This article was featured in Library Notes #51 (April 2009).
By: James Shedlock, Director
As most users know, the Galter Health Sciences Library holds book sales from time to time, pulling the majority of the sales material from two sources: discards from the library's circulating, historical and rare book collections and gifts from users and publishers. So why does the library weed its collections at all?
There are several reasons, one of which is that the Galter Library lacks space for newer materials. In fact, most libraries weed because they simply cannot keep everything they acquire. Some books only serve a useful purpose for a limited time. Perhaps you think that most books should be preserved: after all, books can still serve a historical purpose once their currency is spent. However, for a library to keep everything - its own acquisitions as well as donations - its stack space must continue to grow which is a very costly proposition for any one institution to support.
At the Galter Library our ability to preserve the health literature and grow the collection is limited by space. In 1996, when the Galter Library was last renovated, we received a very generous expansion of space. What exists now is the largest that the library can grow physically without interfering with other plans for precious space in the medical school complex, namely, the need to expand research facilities.
So how do we decide which titles to remove from the collections? One of the main criteria applied in our weeding process is a track record of use or lack of use. Book titles that circulated fewer than 5 times in the last 20 years or so are prime targets for being discarded. Other criteria used to preserve books at Galter include whether or not any local peers own the same edition. Galter staff compares our ownership with academic health sciences libraries in Illinois, the greater Midwest region and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago). If our volume is one of the last available, then the title stays on the shelf. Also, books authored by Northwestern faculty or ones that have some connection to Northwestern are automatically kept. Autographed books are almost always retained along with books that are about the history of a health discipline or condition. Other criteria for weeding include books that were added a long time ago but are now out-of-scope, duplicate items and damaged books that lack important content and cannot be easily repaired. If there is any other special characteristic about the book, staff will more than likely keep the volume.
The bottom line is Galter staff believes it is very important to keep the collection as current as possible but with a healthy dose of historical perspective added for balance. This is a compromise, a common one for many libraries, which we learn to live with given the limitations of institutional space. Removing unnecessary items also ensures that the collection is more usable for our users. Galter librarians will continue to select the best books in order to to create as current and complete a collection as possible for the Feinberg School of Medicine.