Why Weed What We Read?

Call me Herman.

While sitting on Plum Island overlooking the marsh reading Melville’s early novels, it’s easy to imagine I’m on a lush tour of the South Pacific.

A headset offering “virtual reality”?  I would prefer not to.

In semi-retirement and with an insistent preference for hardcover, I’d go broke buying Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, and White Jacket—not to mention tired and blind trying to find them in bookstores.

Among many other things—civic archives and events, children’s reading programs, on-line resources and the computers to access them, not to mention technical assistance for all of the above—this is what libraries are for.

So, off to the Newburyport Public Library I went searching for Omoo (Tahitian for “rover”). Not there. The Modern Library of America’s four Melville compilations I had borrowed in the past?  All gone. In fact, all I found was a single copy of Moby-Dick.

The on-line catalogue for the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium listed just one Omoo, and so I had it sent from Methuen.  Next day, I spotted a friend from out-of-town who works at a library upriver photographing City Hall’s Juneteenth celebration and inquired.

He told me it’s called “weeding.” With so much on-line, many books never circulate.  And then there’s MVLC.

“So, one Omoo is enough for over 30 city and town libraries?” I asked. He shrugged, I shrugged, and the mayor began to speak. That night, I sent him a message asking if weeding was a secret.

Here’s something that is not a secret:  Public libraries are as high as public education, public transportation, public everything on the Republican Party’s hit list.  Are librarians now doing their dirty work for them?

While mulling that over, I received this:

It’s no secret.  All libraries weed. If a book doesn’t circulate over a period of time, it’s removed. If the book is worn, meaning well read, we purchase another copy, if still in print.

Some are replaced by new trendy volumes on the same subject. You may not be able to get contemporary accounts of historical events, he cracked, but you can always get some name-the time-or-place History for Dummies.

If another MVLC library has the same title, removal is to avoid duplication, unless it’s a hot title:

“You can see it for yourself.  Just walk through the literature and poetry sections.”

I did. As he says, “pretty anemic.”  The Reference section looks empty. A bookcase on the 3rd floor with coffee table books—atlases, photography, fashion, art, etc.—is now gone, “so too the oversized books because they didn’t circulate.”

His voice rose in print:

Of course not! Too big to take home. But I witnessed many patrons read/browse/enjoy them in our library. Most people can’t afford to buy those books. The library can.

I saw many parents with children looking at atlases and photography books together and teens sharing books. We’re weeding not just books, we’re weeding people.

Given the overall demise of print, I asked, shouldn’t public libraries be increasingly vigilant safeguarding books?

 “Ha!  A story from your own library circulated throughout MVLC that a patron wanted a second look at the two volumes of The Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier.  Perhaps that patron delighted to think someone else had them, but when unable to place a hold, he inquired.


No matter that Whittier has deep Newburyport connections and that the books, published by a relative in 1894, contain his letters, always of deep local, historical value.

How are empty spaces on shelves better than those books?  Than any books?  This is not the product of careful thought, but of “policy and procedure,” the very antithesis of thought that turns thinking people into badly programmed robots.  At a library no less.

Oh, the irony!  Just 21 years ago NPL expanded to the tune of $6.8 million for what?  More books, they said back then. Maybe they think Washington, Jefferson, Lafayette, and John Quincy Adams are coming back through their door and they need bunk beds.

From my first inquiry, my librarian friend and I kept using a phrase: “with so much on-line.” Yet more irony!  This dialogue began at a celebration of an American historical event as overlooked—perhaps as weeded—as Omoo all these years.

What’s on-line?  I would prefer we start thinking of what’s on the line.


The 2001 expansion is the curved structure from the left into the center as well as the entrance that links it to the old Tracy Mansion, built in 1771, into which the library moved in 1866.

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