim that for libraries 🙂 The beginning of wisdom is often at the end of reading.

  3. Cliff Burns says:


    Great to see your response. Walthamstow is in north London, isn’ it? I read a wonderful series of books by Jeremy Cameron about the criminal element there, I think the first one was VINNIE GOT BLOWN AWAY. In-teresting sounding place…

  4. Pete says:

    I don’t really know London.

    For what it’s worth, I didn’t even bother going to see 300 😉 As a history nerd the very idea offends me. It doesn’t need pumping up to be an interesting story of imperial ambition, sacrifice etc etc.

    My boss is very much into graphic novels. I’ve read some I liked, some that were meh. I don’t think they have to be limited or braindead; like any medium it depends on the artist.

  5. Miriam Palfrey says:

    I agree with your first point but I think I need to know a bit more about the situation before I’d be prepared to make any judgment. There is something a bit “off” about the newspaper articles I’ve read, the link provided by the GLB is poorly written and unclear and both this article and the Independent one seem to be shocked that shelves are ever weeded at all under any circumstances.

    Books go missing all of the time and, shocking as this might seem to some, it is not always the fault of library staff. I’d have thought that the lack of professional staff to monitor losses and manage stock was probably a large contributory factor in this case as it seems that their catalogue hadn’t been updated for a while.

    Your second point… yes and no. I’d say that weeding policies should ensure that the quantity and quality of books available are not affected. In other words, if the books are being replaced then I have no problem with them being removed in the first place. The length of time between loans which I’ve heard mentioned 3 years and 1 year would certainly be cause to consider the merits of that particular item. It really depends upon the area of stock for example a crime novel which hasn’t been borrowed in a year is simply taking up valuable shelf-space.

    The third and fourth points seem fair enough, although not all of us have rare or valuable books which can be promoted 🙂 😦

  6. Miriam Palfrey says:

    edit to the above>

    I’d say that weeding policies should ensure that the quantity and quality of books available are not adverselyaffected.

  7. Pete says:


    yes it may be that some books have been stolen/gone missing elsehere. But that doesn’t account for 250K.

    In the last few days the council have acknowledged the scale of the losses. It seems to have been as much a series of political errors of judgement as anything else.

    I agree, too many people want everything to be kept for ever. That can’t be the case, space etc being what it is- limited. That said…

    If books are removed because they are tatty, yes that is fair enough. And if they are clearly no longer relevant- things that are out of date is a clear example. Some such things may be retained as ‘classics’ of their kind, although that brings in the vexed issue of what constitutes a classic reference book to be retained for its insights?

    It is the ‘taste’ driven ones that cause some concern- why pick on a defenceless crime novel? 😉

    At any rate, the lack of professional oversight is a real issue. And yes, replacement of removed books is fine. I think the concern here is that these books have not been replaced.

  8. Miriam Palfrey says:

    I agree, I’d go as far as to say that the main concern in this case is that the books were not replaced.

    I don’t think that stolen and missing stock accounts for the whole 250k, my point was that without regular monitoring (by professional staff) that a lot of books can go missing and unaccounted for.

    I wasn’t picking on crime novels 🙂 Crime is (in our service anyway) notoriously difficult to weed because the books are so popular that they can be falling to pieces and people still borrow them. If a crime novel hadn’t gone out for a year then it’s far better to replace it with something that people will want to read. New crime novels are pulished all the time, not to mention reprints of classics so in order to ensure that we can fit new books on the shelves we coudl either give over half of each library to crime or be ruthless when weeding the stock.

    The distinction in other areas is more difficult, personally I would say that unless we had a good reason for retaining an out of date reference book (an existing and well used back-run, something of local interest or phenominal historical interest perhaps) then we aren’t really obliged to hold on to it once it becomes obsolete and can be replaced.

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