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If you’re a librarian you’ve probably heard this one already, but I think it bears retelling to all those who care about their community libraries.

According to an article in the online magazine Smile Politely, the Urbana [Illinois] Free Library conducted a “weeding process [and] discarded thousands of nonfiction books in a hasty, arbitrary way—a way that utilizes only one of the UFL’s stated selection criteria.” The article says that the sole criterion for weeding was age, not use, and that much of the work was done by temporary, untrained help. This was a “unilateral decision” by the Executive Director, and the weeding took place while the Director of Adult Services was out of the country “and was unaware that it was happening at all.”

The Library Board Vice President discovered what was happening and called a temporary halt to the weeding. The next day a meeting of the Board was called, and the VP said, “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.”

The Director’s “reasons for the weeding [were] to free up space [for book accessibility as well as for electronic resources] and prepare the collection for RFID tag insertion.”

RFID is the radio-frequency identification chips used for automatic checkout, a system used in sister-city Champaign’s library, but not yet in Urbana.

Library staff members have said “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 a university library employee pointed out, “that’s less than one second per book.”

A letter from the recently-retired Head of Adult Services at UFL says, “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. […] 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….”

Pictures posted of the empty-looking shelves seem to confirm the loss.

The current Director of Adult Services said at the Board meeting, “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.”

In a town that loves its library more than any other cultural institution, even its farmers’ market or sweet corn festival, there’s been an outpouring of grief and anger. Urbana is one of the twin cities home to the University of Illinois, which itself has the top-ranked Library and Information Science school in the country. Many of its graduates and current students have worked at the UFL.

Founded in 1872, the Urbana Free Library was one of the first public libraries in the state of Illinois and has been ranked in the top one percent of public libraries in Illinois and in the United States by American Libraries magazine. Our first apartment in Urbana in 2000 was a hundred yards from the UFL, and one of our criteria when buying a house was that we could still walk to the library, even in the heat or cold. My sons learned to read with books from their collection, and a large number of posts I’ve written for IHE since 2006 were written in the UFL.

Since the Smile Politely article ran, Executive Director Deb Lissak has issued an apology on behalf of the library, at the library’s website, which says in part:

“[I]n trying to move the library toward self-checkout stations, more seating space, media out on public shelves, and eBooks available in the library catalog…[t]his first step has had some missteps, which I believe we have caught and corrected. My direction to weed quickly rushed the usual decision process.”

She denies, however, that items to be discarded were chosen by shelvers and says, “Weeding decisions are made by knowledgeable, skilled, professional librarians who know our collection and our users’ varied interests.” She also claims that, “There are other factors that affect the decision including the number of checkouts, the last checkout date, whether the information is outdated, and what else we own in a particular area.”

This seems to contradict what she said in the Board meeting, according to sources for the Smile Politely article:

Executive Director Lissak: [W]hat I did was I sorted it by [publication] date and highlighted in red everything that was over ten years.
Board VP Scherer: Ten years since publication date?
Lissak: Over ten years for publication date.
Scherer: But not use?
Lissak: No.

So far, the resolution is merely that Better World Books will return some portion of the UFL books, especially those in art and gardening, for UFL’s closer evaluation. Not all the books are coming back, though, and others are still being weeded.

Mention of this in LISNews: Librarian News, a university-run site, prompted this comment:

“And what does it say, that in a town that has a GSLIS program, that the director had temporary workers doing tasks that should be handled by library professionals. How, after this, do we justify to our patrons and boards that staff with advanced degrees are ‘worth it,’ when UFL is using glorified volunteers to make collection maintenance decisions. Not only are Ms. Lissak's actions a blow to Urbana Free Library, they are equally disastrous to librarians and librarianship. She deserves to be severely reprimanded if not fired.”

The hasty weeding re-ignites all sorts of flare-ups about how libraries should serve, whether print or electronic materials are their primary future mission (or, say, computer services and career help), and more generally about who values technology, what it means to be a community, and more.

Accordingly, discussion of the UFL weeding on Facebook led one poster to point out that a consultant hired for UFL’s strategic planning “peppered [her recommendations] 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.”

Coincidentally, another of her clients is my new town’s library, which was weeded severely, recently, I’m told.

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