The library at RU is in the early stages of a significant renovation, and right now we're in the midst of the "deselection" process--a/k/a "weeding" a/k/a "getting rid of books."
Aspects of this have been handled badly--I'll leave it to you to imagine how--but the reality is that our collections haven't been weeded in decades, and they're overdue. In many fields it's actually irresponsible to keep older material on the shelves (older = outdated, superseded, erroneous), and although that isn't true in the humanities, there are still plenty of titles that should go; there's usually no reason to keep a whole bunch of random, midcentury editions of the works of a given Renaissance poet if we also have more recent editions that are more rigorously edited and with better scholarly apparatus.
Faculty are being given the chance to review the list of deselected titles in their disciplines (and any other areas of interest), and click a button to recommend those we should keep; to the best of my understanding, everything we recommend keeping will be kept.
This sounds great, and it's certainly better than the alternative, but it's proven unexpectedly challenging. To start, there are 8,500 titles on the deselection list in English/American literature alone, and there are other disciplines I want to look at after that. In order to make headway, I've chosen to focus only on titles in my subfield--someone else can worry about James Joyce and Frances Burney--which means I'm able to get through 500-1000 titles at a go before my eyes glaze over.
Even within my subfield, though, I'm struggling with the task. Right now I'm the only faculty member in a field that spans 130 years, give or take, and that includes maybe a hundred significant authors working in a range of genres. I haven't read most of their primary works, much less the scholarship on those works. I have no idea which edition of George Chapman is authoritative, or whether an older edition might have virtues not replicated by a newer one. I don't know whether a 1965 book on Herbert is regarded as foundational. . . or a bit of belletristic bloviating. Even in the case of Milton and Donne scholarship, I know some works that I'd lie across the train-tracks to save, but certainly not all of them. That title. . . it rings a bell. . . but why? Is it actually important, or just a spine that sat in an eye-catching spot in the bookstacks in grad school?
Age isn't a clear-cut guide, and neither is press; if I have a high opinion of something by a given scholar, I usually vote to keep anything else he wrote, but the fact that I've never heard of a dude doesn't mean much, especially in subspecializations far from my own. Titles can often be a clue ("Shakespeare: A Study in Genius" and "12 Moral Archetypes in Renaissance Lyric" can almost certainly be tossed to everyone's benefit), but not always. I'm erring on the side of saving books, of course, but it's vexing to think that I'm probably keeping a certain amount of crap, including crap that may eventually make its way into my students' papers.
The real problem is that I don't know what my future colleagues will want, or my future students; hell, beyond the next two or three years, I can't even predict my own scholarly trajectory with assurance. A library collection can't just be targeted to its present users' near-term needs, and in ordering books for the library over the past eight years I've always ordered widely, focusing on topics and subjects that I know to be important even when I can't imagine needing those books myself. Even if no one at RU ever needs the book, it's available through inter-library loan, and so serves an even larger community (and performs a minor bit of advertising: whenever I get a book from ILL, I note where it's from, and I have a distinctly positive impression of certain small-college libraries as a result).
There are subject areas that currently have no specialists to review them. RU has no Germanists, and no tenure-line Italianists. Our history department is strong, but with some big period and area gaps. English is hiring for two positions this year--will we wind up getting rid of books those new hires might have fought for?
I know this needs to be done. I'm glad I can participate. But it's anxiety-producing all the same.