Awful Library Books – Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner

This is Circulating Ideas, I’m Steve Thomas. My guests today are Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner. They’re the Michigan public librarians who founded the Awful Library Books site, which you can find at You can also find Mary on Twitter @librarymary40 and Holly at @hhibner.

Mary and Holly, welcome to the show.

[Holly] Thank you.

[Mary] Thanks for having us.

Your blog Awful Library Books has been around for five years now. Over that time what would you say is the most awful library book you’ve ever come across?

I’m going to say it’s probably the, what we call the post “Satan for Kids,” but it’s a book called Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy:  A Child’s Book about Satanic Ritual Abuse. I think that’s the all-time most common add-on and most frighteningly weird. I don’t know what else to call it.

That has to be my same answer. I can’t even think of another post that has come close to being with as many hits and just the creep factor of that book is, it’s horrifying [laughs] so I’m going to give the same answer.

Yeah, it’s kind of scary sometimes as you wonder why people bought it in the first place [laughs].


So what made you guys want to collaborate on this site? What made you want to put together a collection of the most awful library books?

Well Mary and I worked together for about ten years at the same library, we both work at different libraries now, but we shared a desk for a good ten years and as we started really looking closely at the collection, we used to try to one up each other on what we would find in the stacks because the collection hadn’t been weeded in a long time. And so we’d say, “Look what I found, look what I found” and we were just laughing so much that we thought other people might find this funny too. And so we put together sort of a slide show collection of these weird things that we had found and we put it up on the screen at a conference where we were speaking about collection development and people were just laughing so much we thought there’s something here, people seem to find this funny. At the same time we wanted to learn to use WordPress [laughs] so we thought let’s make the blog and share the love [laughs].

I think we got tweeted out by a couple of people who have a lot of followers and then the next thing you know, you know somebody from Time Magazine is calling us [laughs].

Yeah, I was going to say early on you guys had a lot of big press, including you were, you’re listed in IMDB and can you tell people why that is?

We were guests on the Jimmy Kimmel show in November 2009. I guess Jimmy Kimmel loves what he calls found comedy, just normal people that do funny things [laughs] and he thinks the blog is funny. So he had us on the show.

Who knew! I thought that we were being punked to be honest with you. When somebody says they’re calling from a TV show and we’re like, oh please, I’m at work right now, I don’t have time for this [laughs].

Do you think he still follows your blog?

I doubt it [laughs], who knows.

How long ago have you not been working at the same library?

About, almost, about four and a half years.


But you’re both still somewhat local with each other?

Yeah, my library is maybe 20 miles or so from hers, 15 miles and she actually subs at my library occasionally so she technically does work at my library, just not very often.

It’s a nice change of pace since my library is very tiny and I’m one of two librarians and we only have like ten total staff. Whereas Holly has a bigger building, so it’s a great way to stretch, I love subbing over there.

Can you explain to the listeners just basically, I’m sure most people have heard of the site or have seen the site, but just sort of what it is exactly and how you guys work it with submissions and things like that?

Yeah, so it’s a collection of the worst of library pull things. We seem to have a following in the UK for some reason [laughs] and New Zealand is popular. So people from all over the place send us pictures of things they found in their library collections. It is, you know the majority of submitters are librarians, not patrons, but occasionally there are patrons who have stumbled on the blog and say, “Look what I found at my local library.” So that’s, that’s how we get the stuff that shows up on the site. A few things come from our own collections too, here and there as we find things. We have skeletons in our closet too. But most of it comes from submitters.

Mine actually come from just me doing a library job on just regular old reference work. I’ll be looking up a topic and using our shared catalog or our statewide catalog and I’ll just happen to run across something that I can’t believe is actually still around and so I’ll either ILL it to see if it’s real and generally it is [laughs], so.

Yeah, I was going to say, so when you find a title like that, do you go ahead and ILL it so that you can look at it and flip through it and everything too?

I try to for mine. I know Holly just picks the submissions for the most part. I keep thinking and this is an idea that keeps, you should be eventually wearing out because as you get more talking, more people talking about library collections, you would think that people would clean them up eventually, but every week there’s something new that just cracks me up.

And there are obviously a lot of bad books out there [laughs].

There are a lot of awful library books for sure [laughs].

Yeah [laughs].

What are some of the funniest excuses that people use sometimes to justify keeping something awful, that you’ve heard.

There’s a couple of them. One is it has historical value, or my personal, yeah, my personal favorite being someone might need it.

You know, I was going to say the it’s historical one make me absolutely crazy because in a public library and most of these submissions come from either public or academic and so the point of being an awful library book is that it was found in a library where it doesn’t belong for whatever reason. So saying but it’s historical and you’re a library like Mary’s that’s a very small public library, you know how many historiography assignments do you really have high school kids doing in a small library? It’s not the mission of that library to have stuff because it’s historical.

And that’s something I was going to ask, what does, what is your qualification for awful? What makes a library book awful? Holly kind of covered that a little bit, but what is your definition for what would go on the site?

It doesn’t fit with the collection objective and that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t fit somewhere else, or it doesn’t need to be retained somewhere. But, whatever your own, the library mention is, you really best adhere to that and is it helping your people right then and there? So awful can be something perfect for one library and ridiculous for another. It really does depend on what library, back in the old days I think we all wanted to be archives at some level and maybe that was the goal before computers and worldwide web access to information. But, it’s ridiculous to try to do that as a small library, is to keep every single piece of information. It doesn’t, it’s ridiculous, it’s out of control budgets [laughs] if you want to do that.

We are creating collections that reflect our library’s mission and so if you have dead weight, or just weird things that maybe they served the mission 20, 30, longer ago [laughs], but communities change, the purpose of the library maybe changes over time, what people expect from the library has changed over time, that stuff no longer serves its purpose that it was originally purchased for. Why would they have bought it in the first place? There’s no way it could have served the mission, even, even back then [laughs].

But one that probably bothers me the most are things like medical information that is so clearly out of date, sitting in a public library where people are going to need stuff. I think really one of the impetus even back in the day made me crazy was career books and resume books. In metro Detroit, we were going through one of the worst economic problems and I had people looking for resume books and information about about changing careers and there were stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s that absolutely had no business being in the hands of the general public it was so outdated.

So just to be clear, are you guys saying that there is a library somewhere that that little Satanist book belongs?


How often do you guys update the site? Does it depend on how many submissions you’re getting? Or do you always have a good, steady stream of submissions you’re.

Oh, we post everyday except the weekends. We were putting things on in the weekends, but I kind of fade off, I just wanted a day off. We do Monday through Friday and Friday is our day of, I usually profile some crazy fiction or something weird. Mostly fiction and it’s not necessarily a weedable thing, it’s just something I find kind of cool or interesting. But it’s a chance to talk about things that aren’t non-fiction on Friday.

We usually have at least 30 drafts in the queue ready to go at any given time, too.

Submissions are never a problem, you have plenty of things coming in?

Never. No.

You think it’s going to drop off and it never does [laughs]. So you guys touched on this a little bit, that what’s sort of the over-arching mission of this? I mean you’re showing off these awful library books, but it’s also sort of as a reason to show that weeding is important, collection development is important and it seems like it’s one of those things that librarians either love or hate, is to weed. You get those librarians that love going out to weed. And then other librarians just hate to weed anything at all. Do you guys have a personal weeding philosophy that you go by?

Since I’m in a very small library and it’s very tight in terms of space, it really has to what I call pull its weight and sometimes that means being really rough on the collection in terms of breaking up, let’s say a beloved series. I used an example of Anne McCaffrey, she was an entire stack in my library and frankly some of them were not circulating as much anymore, but people were upset because it would break up the set, or do that. But, you have to make those choices at some point because I was just getting to the point where we can’t add another book without taking one off the shelf, and even that wasn’t going to solve our problem.

I think that, well we always joke that if the, that the age of the people of the collection is for are older, you know, than intended. Like if the books in the children’s section are books that we loved when we were children, that collection is not for us any more. Some, my philosophy is don’t be emotional, books are just things and libraries are not in the business of collecting things. We provide information and access to information; we’re not a museum, we don’t collect things. So to be so emotionally attached to this physical book, this thing, that you can’t bear to take it off the shelf, you have to step back and not be so emotionally attached. And it is hard. We like books too and it’s harder to weed things that you bought, than it is to weed things that the person, you know your predecessor bought [laughs], but at some point you just have to say, you know what, these books are not serving the audience they’re intended for anymore.

Yeah, I was going to say, do you think that’s the biggest problem? That people just get emotionally attached to the books and just can’t get rid of them?


I think there are a couple of personalities that work with weeding. There are the people that just can’t stand it cause it feels like waste, or I can’t get rid of a book, there’s something there, or they’re hoarding type personalities. Also, I think a lot of us, especially if you’re my age think I just bought that and then you look at it and it’s 15 years old, just [laughs]. I just keep thinking it can’t be that old and I wonder if we just kind of get lost in time a little bit.

Librarians just love their books don’t they?  But, what, I think one of the ways you can get around that and you guys have written about this a little bit, is to have like certain metrics that you use to decide what gets weeded. That way you kind of have hard data that you can say okay, I’m emotionally attached to this book, I loved it as a child, but here’s the facts that show it’s not circulating, it’s whatever. Can you talk about some of the metrics that you use to do weeding?

Oh, that’s such a Mary question because she lives and breathes this stuff, like she carries a shelf list in Excel around with her in her purse, she just loves it. I’m just gonna pass the question to Mary if that’s okay [laughs].

All right, Mary?

You know, you, we don’t really need to share all my [laughs] foibles here. Actually, I do because I think taking some of the emotion out of weeding, it can help, especially if you say well I loved that book but no-one’s checked it out in 15 years and to use a spreadsheet to say this one hasn’t been touched in awhile, you can either say you know what I better go out there and sell it if I think it’s worth keeping, or it might just have to say okay it’s time is done, it kind of takes a lot of the emotion out of it. But, yeah, I love my spreadsheets and I look at numbers constantly and it isn’t just how many times it’s circed, but when it circed and who circed it, all those things. I think in a lot of libraries it’s condition is a huge issue. I have seen more paperbacks being rescued by $14 worth of tape and two hours of labor than, it’s seriously, you can get another one and it ends up costing more to rescue a book than it actually is to buy another copy.

You know we also look at metrics like average age of the collection, median age of the collection, turnover.

One of the big issues I think about too is you can’t look at the collection as a whole, you have to look at its pieces. For example, if we’re in the medical section, I want to make sure that age is actually more important than things like condition, or how many times it’s circed. We want to look at accurate medical information, so something that’s older than five years is questionable. I didn’t say it needs to be weeded, I just said it’s questionable, you want to look closely at those ones that are older than five years that you want to keep. Maybe it does make a difference, maybe it doesn’t, but you got to look at that. So average age is helpful when you’re looking at medical or legal or career information. Then you have things like circ which is probably best used for fiction and things like that. At median is one of the more exciting things we can talk about and that’s where, where does your collection fall on the scale? So, it, whatever the median is, you have 50% of those books that are date or newer than that date and that can be absolutely illuminating because on average you could have just enough new ones to kick the average up, but when 90% of your collection is older than 20 years, you got a problem.

You guys actually do a lot of presenting on this same topic of collection development and weeding. How often would you say you guys do a presentation at a conference or at something like that?

It’s kind of seasonal because a lot of libraries do spring workshops and a library, a lot of libraries do fall  [laughs] workshops or conferences, so we might do, you know we have two at the end of April and then we have one in October, so over the course of the year maybe 8 or 10 different things, both within our own state and around the country. I’d say maybe 8 or 10 a year, but they’re clumped together. So we do a lot in the spring and we do a lot in the fall.

You guys also have on your site that you also do consulting. Do you do consulting with individual libraries? Or is that part of your presentations? Or how does that work?

We do staff in-services quite a bit. We never have done a real come and look, come and look at our collection and help us weed it, or help us create a collection management plan. We’d love to do that.

I was going to say, that was kind of how I got hooked into my current library is I started out consulting for them on their collection and then all of a sudden I’m working there, so [laughs], it just kind of dovetailed. It started out as a couple of months of let me clean up your collection and fix some records and weed and then the next thing I know I’m a children’s librarian [laughs]. And my life has been dramatically changed [laughs].

We would love to do more of that consulting kind of stuff though, where we come and maybe hold workshopy type things on how to update your collection development policy, or a library that’s moving and having to put things in storage. Nobody wants to put a bunch of stuff in storage that’s not worth storing [laughs], so we’d love to do more of that.

Yeah, a lot of times storage libraries seem to be the solution people come up with because it seems like that’s the way to, well I still get to keep all my stuff, I just don’t have to keep it on site, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and toss it [laughs].

Yeah, what a waste.

It all goes back to what is the collection mission? You know. If you’re supposed to be current and on top of things, the old stuff really isn’t part of it.

Well I, I mean eventually all public libraries will only have room for James Patterson books on our shelves anyway, so [laughs].

[laughs] [laughs]

I always hate that because he writes so much, but then it always continue to circ, so it’s like well I can’t get rid of him because it’s still popular, all of it. I don’t want my mystery section to just be a James Patterson section, but.

Here’s the thing though, if it’s circulating, it really isn’t on the shelf and it isn’t a space consideration to the extent you might think it is. It’s the stuff that has got a layer of dust on it and hasn’t moved. So something that’s high circing isn’t really taking up as much shelf space as you might think. But I, I’ve weeded down my James Patterson a little bit, so, you know, some of his older stuff that aren’t pulling their weight anymore, we’re going to just do that. And if somebody wants it I can get it from inter-loan.

So one of the presentations you guys do is based on your book Making A Collection Count. And what I like actually about that is your sub-title, a holistic approach to library collection management? Can you talk about that, why you decided to holistic, why you decided to to use that term?

Yes, we believe that it’s, it’s really easy to get stuck between selecting and weeding and selecting and weeding and that that boils down to collection development for a lot of people. We want people to look library-wide across different departments, you know, at the people who order the things and the people that catalog them and the people that put the labels on them, all of that contributes to collection management and so if everybody can see the bigger picture of how, what their little piece of the action relates to the whole collection and its success, the label guy puts the wrong label on it, or the cataloging guy links it to the wrong record, the whole thing falls apart. So in order to be a truly successful collection, it has to be paid attention to throughout what we call its life cycle and that includes everything. From selecting it, buying it, cataloging it, labeling it, circulating it, shelving it, everything. That’s what being a holistic collection management is, it’s paying attention to everything that happens to the collection throughout its life cycle.

I think also, when you think about holistically, how is the, think about it in terms of just consuming information. Maybe you don’t need a book on something because you have something else, a program that’s regular for something else. So, you think of the library as a whole, programming as part of what you offer to the public, books, downloadable audios, videos, I kind of think that sometimes when we, we’re moving into more video, things like home repairs were better suited to something like a video cause you could see it and kind of watch it happen. Where, so how it’s delivered can make a huge difference and thinking about your library as a customer, your library, the library people as customers, what’s really the best way to consume information?

Can you talk a little bit about what you guys do at your individual libraries? Like what’s your, Holly what is your job at your library?

My title is the Adult Services Coordinator, it just means I’m the head of the Adult Services department. So I manage the librarians, the reference assistants, and the interns that work in Adult Services and their projects. I do maintain two collections myself, three collections sorry and I work with interns quite a bit, I work at the reference desk quite a bit, I teach a class from time-to-time, a computer class. That’s about it [laughs].

I’m a Youth Services librarian which is a change for me, it used to be Adult Services when I was working with Holly. So I don’t know how that [laughs], I will say my, that Youth Services is much harder than Adult Services and I know all the Adult Services librarians are going to cry about that [laughs], but it is, it’s harder.

It’s true [laughs].

And so my library’s very small, like I said and it has to do everything, so to say I think, I’ve done everything from move a dead animal carcass all the way to fix a toilet to wait on customers circulating, but I mean, just about everything you can think of. Storytimes, the whole nine yards and more and so do my co-workers, I couldn’t last two minutes without how much they support me in my trials and tribulations with Youth Services, but the whole library, we all kind of pitch in together.

Yeah I think “removing animal carcasses” was my favorite class in library school.


They should have taught one!

I was one of the, I am going to say I was asking, I was going to ask for the title of Animal Control Officer too cause I’ve actually pulled an animal or two out of the book drop [laughs].


So [laughs] you guys are, you guys are also contributors to the Library Lost and Found site. Can you talk about what that site is and what kind of stuff you guys write for that site?

Kevin King is the brains behind Library Lost and Found and he’s from the Kalamazoo Public Library and so he asked us to be contributors. It’s really wide open. We can write about whatever we want. It is about leadership, so we tend to write about things that we like, to have to do with leadership and I’m really interested in personality types and how to get the best out of people and inspire people to do the best work that they can do, so that’s just a personal kind of interest of mine. But it’s really open, we can write about whatever we want, it’s kind of a fun little gig. Mary?

I tend to like to write about things that just help you do your job better and that thing. Whether that means managing up, managing down. Also just how you present yourself professionally. There’s a lot of topics that I don’t think ever get addressed in library school. All the way down from crazy people to how do I dress for a library job? What’s the best way to approach a problem? I think so much of what we do as librarians is more about people management rather than information. And you can’t, that just has to be an essential part of what we do as a librarian.

Well we started out talking about the blog has been around for five years. Do you see it being around in five more years?

We keep saying it has to die. We keep saying it has to die. And yet it never does, it just, we keep getting these submissions and we keep getting submissions and we keep getting surprised and we keep laughing about it. So we’ll keep it around as long as there’s material to be had [laughs].

As long as bad books are being published [laughs].

That’s right. That’s around the libraries.

All right, well, Mary and Holly, thank you so much for talking to me for the show today.

Thanks for having us.

Thanks, loved it.


That’s all right, it was just a joke, so [laughs].


I’m sure it was funny [laughs].

Just laugh and I’ll add that in, so [laughs].

Okay, edit my laugh in [laughs].

Do you guys have a preference as to who gets named first? Are you Mary and Holly? Or Holly and Mary? Or you don’t care?

We’re interchangeable, Steve.


I’d like to think I’m the most important person in the room, but [laughs].


My god, just name her first then [laughs].