Sylvia Stucky, a longtime member of Friends of the Kansas City Public Library, stood in the lobby of the Central Library downtown one day last week and opened her shoulder bag.
“I just saved these from the dumpster this morning,” she said of 10 hardcover books on baseball that included biographies of Dizzy Dean and Joe DiMaggio. She soon would be downstairs standing near three massive boxes, measuring 4 feet high and across, filled with hundreds of other volumes bound for recycling.
“They’re going to the chipper whether we want them to or not,” Stucky said of a situation she considers tragic.
In recent months, Stucky and a core group of other volunteers with the Friends of the Kansas City Public Library have been on what they consider a desperate mission: slowing the “bibliocide” at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central location, where an accelerated weeding out and eventual destruction of many thousands of books has been under way since last fall to make space for upgrades and reconfigurations.
“We’re sad. We’re very sad,” said Susan Bailey, another longtime member of the Friends group. “We’re book lovers.”
“It’s upsetting,” said another, Ashley Nugent. “Books are just important to me.”
That libraries regularly cull their collections is hardly new. “It’s part of the library world,” said Lillie Brack, director of the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.
“Weeding” — or, more formally, “deaccessioning” — saves limited storage space and keeps collections fresh and up to date, librarians say. The Central Library alone, which holds 305,000 of the Kansas City library system’s approximately 626,000 volumes, typically weeds out 5,000 to 6,000 books each year, while bringing in about 8,000 new volumes.
It’s standard operating procedure for librarians to cull out old, worn or damaged books, Brack said. They also look to replace books with out-of-date information, winnow multiple copies and weed out books that may not have been checked out for years.
But since last fall, the Central Library, by Brack’s accounting, has rid itself of some 30,000 volumes as it makes room for a new technology center on the first floor. There will be computers where some bookshelves now stand. Other materials are being shifted throughout the library.
“Librarians are dedicating more time to the weeding process as part of a reorganization,” Brack said.
Vailey Oehlke, a Portland, Ore., librarian who is president of the board of the Public Library Association, said she knows of no national trend of mass disposal of books to make way for technology or changing tastes.
“But the times they are a-changin’, as someone much more talented than I once said,” Oehlke said. Libraries must constantly evolve to stay relevant to their patrons.
Brack said the public library does much to find new homes for its books, donating them to county libraries, nursing homes and senior centers as well as to the Jackson County Family Court. Volunteers with the Friends of the Kansas City Public Library go through weeded books to find those that can be sold at its regular sales.
The Johnson County Library works similarly, each year weeding out about 160,000 pieces of material, including books, e-books, videos and compact discs, from its 13 branches.
“We’re constantly analyzing the collection for circulation patterns,” said Christopher Leitch, the library’s community relations coordinator. “We do want an active collection.”
The Johnson County Library sells its culled materials for a flat $50,000 a year to the Friends of the Johnson County Library organization, which in turn raises money for the library and programs by selling those materials at its used bookstores and online. In 2013, it raised just over $125,000.
While the Kansas City Friends volunteers understand the need for weeding, they worry the pace and volume at the Central Library is now so great that thousands of books that might otherwise have found new homes through regular Friends sales or through donations to other organizations are being destroyed.
“It’s really giving some of the titles a second life,” Brack said.
The great mass, however, are prepared for eventual destruction and recycling.
Once the books are picked up, they are taken to the institute near 31st and Main streets, where workers with disabilities go through the books, picking out some for sale at the institute’s own bookstore.
“They sort and scan the books to see if there is any value,” said spokeswoman Sarah Murphy. “If there is any value, they keep it and set it aside. Ones that don’t have any value go to recycling.”
Books are put through a machine that slices off their bindings. Employees then separate the spines from the covers. Along with the pages, they all go into separate bins, which are shipped to a local recycler.
That recycling, BooksKC says on its website, kept 1.2 million donated books from ending up in landfills in 2014.
“It’s very beneficial to us,” Murphy said. “We’re trying to better our environment by staying as green as we can while we benefit our clients.”
Friends volunteers support the program. But they think the Central Library is disposing of too many books too quickly. The result is that Stucky and other volunteers have been “dumpster diving,” digging through the large cardboard boxes bound for recycling to rescue what they can.
“Different librarians have come around and thanked us for saving books,” she said. “They will tell us, ‘It just makes us sick to see what’s going out.’”
Librarians who work closely with the Friends volunteers declined to comment.
One volunteer saved books on World War I for the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Others have saved boxes of books on the Holocaust that volunteers think might benefit the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park.
Stucky saved a volume about ballet that she opened and found was signed by famed British prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn. And that book about “bleeding Kansas” that was being tossed? A volunteer looked it up online and saw a similar copy selling for $200.
Madaline R. Walter, president of the board of the Friends of the Kansas City Public Library, is not at all critical of the library’s efforts.
“If you don’t just love this library,” she said, “you have your head in the sand.”
She conceded that the Friends group, although it has 600 members, may not have enough active volunteers able to go through the mass of books the librarians have weeded out.
“Part of the fault of this is ours,” Walter said. “We don’t have enough volunteers for sorting.”
Library officials expect the accelerated culling to end sometime this month. Stucky and other Friends, meanwhile, said they will do their best to rescue what they can.