The Lives of Library Books

The Dillsburg Area Public Library has a collection of approximately 30,000 items for our patrons to use. They range from children’s books to adult books, from board books to highly technical specialists material, from audiobooks to large print, and more. We also have access to digital resources as well.

This collection of materials is never the same. Things are constantly being added and, sadly, subtracted as well. So library materials, be they books, DVDs, audiobooks, or similar, have a life cycle. They have a lives. How long an item stays in our collection and available to the public depends on a number of factors. Some items will stay in the collection for decades and others might not last more than a year or two.

Library collections are in many ways like any type of collection. Say you have your own collection (doesn’t really matter what it is exactly): you will select items that met your budget, needs, and tastes. The library isn’t any different. We purchase materials within our budget that meet the needs and tastes of our community.

Items come into the collection in different ways, but the vast majority are selected for purchase by a staff member. These items will need to be processed for the shelf. They will need to be added to our catalog and given a barcode number so we can identify it. They might need stamped, stickered, and covered. Once all of these things happen, they are placed on the shelves and checked out by our patrons.

Just like other types of collections, we have to select items to remove. There are many different reasons for this. The main reason we at Dillsburg remove materials from the collection is the need for space. We only have so much space on our shelves and since we are pretty constantly adding things, it only follows that we would need to create room for new items.

So what gets pulled and when? Some items have a natural shelf life. We only expect them to be on the shelf for a couple of years or less. A tax guide, a travel guide, or a test prep book, for example, are more frequently pulled and replaced. It is the same in fields where technology or knowledge change rapidly, as in computer science and medicine.

Trends can dictate what comes and goes in the collection. Popularity will cause libraries to purchase extra copies of a fiction title to satisfy demand, but once that passes those extra copies are pulled (this doesn’t happen often at Dillsburg). We will also purchase materials to met a particular interest or trend. Once a fad or trend passes, we want to have representative items but we might not need all that we have purchased.

The vast majority of items that get removed from our shelves are pulled because they have not been checked out for a few years. The amount of time a book has to remain static before we pull it depends on a couple of factors, but usually 2-3 years is typical. Not circulating does not automatically mean that an item will be removed, but it is a good starting point. Some books, like those of local history or great literary value, will remain in the collection regardless of circulation. There are books that libraries should just have.

Condition is another reason to remove items from a collection. DVDs can only be played so many times before they stop functioning. Books will fall apart after some many uses. Items can only be glued, cleaned, taped, or otherwise put back together so many times. Occasionally items will remove themselves. Material can either be lost, stolen (sadly), or misplaced. As with both condition and lost items, sometimes the item does not warrant replacement.

Finally, items can be removed because of their format. This does not happen often, but technology marches on. When I started in libraries in 2006, there were still VHS and cassette tapes still available in many collections. As other more modern formats become more widely available, older legacy material may reach a point where its limited use will not warrant the space it takes. For some this is an easy transition, for others this is a major shift.

Books and other library materials will come and go from our collection at different paces and for different reasons. Library collections are constantly changing and evolving. Sometimes we have to say goodbye to old friends to make way for new. It’s the library life cycle!

Keith L Greenawalt