We received this letter from Charles Romero, son of Deb Lissak, the Executive Director of Urbana Free Library. At his request, we've decided to publish it, unedited, and we're glad to do so.
My name is Charles, and I lived in Urbana for the first 24 years of my life. I attended Urbana High School, I earned a degree from the University of Illinois, I worked in Lincoln Square for over five years, and I have used and loved the Urbana Free Library. I’m also the son of Debra Lissak, the current director of the aforementioned institution. I am in the midst of serving abroad with an international development organization, but I still try to keep up with what’s going on in my hometown. You see, I love Urbana. I love its people. I love its forward thinking. I love its willingness to speak up. Unfortunately, the last of these things can sometimes get us caught up.
The situation regarding the weeding of books from the collection at the Urbana Free Library just came to my attention. I have no light to shed on that situation but rather a reflection on how it’s being handled. From what I can tell, to put it mildly, it could have been handled better. Whether you take the word of my mother (that it was poor communication on her part) or the word of various comments on the articles published (that it was negligence and laziness of the highest degree deserving immediate dismissal) is not important to me. I wish only to illustrate to the best of my ability the image I have of my mother with regard to her position at the library.
My details of my mother’s first years at the Urbana Free Library are hazy; she started working there in the 70s, and I was born in 87. She was a reference librarian (and I think head of reference at some point), and eventually became the associate director. This is where my memory actually starts to serve a purpose.
Mrs. Doubtfire never seemed that strange to me. I remember my stay-at-home father bringing me and my siblings over to visit our mother in a red Radio Flyer wagon with a homemade canvas top that looked more settlers-traveling-west than Norman Rockwell. We’d get to her cramped office filled with boxes and filing cabinets, pictures of us kids haphazardly strewn across the sides of the latter, and beg her to take us to the staff lounge and buy us a bottle of pop, then still from an old fashioned machine with glass bottles and all. I thought she had the best job ever. I remember it striking me odd when I’d ask her what she’d do if we won the lottery and her saying she’d retire. Why? She works at the library. Why would she ever want to leave? It made sense as I got older and saw the amount of time she had to put in. I remember her nearly every night being huddled over documents, reviewing plans, editing spreadsheets (on paper, no computers then), and still finding time to read to us kids in between. There was never a moment she wasn’t engaged in something related to bettering the Urbana Free Library. At one point I remember her being forced to take time off, because she had accumulated so many vacation days that they wouldn’t let her stack up anymore. She still brought stuff home to work on.
Then came the building renovation. If she wasn’t busy before then – she was, she certainly had her hands full during those few intense years. We lived a block away from the library. I solemnly suggest to anyone considering moving excessively close to their place of employment to quickly reconsider. If there’s ever extra work that needs to be done, you will be called. My mother practically lived at the library during those years. Little public recognition comes from an associate directorship, but it was with no small amount of pride that I first saw her name on the plaque at the Greet St. entrance. That was my mom, and she had worked her ass off.
A few years ago now (Five? I don’t remember), she became the director of the library. Navigating the politics of libraries is not easy. Navigating the public is not easy. If you listen to an opinion of an employee, how do you explain not taking their advice? Being a leader means listening, but it also means making an informed decision. When faced with crowds of out-of-towners using the library’s resources, how do you tell someone not paying taxes for them that they’re mistreating the people who do? You’d still want them to use the resources, but the money to support such a large client base has to come from somewhere. It’s not an easy job, and as the years went on, I saw my mother trade out her stacks of paper sitting on the table next to the couch for a laptop. The afterhours work still has not stopped. If anything, it has increased after becoming director. The muted TV flashing light across her face, she falls asleep on the couch nearly every night while working on one thing or another for the library.
I’ve called my mother many things over the years. Lazy has never been one of them. I have never known, nor will I ever probably, another person who works so tirelessly for so thankless a position. Were oversights made in the weeding process this past month? It certainly seems that way. But please. Please, please, please, please, please. Do not overlook the decades of service and hard work Debra Lissak has put toward the Urbana Free Library. Do not begin to think that she ever wanted anything but the best for the community. Do not get so wrapped up in the heat of the moment that you forget that as much as you care about the library, she is matching you step for step. She’s given her life to the Urbana Free Library. Don’t make this the reason she leaves. Let’s get this problem fixed, and let’s move on. We’re all on the same team.
Emotionally but with hope,
P.S. Sorry, mom, for not asking for your permission or advice before writing and sending in this letter.