Weeding the worst content: Learning from librarians

Your organization's content is messy, there's a lot of it, and every day it seems like there's more.

  • By Team CSI
  • |
  • May 16 2016
  • |
  • Categories: Articles

But you know what? You’re far from alone, and it’s hardly a new problem.

The internet has created content chaos in the last 25 years, but there’s a group of people who have been facing the same content-wrangling challenges for centuries: Librarians.

I was reminded of how much content management professionals can learn from librarians when earlier this month I read a New Yorker article, Weeding the Worst Library Books, by Daniel Gross. It’s the story of two librarians, Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner, who are passionate about keeping libraries as useful as possible.

Check out their hilarious blog about outdated and terrible library books libraries should cull. You’ll find mind-boggling titles like 1981’s Dress Better for Less that still linger on some library shelves.

Hibner and Kelly’s blog is not only a funny collection of books that are shocking for their mere existence. Its five-year popularity streak speaks to how fiendishly challenging it can be to manage a library, or any home for content. There’s so much content being published every day, how can you possibly keep up and make sure it’s good?

Content strategists face familiar challenges

Gross’s article about Kelly and Hibner touches on a variety of considerations librarians make with their collections, and I saw tons of parallels with content strategy.

Librarians identify books their communities will find useful, are high quality, and recent enough to be relevant. They also plan the lifecycle of the books in their collection: how and when they get retired. They only have so much space in the building, so they can’t keep everything. But they have to know what books are important enough to keep, even if they’re not checked out often.

Here are some of the touchpoints of Gross’s New Yorker article, and how I think they relate to content strategy.

1. Keeping the library filled with fresh ideas

Good libraries are filled with information that is up to date to be relevant to the people of our time, not people of the past. Who’s going to land a good job with the career tips from a book written in the 1970s?

The parallel with content strategy:

When it comes to your organization’s content, you need your audience to know you’re modern, and you’ve kept up to date with current policies and regulations. Your target audience will quickly abandon your content if it contains antiquated ideas, outdated standards that don’t hold up to your competitors, or old dates. If a program description was last updated in 2014, visitors will assume it’s no longer being offered, or no longer relevant.

If you dress your site up in a slick responsive theme without addressing the content, people are going to decide your organization is outdated the moment they start reading closely. Content is where you demonstrate currency, by posting recent news regularly, and by getting rid of pages, ideas, and articles as they get outdated.

What if you want to keep things because they could be useful to someone? Like that one user who needs to know a particular detail about the history of your organization, or who may find a post you made helpful even if it talks about software or programs you no longer support? Well, keep in mind that just because it’s digital doesn’t mean there’s no cost to keeping it. Every link, paragraph, picture, and video that your priority audience doesn’t need makes it harder for that audience to find what they do need.

2. The book removal practice

Librarians call the process of removing books from their collection “de-accessioning” or more casually, “weeding.” They weed because hoarding books makes it harder to match up the right reader with the right book.

Photograph by Peter Zuco, https://flic.kr/p/b9Wi3Z

Photograph by Peter Zuco, https://flic.kr/p/b9Wi3Z

The parallel with content strategy:

You might hear content strategists call this process “getting rid of the ROT” (redundant, outdated, trivial). More specifically, we’ll often advise revising, archiving or deleting content that hurts you more than helps.

It’s important to note that archiving and deleting is a natural and normal part of the content lifecycle. Just because you’re removing content from your site doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. It may have been perfectly good when it originally went up. But times change, and with that, so should content.

Your content team may want to make a plan for when to review pages or sections of your site so you can review them regularly.

Like a well-kept garden, a librarian who “weeds” is helping the collection thrive. - Daniel Gross

3. Keeping the peace

When Jeff Scott, the director of the public library in Berkeley, California, pulled 40,000 books from the shelves in one year, readers were so angry they demanded he resign. That’s why Kelly and Hibner recommend weeding gradually. Removing a book or two a week keeps the library moving in the right direction, making space for new books without creating too big a shock to the system. 

The parallel with content strategy:

As Misty Weaver discussed at Vancouver’s Information Architecture & Content Strategy meetup group last month, auditing content a little at a time can be much easier to manage than trying to audit everything at once.

If you’re the manager of content, the takeaway here is to plan how you will go about “de-accessioning” your content. You don’t want your audience to feel abandoned. Even if your priority audience will be okay with the change, some stakeholders might not be.

Make sure that the the right people can still find the content you take away from public-facing platforms. Appropriate places may be intranets, wikis, shared file servers. Don’t forget about the physical world for content, either. Posters, flyers, or books may be the perfect place for the content you’re removing from the web. It all depends on what you’re dealing with.



Take a moment and really think about what you do. Is managing content easy? No!

It’s infinitely easier to keep content than it is to choose what to remove. After all, you don’t really have to do anything to keep it.

You don’t have to deal with the emotions wrapped up in content like the first post you ever published, or materials that helped someone you know who isn’t part of the priority audience. You don’t have to figure out who is going to need those materials and miss them. You don’t have to provide new alternatives for people who may need them.

 “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.”
 ― Theodore Roosevelt

Here are three of my top tips and resources to make the “weeding” process easier

  • Can’t tell which section of your content needs the most weeding? Try the content scorecard template Content Strategy Inc developed to get a snapshot of how your content is doing at a high level.
  • Have trouble deciding if a particular piece of content is still good? Ask a colleague to lend their fresh eyes.
  • Want to see how much your site has improved since you first started weeding? Check the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to see how your site used to look, and celebrate how much better it has become.

Learning more

Interested in learning more about how our librarian counterparts manage the content of their domain?

Beyond weeding, there are many parallels between content strategy and library science. An article by our friends at Brain Traffic casts a wider lens on the topic. Deeper content strategy methodologies are informed by library science, as well: CSI’s very own Blaine Kyllo’s deep understanding of taxonomy was inspired by library practice. (Blaine will be speaking about taxonomy tonight in downtown Vancouver).

Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner have also written a book about making a collection count, so check that out (perhaps from your local library!) for more information.

Further reading

Content toolkit: A checklist to help you reduce and simplify your content

Best practices for archiving and deleting content

Unnecessary word list

Our content strategy services