Disclosure: I worked at Urbana Free Library August 2003–January 2004. I was a part-time shelver, book processor, and I also did some secretarial work in the administrative office. The director at that time was Fred Schlipf, and Deb Lissak was the associate director. Both Mr. Schlipf and Ms. Lissak were kind, patient, supportive, and fair to me. Indeed, working for them influenced my decision to become a librarian.

Last week, I was contacted about something extremely disturbing that had recently happened at Urbana Free Library (UFL). A weeding process had taken place that had discarded thousands of nonfiction books in a hasty, arbitrary way — a way that utilizes only one of the UFL’s stated selection criteria.*

Both UFL staff and the public (who were alarmed at the rapidly emptying shelves) spoke out, but the weeding continued until a library board meeting (and Mayor Laurel Prussing) was called. JP Goguen, a university library employee, was at the meeting, recorded it, and sent the recording to me (the board normally does not record meetings). The conversation at this meeting is alarming. Urbana Free Library's director, Deb Lissak, made a unilateral decision to weed books in the print collection by date alone. It seems that the Adult Services staff’s expertise and knowledge of the collection was neither consulted nor welcomed. In fact, Anne Phillips, Director of Adult Services, was not even in the country when the project began and was unaware that it was happening at all.

Timeline of Events (From Goguen's notes)

Week of June 3, 2013. Lissak created an Excel spreadsheet of the nonfiction collection. All titles published before 2003 were highlighted in red for removal. It’s not currently known what percentage of the collection was marked for removal, but it appears to be as high as 50%, and possibly as high as 75%. The full-time staff was instructed to review the spreadsheet and mark books that they wanted to retain.

June 8. Twelve new, part-time employees (who’d been hired to do RFID tagging, but — curiously — were hired two weeks before that project was supposed to take place) were told to put the pulled books in boxes. More than half of the collection was weeded in one day.

June 10. The weeded books were shipped off to Better World Books. On that day, Anne Phillips, Head of Adult Services, returned from a "three-week leave to find the collection that she oversees significantly weeded without her knowledge" or approval. Library Board Vice-President Chris Scherer visited the library and called a temporary halt to the weeding.

June 11. A meeting of the Library Board was called and took place at 7:30 p.m.

The meeting began with Scherer bluntly asking Lissak the criteria she used for the weeding process:

Lissak: [W]hat I did was I sorted it by [publication] date and highlighted in red everything that was over ten years.

Scherer: Ten years since publication date?

Lissak: Over ten years for publication date.

Scherer: But not use?

Lissak: No.

...

Scherer: [W]e were not given the criteria … at that time. I went back there last night, and … we have given away to Better World Books, thousands of books… [T]he shelves right now, if you go upstairs, are empty. There are hundreds of books gone, thousands of books gone, and yet we have approved this without … board approval.

Lissak’s reasons for the weeding are to free up space and prepare the collection for RFID tag insertion. According to Mary Ellen Farrell, Board of Trustees President, a “conscious effort” was made “to find the most efficient way to get [the library] up to par as far as RFID tagging and … for the most usable [and] efficient things that … our library needs to have here as a core collection, and to identify things that are easily accessed, either from other libraries … or online.”

All lovers of libraries — librarians and patrons alike — know and understand that weeding the collection is a normal (if sometimes regrettable) part of running a library. But in the UFL’s case, "the initial criteria (everything published before 2003) and the time frame (less than one week)" severely limited the time that the librarians needed to review the "tens of thousands of titles that were to be weeded" (Notes, Goguen). As stated earlier, this would seem to go against the UFL’s own weeding policy.* Moreover, while the staff understood that weeding was to take place, their accounts of the weeding guidelines they received conflict with those of Lissak’s, who says that she never told staff that they weren’t allowed to look at the books prior to weeding, though she admits telling them that she “would like them to make the decisions more quickly.”

However, Lissak’s account isn’t what Phillips’ staff told her they understood. At the board meeting, Phillips stated that, according to “three independent statements” from her staff members, “they were told not to go to the shelf or look at the book, or look to see for other editions. They were asked to [weed] as quickly as possible, even at the level of going through a range in 30 minutes of 2,000 titles.” As Goguen stated: that’s less than one second per book.

Phillips: I wasn’t here, and that has been kind of distressing... I went back and looked at some of those spreadsheets … and I … I almost started crying. They went through these things too fast! And it cost them money I think; we can replace things, but the mistake’s made.

[unknown board member to Lissak]: Why would you proceed with the weeding in her absence when you know that she’s not in on the process?

Lissak: Well, obviously it stopped because, because…

[unknown board member]: There was an intervention of a board member.

The reason that Lissak gave for the speed at which this project took place, in other words, the reason why she didn’t wait for Phillips to return from her leave before the weeding began, was her concern for the “dollar value of staff time invested”:

[It] has to do with RFID [tagging]. We have to touch every single piece in the collection and have to tag it… And you don’t want to be doing all that and then find you’re — six months from now — you’re weeding and taking things back out you just went to the trouble of doing this for. So that was what was driving the speed at which it was happening… The timetable needed to move along more quickly.

The tags aren’t here yet; we’re getting our training next Wednesday; to keep those people busy who were hired — and I also need this weeding to happen before we insert — now I’m just on a logistical system that says, I have 154 hours of staff time that will be wasted. I need them to do something productive…

According to Phillips, a staff member asked for a meeting to discuss “the actual criteria to judge” which books would be removed, but that didn’t happen until the board meeting was called, and in the meantime, thousands of books continued to be removed:

Shelvers today are weeding the 700s — the art collection. About 70% of art books from 700–740 are gone. The $300 two-volume Art of Florence is gone; the Pritzker prize winners in architecture are gone; the History of Art by Janson is gone. Deb does not care if they circulate or not. She decided without staff input or support to do this.

On Monday (June 10), the gardening, home repair and remodeling, and foreign language areas went. So we lost lots of international language-English dictionaries as well. The gardening collection was one of the strongest in the state. (Letter. John Dunkelberger, Retired Urbana Free Library Adult Services Librarian)

If you go to the library’s second floor, if you care about these things at all, be prepared. The loss appears to be enormous. And putting aside the cultural loss for a moment, consider the loss of taxpayer money. My guess is that it must be at least in the hundreds of thousands. And it was accomplished in less than a week, while the Director of Adult Services was on leave. All at the hands of a Library Director who, without reservation, said this:

I probably haven’t looked at the collection for thirty years because that’s not my job; somebody else beneath me does that.

In her defense, Lissak claimed that she approached the Friends, asking them if they wanted the books to sell at their huge, thrice-yearly book sale. But, according to her, they turned her down, saying that “weeded books don’t sell in their sale because what [UFL] weeds out of the collection is generally not very desirable.” I doubt, however, that even if the Friends had known what was going to happen to the books, they’d not have had the space or ability to take on the thousands of them Lissak wanted to get rid of.

I was not at the meeting and the audio that I received ends after thirty minutes, but from what I understand, it was decided that weeding will not continue until further discussion and communication with the public has taken place. At this writing, the public has not been informed how many books have been removed or will continue to be removed.

No librarian (not even old-fashioned ones like me) operates under the delusion that weeding our collections should never take place. But it should always be done with care, integrity, and a deep knowledge of both the collection and patron need. John Gehner, a former librarian at Urbana Free Library, who was the first to approach me about this, said:
 

I think the public has no clue that removing/weeding books from the collection (which their taxes pay for) is as big a deal as buying new materials ... that there really are principles at stake (and competing needs sometimes at odds) in creating and maintaining a print collection in 2013.

The board needs to solicit input from all levels of the library for an accurate picture of what's going on.

Sometimes I think that the public has no clue because the public doesn’t care to have a clue. When I learned what happened at UFL, I felt like I’d been gutted along with their collection. I felt lonely. And I wondered if Isaac Asimov was right:

Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself. (I. Asimov: A Memoir, 1994)

But, then I reminded myself that, when this happened, I received not one angry email about it, but four, all of them wanting me to report on this. And as I listened to the transcript, I was heartened by the controlled rage I heard in Chris Scherer's voice. And as I listened to Lissak's “old books” remarks over and over, someone finally spoke up, saying, “You’re using ‘old’ as a pejorative term when sometimes [age] actually makes a book more valuable.” I didn't feel so alone anymore.

There might be hope for us yet.

---

*UPDATE*

Urbana Free Library has published a response.

*UPDATE* #2

Good news from Better World Books:

Tracy, just in case you wanted to add this to the Updates at the end of the post, we have gotten in touch with UFL and are working directly with them to resolve the situation. Your detailed write-up helped bring this to our attention so that we could take action, so thank you.

*UPDATE #3*

Deb Lissak told WILL Radio today that "communication errors among staff" led to the problems at UFL. She hopes to restore trust once this issue has been addressed and straightened out.

Read the article here.

*UPDATE #4*

Petition. We'll have a follow-up to all of these developments next week.

 

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*Criteria for weeding:

  • Physical condition

  • Frequency of use

  • Date of publication

  • Duplication within existing collection

  • Availability through interlibrary loan

  • Long-term, historical significance or interest

  • Cooperative collection agreements or collection strengths

 

The title of this article was adapted from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from the June 11 board meeting.

Audio from board meeting

Urbana Free Library Staff

Board of Trustees

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Enormous gratitude to the librarians who helped, advised, and agreed to be quoted in this article. Extra special thanks to JP Goguen for sharing his photographs, notes, transcripts, and audio of the board meeting. This article couldn’t have happened without him.