Lately, Man, It’s All About the Weed by James Klise
You expected a title like that, maybe, from the guy who wrote Love Drugged.
A month ago, an administrator at my school came to visit me in the library. “I have something to discuss,” he said gently, “and I don’t want to upset you.” I steadied myself against the circulation desk. Then his tone brightened, as if changing strategies: “The exciting news is that the library will be getting a new floor this summer….”
Those two simple words—“new floor”—have never had a greater impact on any person than they had on me at that moment. I also heard him say “asbestos” and “bare bones.” Instantly the awful scenario took shape in my head: Everything would need to be packed up and moved, every table, chair and computer, the sofas and coffee tables, everything in the storage closets, everything in the file cabinets, the magazine archive, all the AV equipment, the holiday decorations, the framed prints, the student art, cupboards piled with decades-old National Geographic maps, club supplies, and OMG, all the BOOKS and BOOKCASES—All. Of. It.
As I opened a desk drawer and searched for a brown paper bag to breathe into, my boss added (quite correctly) that it didn’t make sense to pack up and store the books that no longer circulated. “If you’ve been thinking about doing a big purge,” he said, gesturing broadly, “well, this is the spring to do it.”
Librarians need to weed from their shelves older books that don’t circulate in order to make space for shiny new titles. I admit that I have sorely neglected that part of my job. Our school library dates back to 1911; the collection includes many hundreds of books over 50 years old, some much older. It’s also a weirdly huge space, so over the past eleven years I have gotten away with adding books without too much subtraction. Under my watch, the collection has swelled to an impressive 22,000 volumes. Some would call that insane, unmanageable, and un-dustable. I like to think of it as a fascinating “organic archive” with “endless opportunities for discovery” using a surprising number of “primary source” documents.
The news from my boss was a like wake-up alarm that kept going off. A month later, it’s still going off.
The first day’s weed was fairly straightforward: boxes of outdated science texts, plus assorted reference compendiums that had once been essential—in the pre-Internet age. Good night and thank you, old salts.
On the second day, I got rid of fiction that hadn’t circulated in forever, books I’m convinced were donated, never deliberately purchased with teenagers in mind. James Michener and Dick Francis, Helen MacIness and Colleen McCullough, and all their friends—it was easier to show them the door.
By the end of the first week, I’d removed about 30 boxes of books. I got rid of the same number the following week, too—sent them all off to the recycling center. This mammoth weeding process will take most of the spring. And next fall, we will have not just a new library floor, but a leaner, more inviting, better circulating collection.
At the same time, something tells me that I am exactly the wrong person to be doing this. In the middle of the Great Purge of 2014, my second YA novel, The Art of Secrets, is being published by Algonquin Books for Young Readers.
A huge, uphill effort drives every book into existence. Writing the first draft, rewriting until it’s coherent, revising with an editor, copy-editing, proofreading, proofreading again, team discussions about the title, team discussions about the cover, team promoting, collaborating with booksellers and librarians—so many people working hard over months and months to try to give every single book the best chance it can get.
All those things make it challenging for me, each time, to consign another writer’s beautiful book to the recycling bin. (HELLO, bad karma!)
Many of the old books are charming and funny. I mean, look at this small sample of gender-specific relics. Novels targeted to boys.
Novels targeted to girls.
Novels that took restless teenagers on adventures to exotic places.
Wild measures of hard work, passion, and professional pride went into making every one of them. Even now, they have quirky vintage appeal. If they weren’t marked up with library stamps and due-date pockets, they might be valuable to collectors. But not to students. Nobody checks them out, not for decades.
I’m lucky that my library is well funded. The excellent new fiction and non-fiction I purchase every year will encourage our students to become lifelong readers and thinkers much better than the outdated books they replace, that’s for sure.
Still—and I know I’m not being reasonable—there’s something sad about removing all this history from a school.
As I cart boxes to the recycling bin, I say a silent prayer to the book gods high above: Please send copies of The Art of Secrets far and wide into the world, welcomed into spacious libraries (with brand new floors) by librarians who will give them a home for an over-extended, unreasonable length of stay.
James Klise is the author of Love Drugged, which won an ALA Stonewall honor and received glowing reviews. He lives in Chicago, where he works as a high-school librarian. His short stories have appeared in many journals, including StoryQuarterly, New Orleans Review, Ascent, and Southern Humanities Review. The Art of Secrets is his second novel.