Automated book-culling software drives librarians to create fake patrons to "check out" endangered titles

My high school library was full of books. Take a closer look – computer science from the 80s, travel guides from the 60s, maps with the Soviet Union still listed (this was 2002).

I’m guessing the librarian did not toss these specimens simply because the shelves would be barren; we didn’t have the money for new books. So the old books remained, unused, of little interest to anyone except a historian, a historian who would never show up.


Have you read “Rainbow’s end” by Vernon Vinge. In the story there is a library system where the scanner literaly eats the books. As it shreds them it scans the broken pages and makes a digital copy. So the act of digitally copying actually destroys the actual book.


I have no problem with libraries getting rid of books. It gives me a chance to add out of print books to my library.

If you get them in time. My local library got rid of a huge bunch of Marguerite Duras books. Never did replace them.

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This reminds me of the Wells Fargo scandal, but for literacy.


So many things to comment on! I am a librarian (MLIS) but I don’t work in a library. On the other hand, I’ve worked with hundreds of public libraries as a materials handling consultant. Here’s my take on this thread:

  1. About weeding algorithms. There are lots of reports that librarians can run that will generate lists of books to be considered for weeding. Dusty Shelves List is basically the one being discussed and it refers to an item that hasn’t circulated in some period of time (set by the librarian running the report). These books are always reviewed by a librarian before being confirmed for discard.

  2. Last Copy. Librarians pay close attention to the “last copy” of a title and won’t get rid of it unless they are sure it can be gotten from somewhere else (downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg, borrowed from a partner library or interlibrary loaned from afar) or if it is really outdated and not “earning his position on the shelf.”

  3. Public libraries versus Academic Libraries versus Archives. Public libraries (as many have noted) are not about retaining the knowledge of humankind, they are about providing entertainment, current news and reference material. They are very limited in what they can afford to keep on the shelves so have to work very hard to keep their collections rotating out the old stuff (or just unpopular stuff) to make room for the new stuff. They can’t keep all those Catcher in the Rye copies when they have a waitlist of 150 people for the latest Patterson novel. However, they would sure be happy to get you a Catcher in the Rye or direct you to the Internet Archive where you can download a copy in multiple formats (

  4. About tossing out good DVDs. Most public libraries toss out DVDs after some number of circulations just because they start causing problems during playback and that ends up being extremely frustrating for patrons who go home, make their popcorn, and are ready to enjoy a good movie but can’t. A high circulating DVD will “usually” be replaced when taken out of the collection unless they can’t afford it.

  5. Automated storage and retrieval systems. Academic libraries use big storage warehouses to keep low circulating items or “last copies” and they can usually be ordered online and delivered to their patrons within a day or two. These systems cost millions of dollars to build and maintain but they allow many more books to be archived. Public libraries cannot afford such a thing although NYPL is building one (first one for public libraries). This will allow them to keep more of the kinds of books we’ve been discussing while leaving room for the popular titles that are more actively circulating in their 150 branches (or something like that).

  6. Resource sharing and Interlibrary loan. Many libraries partner with other libraries and have “reciprocal borrowing” relationships that allow everyone’s stuff to be freely shared with everyone else. You can find it in the catalog and request it and it comes to your library, even if it actually belongs to another library. This is the happening more and more (thankfully). But sometimes, the deals these libraries make are that they’ll share everything except, say, the popular DVDs. They do that to ensure the money they spend on those pricey DVDs goes to their patrons. Perhaps their library board or city council is ornery because they don’t want them lending their stuff to other libraries (without recognizing the benefit of the totality of a resource sharing arrangement to provide a 10-20x larger collection for their patrons to choose titles from). Interlibrary loan (ILL) is when you have no such relationship but you can still ask another library for a title. Pretty much all libraries will request anything you really want for you, you just have to ask. And ILL takes longer since it involves a bunch of paperwork.

  7. LGBTQ issues and books on the shelf. As a lesbian, I very much appreciate that libraries keep things on the shelves for a questioning LGBTQ person to find as I did when I was younger (thank you for Patience and Sarah). I agree that this is critical and provides more privacy than a Google search can. And besides, with the Google algorithms, there’s a good chance they are going to find out that Gays are Evil or some such horrible thing and not be guided to authoritative resources that they would otherwise find courtesy of a professional librarian. Also, many libraries are forced to employ Internet content filters which are not well managed (IMHO) so they might not be able to find ANYTHING that would help them if the content filters were blocking that category of content (which some unfortunately do but the folks in the library aren’t always paying as much attention as I wish they were to this issue).

I think that’s it. I hope you don’t mind my sharing my experience! I’m hoping you will find it interesting to hear more about the actual workings of public libraries (beyond what your particular library might be doing).


I’m ready an excellent biography of the typeographer Bodini right now that is chock full important historical information, as well as being a great reference book. I found it as a library discard. Publication date? 2016.


“I’d like to check out these books.”

“Certainly. Would you like to sign up for our Library Plus Card? Or How about the Friends of the Library Account?”


I like that librarians watch Burn Notice.


It occurs to me that maybe a study could be done. Compare the choices of the algorithm with that of n librarians, over time t. See how they compare. The statistics would have to be done carefully. It probably would cost big bucks, so the chances of this actually happening are small, I guess.

Yeah, sounds like these librarians are huge fans of things that the general public doesn’t actually care about…

From the article:

"…then used the account to check out 2,361 books over nine months in 2016, in order to trick the system into believing that the books they loved were being circulated to the library’s patrons…

…to teach it how to weight the circulation data to reflect the on-the-ground intelligence and historical perspective they had on their libraries, their collections and their patrons…"

These are possibly, but not necessarily, the same thing. What if the books the librarians loved were

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That’s sad. A small, well-curated collection will always be more useful than a large collection of mostly crap.


Agreed! :smiley:

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At least also keep A Fire Upon Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Come on over to my house to read if you want, though I guess I should invite the library patrons only able to read one of a loose trilogy. I have the Realtime novels, a bunch of collections and The Witling, but not Grimm’s world. What critical works would you have included?

I do not throw anything out in my library so I do have a problem with too many books.

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Thanks for the info! Stick around…there are many interesting non-library-related conversations going on in this forum too.


…Or filing them…The amount of labor saved by going to computer cataloging is NON-trivial.


[quote=“GaleciaGroup, post:79, topic:92105”]
I hope you don’t mind my sharing my experience!
[/quote]Like with every librarian, I’m also fascinated by any experiences you might have decorating, say, a book cart and using it for a choreographed drill piece…


And the standards for keeping stuff is different across different disciplines…Computer books from the 90s are more outdated than mathematics books from the 50s. Certainly within a discipline the circulation history of a title can be a very useful piece of information when weeding. We’re pretty rigorous about getting rid of older editions when we own the newer edition. Space is finite or decreasing, and it is really quite inefficient to have shelves that are totally full so that you have to shift just to fit a new book in.

And of course the “digitize everything” crowd usually don’t realize two things:
1.) Just how labor intensive digitization can be when you’re talking about a LARGE collection.
2.) The library simply does not have the right to digitize entire volumes that are still under copyright, and the vast majority of the collection is covered by “perpetual on the installment plan” copyright.


If you were using a card catalog after the 1960s, you just saw the version for human eyes. Libraries were doing machine readable cataloging back then.