Books & weedingHere’s a story from the Crookston (MN) Times about the local school district doing a “good turn” – donating its old textbooks to a charity, Books for Africa, that sends them to African schools.

The story includes a quote from Ione Swenson, the district’s curriculum/staff development/assessment coordinator:

You hate to throw them out. We’d much rather see them put to good use.”

“Unfortunately, a lot ended up being thrown away, especially those in bad shape or really old,” added Jim Kent, who assists Swenson in her office. “We’ve tried to give them to other districts if they could use them.”

Texts (and regular nonfiction) in many fields, particularly in the sciences and social studies, are like cartons of milk with pull dates – they really shouldn’t be kept for more than ten years, because the information in them goes stale. But the kind of sentiment in the quote above – implying that books that were once useful will continue to be useful – is shared by way too many people in the U.S., and leads to several big problems for libraries.

1) The big piles of college textbooks that stack up in a corner of every library, donated by people who last saw a college classroom at least ten years ago.

2) Citizens who get angry when they see boxes or (worse) dumpsters full of “perfectly good books” that never circulated or have gone out of date and have been discarded or recycled. (They’re “perfectly good” because no one wants to read them anymore.)

3) Librarians who are hesitant to weed, due to the above, as well as subject to their own urge to keep old books.

If these textbooks are truly useful to the children of Africa, I say, “Great.” I hope that BfA has someone on staff who weeds these donated texts for currency, and recycles the beat-up and out-of-date stuff. But if not, I wonder how much benefit books that were once good and are now seriously out of date will bring them.

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