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Weeding: Making an Unbiased Decision

The power to remove a book from a collection is one I had not contemplated too much when in library school. And so it was that I held a copy of Michael Behe‘s Darwin’s Black Box in my hand mulling over the decision whether or not to pull the book. I had very good reasons to believe the book should be pulled but what gave me pause was the consideration that my own bias might be leading me to make a hasty decision.

There are several things to consider when making a decision about weeding an item: accuracy, currency, condition, and use. I admit that I am new to weeding, but so far, I have pulled most books on account of condition: yellowed pages, torn covers, and broken spines. Condition and use were not an issue with this book. The item is in good shape and still appeared to go out on a regular basis. In fact, use would be points in its favor. That leaves accuracy and currency.

First, a brief summary of the books main points. From Wikipedia:

[Behe] presents his notion of irreducible complexity and claims that its presence in many biochemical systems indicates therefore that they must be the result of intelligent design rather than evolutionary processes.

An example of irreducible complexity might be a mechanical pocket watch. Take out any part and the whole watch ceases to function. Behe extrapolates this to biological life and uses examples from microbiology, such as the bacterium flagellum, as examples analogous to the pocket watch. He asserts that these complex biological machines couldn’t evolve, because if they were missing any of their parts they couldn’t function  Behe is a biochemist and not an evolutionary biologist.

Currency: Any book on the theory of evolution may be considered for weeding on currency alone. Things change fast in this field, with new information coming to light all the time. A book published in 1996, almost 20 years ago, could be seriously outdated. There are exceptions, of course. Darwin’s Origin of Species is kept around because it is a classic, despite that his theory has been updated since its publication. Other exceptions may be popular science books whose function may be more to explain complex subjects in laymen’s terms and whose general information may not be that out of date. Behe’s book, though, put forward an idea, that if true, would overturn everything science knew about evolution up to that point. Currency would seem not to apply here.

That leaves accuracy. Simply put: Behe is wrong. Full disclosure: I have not read this book and am not an evolutionary biologist. However, when it comes to making decisions about weeding, a librarian is not expected to have read all the books in the collection. I have, however, read plenty of criticisms of irreducible complexity and intelligent design to understand that it is not an accurate description of the process of evolution or a threat to the integrity of the theory. You can read here or watch this video for fuller explanations.

I had come to hold the book in my hand because Darwin’s Black Box is shelved in the science section, where I was weeding. It seemed an obvious candidate for weeding because I knew the information was inaccurate. However, there are books in science that are about science itself. These need not be accurate in the sense that they may not be asserting facts but perhaps pondering the implications of scientific discoveries.

Behe’s book doesn’t fall into this category, but it skirts the territory. Behe is a biochemist and he uses his knowledge of this field to put forward a theory of why evolution can’t be possible. In fact, looking at the Dewey Call number, 572.838, we see that it is cataloged under biochemistry (other libraries I looked at catalogued it under “Evolution, origins of life,” 576.83 with similar titles, which seems to have the same effect. It is not seen as a book on evolution, per se.), not theories of evolution, 576.82. This is an important distinction. It would seem, that as far as the catalog is concerned, this book is not perceived as presenting facts about evolution, but as a possible critique, using information from another field.

As a librarian, I am expected to provide access to information in an unbiased way. So, while I do not believe in astrology, I would be expected to provide access to astrology information, none the less. However, I am also expected to provide accurate and current information within a respective domain. If someone came in asking for books on geology and size of the Earth, I would not show them books about the Earth being flat. Darwin’s Black Box presented a special challenge, as the science regarding evolution is sound and intelligent design is not a serious challenger. However, after reflection, I realized that my gut reaction had biased me against the book. I couldn’t weed it because within the domain it represented, intelligent design, its accuracy was fine, and it wasn’t catalogued as a book about evolution. In addition, if a user asked for information on evolution, I am not compelled to guide them to this book.

This was an important experience for me. As I gain more experience as a librarian and take on more responsibilities, holding a neutral stance in regards to the information provided to the public will be more important. This book just happened to bring the importance of the decisions into relief. In the process of weeding, I make a similar decisions with every book I review.

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