War of words: Book purge called necessary, but pains Chattanooga Public Library supporters

photo The Chattanooga Public Library stores old books in the basement that are destined for sale in the near future. Library Director Corinne Hill has removed more than 100,000 books in the last two years.

BY THE NUMBERS2009 -- 471,618 books2010 -- 438,309 books2011 -- 414, 296 books2012 -- 343,683 books2013 -- 253,598 books2014 -- 204,993 booksSource: Chattanooga Public Library

Chattanooga's Public Library is shedding books by the thousands. Over the past two years, Library Director Corinne Hill has reduced the library's collection by nearly half. She says it's part of a national trend - libraries aren't just about books anymore.

"Every library in the country has had some level of discontent with regards to weeding collections," she said. "Chattanooga has been behind so we are a little late to this game, but it is part of us moving out of the 20th century."

Yet Hill's critics question the loss of close to 140,000 books. Those books were from a collection built locally for niche audiences in the Scenic City, volumes that are difficult to replace, they say.

"She is destroying the collections down there," said Mary Aleta Word, a former volunteer coordinator for Friends of the Library, the nonprofit organization that supports the library. "There's no respect for books whatsoever."

Several former Friends of the Library volunteers and past library employees said that when Hill took over in early 2012, books were being pulled from the shelves so quickly they didn't have a chance to sell valuable art book collections for a decent price.

And hundreds of books were hauled to the Orange Grove recycling center.

Hill said she didn't document what titles she pulled from storage or off the shelves.

But she said the collection was tired and hadn't been maintained very well in the last 20 years. The material needed to be thoroughly weeded in accordance with library best practices. The method she follows suggests that as a general practice, libraries should get rid of as many books as they add to their collections unless they undergoing expansion.

Hill said the books that were sent for recycling were worn out or unable to be sold, such as old encyclopedias or magazines.

Experts in the library field say book weeding is a controversial topic that divides communities and libraries. Libraries of the 21st century are changing. Today, libraries are also meeting spaces, innovative places where people learn with online resources, create new things and grow as a society.

"People get concerned with change. They overlook the fact that there are other ways to learn," said Loriene Roy, a professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin.

Yet as libraries continue to evolve and become more innovative, they still must represent the core mission and needs of their unique communities, Roy said.


In 2009, a consultant hired by former Mayor Ron Littlefield found that the library had old collections, lacked new media content and didn't have enough copies of new materials in all kinds of formats.

Hill's predecessor, David Clapp, said the library board approved a plan to weed more of the book collection, create a bigger space for people to read and build a coffeeshop as a way to invite patrons to linger.

From 2009 to 2010, inventory records show Clapp got rid of about 33,000 books.

When Hill took over two years later, Clapp said she cleared out most of the library's second floor, which housed many of the library's niche collections and biographies that had been purchased with the library's $3 million endowment.

"The main library's collection disappeared; all that was left was the browsing section that was downstairs," Clapp said. "Many things that didn't depreciate in value were thrown out."

At the beginning of the 2012 fiscal year there were nearly 344,000 books in inventory at the library's four branches. Hill took over that March. This October, the library has nearly 205,000 books in inventory -- 40 percent fewer.

Hill, who was named the 2014 national Librarian of the Year, shrugs off community criticism. She said she disposed of books that were torn, mildewed and outdated.

"Just because you have a bunch of books doesn't mean you have a good collection," she said. "One of the most important things we do is book collection and de-selection."

The old books were cleared out for space on the fourth floor to create a public space housing a creative lab with a 3-D printer. Books that weren't being read, Hill said, were removed from the second floor to create a place for children and youths -- infants through 18-year-olds -- with video games, a music studio and a separate reading section just for kids.

Those ideas, she said, are what has drawn national attention and brought in visitors from other libraries across the country and the world.

Yet Clapp questions whether more Chattanoogans are supporting the library ,since book borrowing has gone down for the last two years.

In the 2012-2013 fiscal year, when Hill was hired, there were 93,408 documented adult and juveniles borrowers.

This last year, the library documented 79,238 borrowers.

Hill said those numbers are inaccurate, because she found people being counted who hadn't used their library cards in two years. She said she created a more accurate system that now reflects true numbers of people checking out books and other library material.

And she pointed out that digital circulation this year was up 40 percent.


Earlier this year, City Auditor Stan Sewell found problems with the way the library got rid of its unneeded books. In a report on his special investigation, Sewell wrote that checks and balances need to be put in place. Library officials need to document the books and computer equipment discarded or given to Friends of the Library.

"To promote transparency, we would recommend the library board approve the donation of books to the nonprofit organization," he said.

Hill said she does report quarterly to the library's governing board on collections and inventory counts.

Using a computer system to track how often books are circulated, Hill said she then decides what books to discard. Those books go to the library's basement, where Friends of the Library will sell the books at its regular book fairs or online to World Books, a website that sells old, used books.

The basement is crammed with books by the hundreds, lined up on rows of shelves and packed in stacks of shipping boxes. On a recent day, visitors saw a copy of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" in good condition, J.R.R. Tolkien books from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and an old collection of Shakespeare.

Rows and rows of shelves are lined with bound magazines cleared from the fourth floor. Those magazines were among the few salvaged from larger collections and Friends of the Library is selling them.

The collection includes copies of The New Yorker dating to 1944, more than a century's worth of The Atlantic Monthly editions dating back to 1867 and bound National Geographic magazines from 1906.

Hill said she couldn't justify keeping those old collections because the numbers showed no one was using them.

Getting rid of books isn't wrong -- in fact, it's necessary, said Jeanette Larson, who has written books and manuals on weeding library collections. But it's tough because so many people have emotional ties to the books.

Since the major purge of the last two years, Hill said, she now gets rid of books on a much more limited basis. The method she uses suggests a healthy library should weed out 5 percent of its books a year.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at jsmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.