Tips for Weeding Your Reference Collection

If you are responsible for collection development in just about any size or kind of library, the chances are good that there's been a recent push to reduce the size of your print reference collection.* Print reference materials are, to use a regional expression, wicked expensive. They are also being used less and less as librarians turn to databases and patrons turn to the immediate gratification of the internet. As budgets decline and libraries look to use their space in new and creative ways, physical reference collections are obvious targets for heavy weeding. Here at my library, we are reducing our reference collection by 50%. At our branches, reference collections will be cut by 75% . . . this time around. So where do you start when you are lucky enough to get the assignment to chop chop chop?

Before You Begin
Get a firm idea of how much the administration wants to reduce the reference collection. Survey the collection and determine how much you're going to have to weed to get it to that point. Review your library's collection development policy--you may actually be unable to weed some items, such as those related to local history. Some parts of the reference collection may provide greater or smaller opportunities for weeding, depending on how they were developed in the past and how much time-sensitive material they hold. Understand that--unless your task is to do away with the reference collection entirely--this will probably not be the last time you have to go through this process, so make notes as you go along.

Weeding reference materials can be tricky because there are no circulation stats to show that the items are being used or how often. Therefore if you can get an idea of what your patrons actually use, you'll have an advantage. If you have some time to accomplish the weeding project, start keeping track of what materials patrons and staff are using by using a "count use" function in your ILS or by keeping tabs in an Excel spreadsheet. Make sure that all items taken from the shelves are counted before they go back. You might also ask some regular patrons what they use and what they would like to have (without giving away that you're about to decimate the collection). The same goes for your co-workers; they may have reference sources that they regularly use and would be disappointed to find missing.

In my (urban, public) library, patrons regularly use the Hill-Donnelly street index, books of names, and the dictionary and thesaurus. These are the items that they have to come to the desk to get or are always out on the tables at the end of the day, so we know they're getting used. Keep in mind that most libraries are not research libraries with historical collections--there is no point in keeping outdated materials that are not being used by your patrons and co-workers. On the flip side, not everything has to be replaced or removed just because there's a digital option. If you have the space to keep reference materials, keep what's useful to your patrons and your staff.

Also helpful:
  • Review the CREW manual's advice on reference materials (, starting page 33, for tips on how to deal with specific items such as almanacs, encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, and legal forms). Your library may not be able to afford all that they recommend updating, but it's good to see some guidelines for public libraries.
  • Follow weeding guidelines for non-reference materials (see Booklist's "Weeding Tips: Shelf by Shelf" for some good, section-specific advice, login required for earlier articles).

General Tips
I'm focusing on public libraries here, because that's what I know, but hopefully what I'm saying here will translate. Feel free to add a comment if you have information to share.
  • Go section by section, rather than trying to tackle the entire reference collection at once. "I'm working on the 790s today" sounds so much more achievable, doesn't it?
  • Go through the section with a cart and pull items that are obviously outdated, in disrepair, duplicates, have superseding editions adjacent to them, etc. Don't fill more than one cart at once with the material you want to evaluate.

Should I Weed This Item?
You're holding a reference book in your hand. That book was ordered by someone else, many years ago, for a purpose you can't possibly fathom. This doesn't necessarily mean that it should automatically be weeded. Check to see what other libraries in your consortium (or libraries with a similar size and demographic makeup) still own that book. Check whether more updated information on that topic is available in the reference collection or in your own circulating collection. Ask yourself "is it worse to have nothing on this topic and to have people go to the reference desk, or to have completely outdated information?" Use the Public Library Catalog to get a sense of what items are considered "canon."

A lot of weeding, especially in the reference collection, comes down to common sense. For example, weed anything that:
  • Contains the words "modern" or "the present" or "updated" and was published in the 80s or earlier.
  • Is a style manual or other guide that does not mention how to cite internet or database sources.
  • Is a collectible or antique/stamp/coin/memorabilia pricing guide which is more than 5 years out of date.
  • Contains information that people (including librarians) no longer use books to find. For example, I weeded a guide to the Tony Award and one about the Academy Awards, both circa the 1980s, because they were both outdated and obsolete. I also weeded the Thesaurus of Book Digests: 1950-1980, which contained descriptions of different book plots.
Your reference collection should consist of books that:
  • are easy for patrons to find and use,
  • make sense for your community's needs,
  • are as up to date as possible, and
  • need to be located in reference so that they are always available.
A recent edition of a dictionary fits this description. Yes, your patrons could look up a word online. But the overwhelming majority still want that paper dictionary, and it needs to be available to all. In my opinion, anything that doesn't fit these criteria can be weeded or moved to another part of the library.

Keep it in the Library, but Not in the Reference Collection
Some items are still useful, but don't need to stay in the reference collection. Move to the circulating collection those items that people might actually want to check out and take home, but which have been traditionally considered strictly reference:
  • Foreign language dictionaries
  • Books of quotations
  • Recently superseded editions (other than medical)
  • Auto repair manuals
When moving an item from reference to the circulating collection, check to see if there's an older circulating copy (the 1998 version of the same Baseball Encyclopedia that I pulled off the shelf in reference, to take a not-random example from my own library) that could be weeded to make space for it.

Reference Must-Haves, a Subjective List Compiled with the Aid of Twitter
  • Dictionaries and a thesaurus
  • An atlas
  • An encyclopedia (most mentioned World Book)
  • The most recent pricing/collectible guides, if your patrons use/request them
  • Up to date legal form books (with downloadable/printable forms) and Black's Law Dictionary
  • The latest edition of the driver's manual for your state
  • Your state constitution and town or city bylaws, rules, codes, and regulations
  • Local street maps
  • A street list, reverse phone listing, and current phone book
  • Style manuals (APA, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.)
  • Robert's Rules of Order
  • A Bible, a Koran, etc.
  • The DSM-IV (soon to be DSM-V) and the Merck Manual
  • Statistical Abstract of the United States
  • Consumer Reports
  • Writer's Market
  • The Value Line investment research guide, if your library is already subscribed
  • The latest Guinness Book of World Records
  • Chase's Calendar of Events
If there's something you'd like to add to this list, please do so below. If you want to contest the inclusion of any item on the list, please do the same. 

*Several of the librarians I asked about "must-haves" indicated that they no longer had any reference collection at all. If you're one of them, feel free to comment here on how that came about.


kdnorthrup said…
We're going to start moving all of Reference into Main (circulating) this spring, so I can't yet say how it has gone. There will still be a Ready Reference collection behind the desk of course.

But one word of advice or maybe just a peeve from the last time we weeded reference. If other staff is weighing in on whether to keep a title (we have everyone MLS look over the carts), require them to actually flip through the thing before making that call. We had some ridiculous stuff put in "Permanently retain" based on a misleading title.
Robin Bradford said…
Fascinating! I'm curious about people with no reference collection at all. How is that working out? It sounds like Nirvana!

Surprised that people thought Writer's Market should be reference. Really?
Anna M said…
Good call. And there should be a time limit on how long they have to say "yes/no," otherwise no progress will ever be made.
Anna M said…
Robin, we have the latest copy of WM in reference. Maybe because it gets stolen? Maybe because "that's how it's always been done?"
Heather Booth said…
Nice post!

We've "liberated" our reference collection ( which means that most of our ref books were either weeded or moved into the circulating collection, and anything can be checked out though we do still have some things in a reference section. It's working really well. We did retain or obtain a handful of things that are kept behind the desk and don't circ like a dictionary, a local atlas, Consumer Reports buying guide, and the Criss Cross directory. I can't think of the last time that I looked for a reference book I really really needed and couldn't find it, or couldn't find the information elsewhere.

A note on the above list - the DSM-IV is set to be replaced by the DSM-V in May.
Anna M said…
Thanks! I updated the DSM-IV info.
Amelia said…
We greatly reduced our reference collection. We went from a section on a wall and three rows of shelves to just the wall section. I started weeding Dec. 2010 to May 2012 and we shifted the space around in June of 2012. You can see my (bad) pictures here.

I basically followed what you have written in this post. We had a lot of outdated/never used materials. We had duplicates in Ref and NF and kept the one in better condition and made it circulating.
Anna M said…
Thanks for sharing!
Unknown said…
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Jayne said…
Excellent! Thank you for this post!
John Lawer said…
I think many people use Wikipedia and a search engine these days for finding information. The problem with the first is acuracy, the problem with the later is the wasting of time. Maybe online specialiced and reliable encyclopedias, like the Encyclopedia of Life, the ones appearing in or, or the Encyclopedia of Law will help more patrons of libraries.
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