Is 350 Books Enough?

University of Florida professor reprimanded after heatedly contesting the university library’s book checkout limit.

December 10, 2019
 
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English professor Richard Burt is a big fan of books. Like, a really big fan of books. So much so he owns over 2,000 and has checked out 728 books from the University of Florida library, doubling the faculty checkout limit of 350.

As a tenured professor of English at Florida -- where he’s been since 2003 -- he is constantly creating new classes and is in the process of writing multiple books. Because of this, Burt makes frequent trips to the campus library, where he knows every librarian by name.

And this got Burt into a bit of trouble. First the library came collecting. Then he said he was made to sign a letter of reprimand for his interactions with the library staff.

During summer 2019, he received a notice that he needed to return some of his prized books by Oct. 1, as he was over the faculty limit of 350. He was informed he would not be able to check out more books until he returned to proper parameters for faculty. Burt said he had been told by another librarian that he could check out more books than that, as a special exception to the rule.

When Burt received this notice, he wrote to the chair of his department, Sid Dobrin, about the matter. Dobrin told Burt this was a library matter and to contact the library representatives directly. Dobrin did not respond to a request for comment.

Burt -- who is 65 -- said that due to the different training he received on how to conduct research and the fact that many of the texts he uses are so old they’ve never been digitized, he must rely on old-fashioned methods to conduct his academic work.

“He was initially given some leeway by the chair of Library West, at his request, since he was working on several books at the time,” said Patrick Reakes, senior associate dean of scholarly resources and services. “It was never indicated that there would be no limit at all -- the approval was to go over the 350 limit if necessary since he was right at the top edge and the staff at the desk kept having to ask permission and/or get a supervisor to override our system since it doesn’t allow staff to exceed the limit.” (Library West is the main library on the UF campus.)

Reakes said that the excessive amount of books that were checked out had led to hours of wasted staff time and confusion.

“Keeping track of that many books, along with the recalls by other patrons, became unwieldy,” said Reakes. “Both the patron and our circulation staff were wasting a lot of time searching for books that hadn’t ever been returned, etc.”

“In addition, it seemed important to enforce the policy uniformly across all faculty members,” Reakes continued. “The initial approval to go over the limit was intended as short-term assistance for the faculty member. I’d point out that we have over 15,000 faculty patron records in our system, many with very high levels of publication and research, and no other patrons had over 325 items checked out. I’ve been at UF almost 20 years, and I don’t recall the limit ever being a problem before.”

The UF library has roughly 6.2 million volumes.

The library caps faculty checkouts at 350 items, with the opportunity for a one-click renewal twice a year. This allows participants to renew all their books at once.

According to Reakes, the library compares its faculty limit to other large research libraries, and based on a review they did earlier this year, they found they’re around the “middle of the pack.”

Burt said that he feels the decision to limit faculty to 350 books is arbitrary and notes that faculty at Florida State University have a limit of 500.

Burt has been accused of bullying and berating library staff both in person and by phone and email. These alleged incidents have spanned the past few years, and these exchanges were related to the number of books the professor checked out.

When Burt was called in to meet with his chair, Dobrin, and associate dean Mary Watt on Oct. 7, he said he had “no idea” he would be getting a letter of reprimand. He wondered then as he wonders now: Why does it matter that he was over the allotted limit of books he could check out? At this point he had already returned some of the books as requested.

The reprimand cited an instance in late November 2017 and requested that Burt change his email signature. The email signature that Dobrin and Watt found fault in described Burt as “legacy professor of English, loser studies, pharmakonology, and cosmic criticism.”

“The whole thing is very bizarre,” said Burt. “It was like being in a court of law … It was already done.” He felt like there was no due process, and that he never had the chance to explain himself.

“Signing a letter of reprimand is only an acknowledgment of receipt of the letter. No one is required to sign a letter of reprimand,” said a spokesperson from the university in an emailed statement.

The November incident took place at the library. Burt went to check out yet another book when he was told by library staff that this was no longer allowed. Burt demanded to speak to a higher-up librarian, who told Burt a similar thing and cited “policy” as the reasoning behind this. Burt said this made him feel “incredulous.”

According to incident reports from that day, Burt began to scream at the library staff and made them uncomfortable. Burt acknowledges that he did raise his voice. The incident reports say that university police were called, but they informed the staff members that the only thing that could be done would be to call human resources.

The letter of reprimand described the tongue-in-cheek signature as “unprofessional” and “inaccurate.” On Oct. 9 Watt sent Burt an alternative signature that he could use instead, one that had no quips and listed just his contact information. Burt lamented that other professors had quirky additions to their signatures.

Burt said that it was a case of too much administration and corporatization of the university, and “Bureaucrats falling in line as bureaucrats against a faculty member.” He said that prior to this he wasn’t on bad terms with the dean or the department chair, that there was nothing personal about this.

“I just assumed my chair would be on my side,” Burt said, adding that he had never been reprimanded before.

Burt describes what happened to him as “really bizarre” and “a story that is almost literary, because it doesn’t seem like it could happen.” Something Kafka would write. The professor marveled that it took so many people and so much time and energy to make sure a professor couldn’t check out any more books.

He said that everything could have worked out differently if he could have just met with people independently and spoken with them in person.

Since this all started, Burt hasn’t tried to take out another book over the 350 limit. He’s worried he’d get a librarian in trouble.

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