Salem Public Library is changing how it manages its collections, but observers worry it might go too far and end up dramatically shedding the number of books available to local readers.

Concerns surfaced last week across social media and local blogs that librarians have been told to clear shelves before a temporary move for the library building’s seismic retrofit.

Jim Scheppke, a former director of the State Library of Oregon, said he’s heard one-third of the library’s 300,000 books could be removed.

“Librarians I heard from were under the impression that (the library’s) target was (to discard) 30 percent of the print collection,” Scheppke said in an email to Salem Reporter. “That would be about 100,000 books. I decided I could not sit by and let this happen.”

City Librarian Sarah Strahl said there is no mandate to discard books. But the library has made recent moves to become more active in updating and removing items from its collections.

“There’s a couple different things happening concurrently and I think they’re getting a little bit confused,” said Strahl, who joined the library in May.

In the past few months, the library has implemented a new “collection development policy” that outlines 15 criteria to consider whether an item should be kept, updated or discarded. Criteria include popular interest, significance of an item within a subject area, cost and space limitations.

The library also uses software called collectionHQ to produce data on an item’s checkouts, age, and numerous other factors that are then compared against the policy, according to Strahl.

“In an effort to maintain a relevant, popular and appealing collection, the library engages in ongoing evaluation of owned materials,” states the policy, adopted in August.

Since September, staffers have used the data to start pulling items from the shelves for review. The library has in its collections everything from books to DVDs to ukuleles. Items are reviewed for whether they should be kept, mended or offered to the Friends of the Salem Public Library for sales that benefit the library.

Strahl said that this will be an ongoing process.

“The library is kind of a like a living organism and we have to tend to it,” she said.

The Friends of the Salem Public Library does not take every book, however. Strahl said some books have to be tossed.

“There has to be a way to discard material,” she said. “We do our due diligence as much as humanly possible.”

Officials from the Friends group told Salem Reporter they have not received more books than usual in recent weeks.

Mary Page, of Turner, peruses Salem Public Library for manuals of how to build an arbor. The library has come under criticism from some in the community over concerns to shed books. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Scheppke and others remain alarmed by the prospect of throwing away books. Local blogger Brian Hines wrote a post that said "resistance mounting," and included a picture of an empty bookshelf. Comments on a Facebook post last week advocated for rule changes.

“I might go so far to say that unless the library owns a digital copy of the print book, it may not remove the book from the collection,” wrote Chris Willhelm, a Salem resident. “If the book is not available digitally, then seek authorization from the copyright holder to create one and provide it to them. In cases where that isn’t possible, tough cookies, keep the book.”

Scheppke worried some books will be cut when the library should consider a reader who could discover an older book or one that does not circulate well.

“You never know when an older book might be exactly the thing that a user wants,” he said. “There are also books that may not circulate, but they are used in the library.”

Scheppke also pointed out that the library has already been discarding thousands of books in recent years. According to data from the state Library of Oregon, the city library reported 337,000 print items in 2017, down from 393,000 in 2013.

“I’m sure many if not most of the 56,000 book that have already been discarded over the past five years were old and worn out and outdated and no longer of use,” he said. “That job has already been done.”

Strahl points to recent data collected by the State Library of Oregon and the Institute of Museum and Library Services that compares Salem Public Library to other libraries nationwide with similar budgets and populations served.

The data, compiled a year ago, concluded the library had about 10 percent more print materials than the average of 35 libraries serving similar population sizes. Compared to 52 libraries with similar budgets, the library’s print collection was about 30 percent larger.

The state library’s statistics from 2017 show Salem Public Library served about 162,000 residents with 94,000 registered borrowers. It received close to $4.7 million in revenue from local government resources.

It’s such comparisons that seemed to have set off recent concerns.

Strahl said she told staffers about the data to illustrate how the library became “outsized” without software or a collection development policy. But she said she didn’t mean to imply the library should cull one-third of its collection.

“I provided a vision of the collection that was a well-loved collection,” Strahl said. “I did point out that number and I think part of my thinking is that I’m seeing very clearly we need to look at our collection, but I’m not doing a great job of imparting that.”

Scheppke argued the library should compare itself to Eugene Public Library. Eugene serves 165,000 residents, with 101,655 registered borrowers and receives about $12.5 million from local government resources and has about 60,000 more print items.

Scheppke added he plans to raise the issue with the Salem City Council.

“If 100,000 books or even 50,000 books were to be removed from our collection, Salem, for the first time in decades, would no longer offer a core collection of books to meet a wide variety of information and education needs,” he said. “The library would become more like a free book store, just offering popular reading materials. The library certainly needs to offer this, but they have done more for the community in the past and they need to continue to offer a core public library collection.”

Strahl reiterated there is no mandate to discard books with the new development policy in place. And she told Salem Reporter the clearest data of how the policy has impacted its shelves won’t be available until the state library releases its annual data in late 2019.

“We have month-to-month comparisons. We do have end-of-the-month statistics, but they aren’t going to paint the full picture until we have a year-to-year comparison,” Strahl said.

She said the monthly reports show “a dynamic number that changes all the time.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, troy@salemreporter.com or @TroyWB.

City Librarian Sarah Strahl, pictured at Salem Public Library. Strahl has held the position since May and is overseeing the new collections policies. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)