Secret library business

In part one of this two-part series, Renate Beilharzexplains the importance of two essential collection development activities – stocktaking and weeding – for keeping busy school libraries relevant, accessible and attractive.

Staff in school libraries spend a lot of their time organising activities and undertaking tasks that are well publicised to the school community. These activities ensure that students and teaching staff are able to make the most of the resources provided. They also ensure that the school community, especially administrators, are aware of the vital role that well-organised and resourced resource centres play in the teaching and learning that goes on in schools.

Stocktaking and weeding are two activities that are often not highly publicised outside the library environment and are not well understood by non-library staff. Like many teacher librarians, I have been guilty of perpetuating the mysterious nature of these activities. At stocktaking time, the library was CLOSED. No one was welcomed through the library portals during this significant period and no one dared approach those beautifully ordered shelves. The usually dormant 'library dragon' in me was often given free rein at stocktaking time.

Weeding was rarely done flamboyantly, but usually in small sections with books discarded quickly and quietly. In many cases this process was hidden from teaching staff because I didn't want to deal with the likely confrontation over whether all editions of a Maths textbook were essential for student learning.

Unlike a well-organised book publishers' display or successful information literacy activity with Year 7s, there is no perceptible outcome of weeding or stocktaking to the average user of a school library. I am yet to have a student or teacher come up to me and say: 'Thank you for discarding those old and unused copies of Pride and Prejudice' or 'I like the way the catalogue is up to date and accurate'. A report to the school administration on the figures of losses and size of the collection is the closest I have come to advertising the outcomes of a stocktake.

I never tried to explain the purpose of these activities to the school community, other than the annual request to the school administrative committee to close the library for a stocktake. A training session for all school staff on the purpose and methodology of stocktaking and weeding in school libraries would not be high on the Professional Development Coordinator's list of must-have in-services.

So why do library staff undertake a stocktake? Why do we weed the fiction collection? Do we do it because 'that's what librarians do' or because these are essential collection development activities?

Collection development

Stocktaking and weeding come firmly under the umbrella of collection management and development, which is formalised in a collection development policy. Every library has a collection development policy, even if it is only in the head of one person. Ideally every school library should have a written policy. This may include:

  • purpose of the collection
  • type of material in the collection
  • selection criteria and processes
  • budgeting policy
  • weeding criteria
  • stocktaking processes
  • procedures for dealing with controversial material.

Whether formally written in a policy, or informally 'understood' by the person responsible for the library, it is most important to be very clear on what the purpose of the school library collection is. A purpose statement in a school library collection development policy usually includes phrases like:

  • reflect needs of the users
  • support and enrich the curriculum
  • encourage and develop a love of reading
  • be accessible to the school community.


Most school libraries do not talk about being a 'collecting library' (a library whose purpose is to collect everything there is on a topic) or being a repository of every book ever donated to the school. The school library may have an archival role, but that is in addition to its role as a resource centre for today's school community and is not its sole purpose.

A school library collection must be relevant, accessible and attractive. Stocktaking and weeding are complementary activities necessary for achieving these goals.


Stocktaking is about making the collection accessible and relevant. It ensures that the database reflects the actual collection. Users of the catalogue are quick to point out when the catalogue says an item should be on the shelves and isn't; it is, of course, frustrating when this happens. An accurate stocktake ensures that items are labelled correctly and housed in the appropriate collection, which assists accessibility. Accurate stocktake figures are used to identify areas that have had losses in stock and to assist with identification of strengths and weaknesses in the collection for ongoing collection development.

A stocktake also has other benefits. Each resource is handled at least once a year, checked and put aside for mending if required. Touching every resource ensures those 'misplaced' lolly wrappers, chewing gum and other items left between and behind books are found and discarded. Stocktake can also assist with finding those items that haven't been checked-in properly.

While not as essential as it used to be in the days of a card catalogue, most libraries still put their books in perfect order as part of the stocktaking procedure. This ensures that at least once a year everything is in its right place. If an area is still in perfect order since the last stocktake, that area is a good candidate for weeding, as obviously no students or staff have been near it in that time.

'You want to do what?! Close the library!?'

Throughout the year, library staff work hard at raising the profile of the resource centre within the school community and at making the facilities and resources accessible: at recess, lunchtime, before and after school, not to mention during class time. When the library closes for stocktake, the school community is so used to the services it provides, they can't imagine managing without it.

Stocktaking does not have to take place behind closed doors, with the library out of bounds to students and staff. Many library management systems are flexible enough to allow small sections of collections to be inventoried at a time. This way only small sections of the shelves need to be closed off at any one time. Most library management systems also take into account that books are out on loan, so stocktaking does not have to take place at the end of the year.

If closing the library for a period to undertake a full stocktake, it is worthwhile taking the time to inform the school community about the reasons for stocktaking. Ensure that there will be minimal disruption to other library services and be flexible in allowing book boxes to be taken to class or access to the reference collection by students. Open to students at lunchtime, even if some sections are closed; students appreciate being able to come into the library environment, even if they can't access the books.

Hints for a successful and stress-free stocktake

Take the time to prepare for a stocktake. This allows effective use of the time available and ensures that the results are accurate and useful. Being prepared is just as important for a first stocktaking experience as for the last.

  • Read the manual. Have a good understanding of the steps in the process: how the data is to be gathered, entered, processed and reported.
  • Check the equipment. Upgrades of library computers, laptops, barcode readers and library system software throughout the year means that it is important to the check that all pieces of equipment are compatible and can do the job required.
  • Run a trial stocktake of a small collection. This will help finetune the process and give a good idea of the time it will take to do the collections you have in mind.
  • Clarify the physical processes. Do the books need to go to the computer terminal or on the laptop go to the books? How will this be achieved with a minimum of effort for the staff members, while maintaining occupational health and safety standards? Where is the portable barcode reader downloaded?
  • Decide which collections are to be inventoried. The whole library collection does not need to be inventoried each year; plan for a two- or three-year cycle if there is no time to do it all annually.
  • Decide when the post-stocktaking tasks are to be done. Are post-stocktaking processes such as mending, records updating and dealing with anomalies to be undertaken during stocktaking time? Take this into account when deciding what tasks will be done in the time allocated.
  • Ensure all processes are understood by staff and clearly documented. If necessary, make step-by-step instruction sheets for other staff and volunteers.
  • Shelf read before starting. This sometimes takes longer than the actual stocktaking process. While not essential, it will make it easier to locate and deal with anomalies.
  • Create a checklist indicating the order in which tasks are to be completed. This ensures that tasks are completed in the correct order, especially when there are a number of people involved in the process.
  • Enjoy the task, it can be very rewarding.

After stocktaking

Accurately following up stocktaking procedures and reporting will ensure you achieve the most benefits for your school library collection.

  • Run all relevant reports and final procedures required by the library management system.
  • Make sure you change the status of missing items. Don't delete bibliographic records until at least a year later, otherwise you may find yourself re-entering data on your library system as lost items do miraculously turn up.
  • Use the reports and statistics to identify strengths and weaknesses for ongoing collection development.
  • Create a written report for administration and staff.
  • Celebrate a job well done, secure in the knowledge that the school community is the unknowing beneficiary of this essential collection development activity.

The other essential collection development activity – weeding, or de-selection – can be undertaken in conjunction with a stocktake or as a separate activity, sometimes also under a veil of secrecy…

To be continued.

Renate Beilharz
Teacher librarian of 20 years experience.
Currently enjoying a portfolio of positions relating to librarianship in and outside the school environment.

See Issue 63 of Connections for the concluding part of this article, Secret library business.
This article is based on a presentation given at the SLAV conference Building on essentials! A full day conference for library technicians and library assistants, held on 16 October 2006.


Kennedy, John 2006, Collection management: a concise introduction, Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, NSW.

Punshon, Marianne (ed) 2006, Managing for learning: issues for primary school libraries, School Library Association of Victoria, Carlton, Victoria.