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Urbana Library Board Announces Separation Agreement With Executive Director

Debra Lissak

Urbana Free Library Executive Director Debra Lissak listens to public comment during Tuesday night's library board meeting. At the end of the meeting, it was announced that Lissak would be leaving her post. She has been criticized over her management style and the weeding of books. (Sean Powers/WILL)

The Urbana Free Library's Board of Trustees has announced it will seek an early separation agreement with the library's executive director.

Debra Lissak has come under a flurry of criticism in the last month about her handling of book-culling and the management of her employees after it was revealed that several non-fiction shelves were left nearly bare by book-weeding.

During a public board meeting on Tuesday night, people continued to express their outrage.

Esther Patt speaks Tuesday night at the Urbana Free Library board meeting.

Urbana Free Library patron Esther Patt speaks at the Urbana Free Library board meeting.

Urbana librarian Carol Inskeep was among the roughly 100 people in the library's auditorium. Now working in adult services, the 20-year employee said she was ‘pressed’ into weeding books, using spreadsheets over a few days

"Weeding vast sections of the collection without looking at the books violates the most basic professional standards, and defies common sense," Inskeep said. "I can tell you honestly there was a great deal of pressure to weed deeply, and to weed quickly.”

Inskeep said the library needs to learn from she calls a ‘destructive’ event, and use the experience to make things more transparent. 

Resident Cope Cumpston said she was ‘alarmed’ at Lissak’s refusal to accept responsibility for the weeding, and pushing it off on library staff. 

"A director must set the tone and should unify the staff," she said. "We appear to have a serious problem here, with no mechanism for staff input or grievances – other than to a director who appears to be less than supportive and professional in her behavior.”

Brian Robertson, an acquisition cataloging clerk at the Urbana Free Library, at Tuesday night's public meeting.

Brian Robertson, an acquisition cataloging clerk at the Urbana Free Library, at Tuesday night's public meeting.

According to the Urbana Free Library, there were 13,221 books in the collection that were 10 years or older before the recent weeding started, and then of those books, 4,086 were left after the weeding took place.

The three main areas impacted were technology, the arts, and natural science and math. Lissak has said a communication breakdown led to the removal of so many books.

Board members say 259 boxes of books were returned from an online retailer when the mistake was found. Library board member Chris Scherer said it is impossible at this time to say exactly how many books will end up back on library shelves. 

Members of the community have also criticized the library's board over its strategic plan, which the board has said it is reviewing. That plan includes a move towards more digital collections.

Parent Becky Mead said her kids are not learning the true meaning of research for schoolwork by simply looking up material on line.

"My kids, with books in their hands, are actually reading through a book, and finding the part of the research that's relavant to their papers," she said. "In online media, you can just search for what you need. You can pull out your one paragraph, and you don't have to do the research. To me, the library is supposed to be the library."

Urbana Free Library Board member Mark Netter listens to public comment during the board meeting on Tuesday night.

Urbana Free Library Board members Mark Netter and Anna Merritt listen to public comment during the board meeting.

The library board eventually went into executive session and returned 45 minutes later to announce the seperation agreement with Lissak.

Lissak and board members declined to comment after the announcement was made. Her final day on the job has not been announced.

An interim director will be named.

Categories: Books and Reading