Last Friday, when Smile Politely informed our community about the overzealous weeding taking place at the Urbana Free Library, its director, Deb Lissak, had a choice to make. She could take responsibility, apologize, and assure the public that changes in policy and transparency would be made.
Her other option was to deny responsibility and place blame elsewhere.
By Friday afternoon, the weeding had stopped (at the 740s), the UFL had posted a FAQ on their site, and other media in C-U caught up with the story and contacted Lissak for comment. Unfortunately, these responses caused more questions than they answered. And more hard feelings as well.
In the interviews that Lissak gave Friday afternoon, the words “misunderstanding,” “miscommunication,” and “communication errors” were used repeatedly. Whose misunderstanding? Whose miscommunication? Whose communication errors? According to Lissak, these land at the feet of the Adult Services Librarians.
In her comment to WICD, Lissak accused her staff of “suspend[ing] their judgement”:
The librarians in the non-fiction area were to look at all the items that were over ten years old from publication date. But after that, I intended that they still use their normal criteria and they still use there [sic] professional judgement.
In her comment to The News-Gazette, Lissak claimed that “we” (meaning management?) “didn’t mean for this to happen,” and that “for some reason they took a larger portion out than I intended. I didn't know that was happening. I'm not sure how that miscommunication occurred. ... I feel terrible.”
In her conversation with WILL, Lissak again placed responsibility for the overzealous weeding on her staff, because, after all, “these are the people that work with the public and they buy the collection and they withdraw the collection. So, that’s their normal job role.” Lissak added that the Adult Services staff also neglected to contact her about their concerns: “I wish when they … were alarmed by that, they would have stopped to ask.”
Finally, Lissak posted an apology on UFL’s website, claiming that “inaccuracies” were “moving through social media.” In her apology, Lissak once again emphasized that the weeding that took place was handled only by the “knowledgeable, skilled, professional librarians” in Adult Services.
Deb Lissak had a choice: Take responsiblity or place blame elsewhere. She chose the latter. Questions from the public only intensified:
- If Lissak never meant for any of this to happen, why didn’t she try to stop it?
- How could she not know it was happening?
- If she truly believes a “communication breakdown” occurred, why did she say this at last Tuesday’s board meeting: “[T]ruthfully, I am okay with what’s happened” (audio)?
Moreover, after Tuesday’s board meeting, at which it was made abundantly clear that more discussion needed to happen before the weeding continued, yet another shipment was mailed to Better World Books on Wednesday morning. We are still not sure how many books have been lost, but we do know that the 000s–500s are gone for good. At best, this seems to be disturbingly careless management; at worst...
With JP Goguen’s invaluable help, I decided to follow up. I began with the Adult Services staff at UFL. I wrote to several librarians there, hoping to get responses from them, but only one was willing to speak with me (Goguen was also at the interview). Maggie Taylor is a part-time librarian in Adult Services and graduate of the university's Graduate School of Library and Information Science. She’s worked at UFL since December 2011. Taylor was not one of the librarians who worked on the weeding process, but she watched it take place. Because Taylor has a part-time, substitute position at UFL, she’s only guaranteed three hours a week (the rest of the time, she fills in); thus, the risks of talking with me aren’t as high for her as they would be for full-time staff, who worry that "their work environment could become so intolerable, miserable, and toxic" that they'd quit. According to Taylor, "It's happened to many former employees. The risks are much higher for them.”
My first question to Maggie was this: Did our article contain any errors or inaccuracies?
Maggie Taylor: Aside from the fact that the Excel spreadsheet was introduced to some of the staff on May 30th and the entire staff on June 3rd, not at all. But I can see why you'd ask because Deb said one thing Tuesday night (board meeting) and then she said something different on Friday.
JP Goguen: There are so many contradictions, it’s ridiculous. Why did she hire people on June 1st if their training doesn’t begin until, according to the audio, “next Wednesday,” which is June 19th? Why would she hire people two weeks before they’re supposed to get trained to do the job that they’re being hired for?
This doesn’t happen without planning and a really clear understanding of what your goal is. But she keeps saying, ‘We don’t have a plan; I don’t know the number of books; we don’t know how much square footage we’re trying to open up; we don’t have a plan for the space.’ It’s mind-blowing. These questions were asked during the second half of the meeting that didn’t get recorded. We asked her over and over. But that was the response we got. She dodged all of those questions.
Taylor: Deb definitely knows how many books were on the edited spreadsheet that she gave to the shelvers. She produced that list. It had the number of books that were pulled by shelvers.
Goguen: When asked repeatedly at the meeting — how many books were on the list; how many books were taken off the list by librarians — she just said, ‘I don’t know.’
Taylor: She made the list herself.
Goguen: It’s disingenuous to say the director of a library can’t look at how many lines are on a spreadsheet.
SP: Maggie, tell me what you know, what you saw.
Taylor: Essentially, what I experienced was an increase in the stress levels of my colleagues. In communicating with them, it was very clear that they felt intimidated and that they had no recourse for refuting the orders that they received from the director. One of my colleagues who was weeding showed me the spreadsheet as she was reviewing it and said to me, ‘I’ve never been asked to do something like this in my entire career. This is just way too fast. I’m looking at books and I see the date that they were published, and I can’t go to the shelf, and won't know what else we have in the collection on that topic. Weeding can be a fascinating way to learn about our community and what they read. I kind of enjoy that part of weeding. This weeding process isn't like that at all. At this rate there's no way to consider that.’
SP: Was the staff specifically told not to consider usage?
Taylor: My colleague communicated to me that this weeding process was happening way too fast. The adult services department was charged with weeding the nonfiction section ASAP, so that when the new shelvers worked on Saturday, they could pull the books. In that time frame, they were told to prioritize weeding based on publication date. Our department head/supervisor was out of the country and unreachable, so the department had no one to voice concerns to or no advocate. I was actually working additional hours as a sub because the librarians needed time off of the reference desk to go through these spreadsheets at such a rapid rate.
I know another one of my colleagues in the department personally met with Deb and pleaded with her for over an hour. At the time, we were working together at the reference desk and my colleague said, ‘I need to go meet with Deb and ask for it to be slowed down.’ The meeting lasted for over an hour; my colleague came back to the reference desk and said something to the effect of, ‘We don’t have any power.’
SP: Is this the person that Ms. Phillips referred to at the board meeting? The person who asked that the criteria for judging which books would be removed be reconsidered?
Taylor: Yes. It was such a short window of time. This isn't the first time that I've witnessed what I would call managerial bullying of the adult services staff.
SP: How long has this been going on?
Taylor: To my knowledge, this is not an isolated incident; it’s been going on long before I got there. For years, maybe. I know some about John Dunkelberger retiring and other librarians leaving, librarians who have said that they can no longer work under this administration. It’s not just one angry staff person with a personal disagreement with management.
When the strategic planner came in February to an all-staff in-service, her presentation manner was belittling and offensive to almost the entire staff.
[Pause in interview]
Editor’s note: I’m going to pause here and include a note that I received recently. This was written by another library employee at Urbana Free Library, and it backs up Taylor’s account of the meeting:
I wonder how many people following this Urbana Free Library bookgate disaster know about the consultant that was hired to develop UFL's "Strategic Plan." Her presentations were peppered with comments about "the cloud" and how much she loves cloud-based computing, so much so that I kind of wonder if she owns shares in this technology or something. She also appeared to have a general disdain for the public, making several comments about how "poor people don't really read, they just use the computers" and could not hide her dislike of our library (or the people who use it) very well. I just find it interesting/frustrating that our director decided to follow her terrible advice in getting rid of most of our books.
Taylor: The current buzz is all about this drive-by book culling, [i.e., weeding], but this is just the tip of the iceberg; there's a long history of mismanagement and worrisome changes on deck for the future. The conversation must move towards the new Strategic Plan. It would be great to get community input on what people want for the future of their Urbana library.
As part of the current Strategic Plan, there was a community board selected to give input about the service priorities for the library. The community board, along with the strategic planner and the staff, looked at a list of 'service priorities' and ranked what they wanted. Physical space was selected as the number one priority, but they were never told, 'Here is what that looks like.' In order to make space without remodeling or building a new library, something that is currently in that space has to go away, like maybe the books... For example, 'reference services' is not one of the service priorities in the Strategic Plan, and it has been speculated amongst staff that reference services could go away altogether because it is no longer a service priority at the Urbana Free Library.
I don't think these community members knew that when they were ranking priorities it meant that something else we currently offer will be less of a priority and maybe even go away. All this attention the library is getting from gutting the catalog is an excellent opportunity to get community members' input on what they do want for a library. Let's start talking about that and what that looks like before the rest of the Strategic Plan wipes out the excellent resources (books and staff) that we already have here in Urbana.
SP: If they didn't know then, they’ll know now, thanks to you. So, what can we do? Not all the books are coming back from BWB, correct? I think that WICD’s headline was very misleading. I’ve read that only the last shipment is being returned.
Taylor: Deb says that she’s recovering this mistake, but it was members of the public that contacted Better World Books. That’s why they’re returning some of the books.
And this isn’t just happening to the print collection. It’s not as visually shocking as empty bookshelves, but the CD collection has started undergoing a rapid weeding too. Completely removing the CD/DVD collection was something that the Strategic Planning consultant suggested. She suggested moving to streaming video and digital downloads. DVDs are our highest circulation portion of the collection at this time. DVDs and CDs are 54% of the adult circulation. Removing them would sure free up some space in the library [sarcasm]. UFL librarians are concerned about how this will affect the population that we serve. If we move to downloads only, we can only serve the people who have devices to download to.
SP: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Taylor: I want to make sure it's understood that calling for Deb's resignation is not a judgement of her worth as a person. I'm not out to 'get' her. I'm speaking up because I think it's in the best interest of our library and our community that she no longer has a position of power (to then abuse).
Kate McDowell is an Assistant Professor at GSLIS, and former board member, children’s librarian, circulation clerk, and shelver at The Urbana Free Library. She recently wrote to me about something that she thinks would be a preventative measure to ensuring that this kind of appalling “misstep” doesn’t happen again. McDowell advocates for televised meetings of the Urbana Free Library Board. Below is her open letter, unedited, reprinted with permission:
This recent nonfiction collection weeding situation has damaged public trust, and the only remedy for that is greater transparency in government. I believe that we, as citizens of Urbana, should be advocating for televised meetings of the Urbana Free Library Board of Trustees. Other city meetings are televised via Urbana Public Television (UPTV). City council, board of education, park district board of commissioners, and many other local governmental meetings are regularly televised, to name a few examples.
Apologies are a start; concrete measures to enhance accountability would be a prudent next step to begin to rebuild public trust. Joining the other local governmental groups that televise their meetings on UPTV would be a good-faith effort to address, rather than avoid, public criticisms. I advocate televising the meetings of the The Urbana Free Library Board of Trustees to encourage greater public oversight and more deliberation and care in library communications with and actions on behalf of the public that it serves.
As of this writing, there is a petition with well over 200 votes asking the library board president to “make Lissak explain her decisions” to the public. Add this to the astonishing, vocal public outrage on several local websites and that pesky social media, and it’s clear that we have a public vote of no confidence in Urbana Free Library’s director.
JP Goguen has made requests for several documents through the Freedom of Information Act, and we’ll keep you updated on his progress with this.
There is a city council meeting tonight at 7:00 p.m.
We'll be reaching out to Ms. Lissak for an interview today, Monday, June 17, 2013.
A special meeting of the Board of Trustees has been called for Wednesday, June 19, 7:00 p.m., at the Urbana Free Library Auditorium. The agenda includes time for public comment and an executive session.
Much thanks to Maggie Taylor, JP Goguen, Kate McDowell, Heather Ault, and everyone who helped with this article.