Weeding Out in Widener


WIDENER LIBRARY officials pushed the panic button last month. The seemingly infinite edifice is running out of shelf space and. "Books will be on the floor" unless something is done soon. Charles Montalbano supervisor of the Widener stacks, predicted Library officials have yet to decide on a plan of action.

The crisis makes it imperative to examine the vast number of wasted books stored on the Widener shelves.

Everyone has a favorite section of the stacks, where one is sure to be able to study without the distracting presence of other humans. Except during exam and reading periods, vast portions of the stacks remain virtually deserted. Serene empty corridors are fine, but the books lining them are another matter. Are these books being used? Should they be taking up space if widener's shelves are so overcrowded?

A quick survey: Out of 10 books picked randomly in the Portuguese History and Literature section of the stacks, only two had been checked out in the last decade. In the Yiddish Literature section only one. In Italian History and Literature (1800-1899) two, in Oriental Literatures two, in Bibliography--History of Libraries two And in the Mid East Section. I had to go through 27 books before brooks before finding one that had ever been checked out.

The survey is, of course, skewed. The samples are not perfectly random, too small to be statistically significant, and unfair because any books currently checked out could not be included. But it suggests at least, that a lot of books in Widener are going unused. And it shows a fallacy in all of the plans the library mavens are considering to alleviate the space crunch--they treat all 3,160,000 books in Widener (give or take a few hundred thousand) as equi-useful.


Of course, sections rarely in use should not be discarded. Even books that have not been charged out recently (or ever) are useful. Many no doubt, are consulted but not checked out, and others may prove valuable to some reader in half a century.

One option under consideration is to install compacting shelving--sliding stacks on rails. Another is to move the more valuable books to a safer storage space with regulated humidity and temperature. A third plan is to store the less popular subjects off campus, perhaps at the New England Deposit Library, where Widener already rents space.

All of these plans ignore that in every section, nay on every shelf, useful books and less useful ones are mixed. Relegating an entire section off-campus is just as foolhardy as keeping every section. What Widener ought to be doing is weeding its collection and sending the most severely underutilized books to New England Deposit Library, where they can be retrieved within 48 hours.

Since the Widener circulation department has no record of how often particular books are charged out, this option would entail hiring staff to go through the stacks and check each book. Even then, records might be misleading, since checkout slips occasionally fall out. Library officials say this weeding-out process involves unfeasible time and manpower outlays. But compared to other strategies under consideration, it has clear advantages.

Compacting shelving, currently the rage among storage folks (it is now being installed in the Peabody Museum), is very space-efficient, since many shelves can be placed in one room, but is intended primarily for deep storage and is easily accessible to only one person at a time. When several people use compact shelving at the same time, coordinating the sliding shelves becomes a problem, and someone could conceivably get squashed. Moving valuable books to safer storage space is a nice idea, but just as expensive as the weeding-out option, and the "safer storage space" would probably prove less accessible than normal warehouse-style book storage. And kicking an entire section of the Widener collection off campus would contradict the library's purpose as a comprehensive facility. Besides, it would put the library in the impossible position of deciding which sections are least "important."

As some company says in its television commercials. "You may have to pay a little more, but you're worth it." Weeding out books along objective lines may cost a little more, but if Widener is to survive the current crisis of overcrowding and maintain its supremacy among college research libraries, the extra cost is worth it.