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Urbana Library Board Holds Public Meeting Following Weeding Revelation

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Urbana Free Library

Members of the Urbana Free Library's Board of Trustees hold a public meeting on Wednesday, June 19 in response to lots of criticism over the library's weeding practices. (Sean Powers/WILL)

The Urbana Free Library’s Board of Trustees held a meeting on Wednesday night to hear from the public after it was revealed last week too many books were removed - in part - to make room for newer collections.

While many of those books are coming back, there is still a lot of outrage over what has been described by the library's excecutive director as a mistake. At least 150 people crammed into the board meeting room at the library.

“This scandal broke out because people love books,” said longtime library patron, Ilona Matkovszki.

Matkovszki said the sheer number of books removed calls into question the level of transparency in how the library operates. She demanded the board look at revising its strategic plan and weeding policy.

“I would like to ask for an immediate moratorium on weeding, and ask for the creation of a well thought out and reasonable weeding policy with specific proportions as to how many books we can weed per year,” she said.

Elaine Harshbarger retired from the Urbana Free Library two years ago, and she said during her 40-year career she weeded many books. 

"My concern for this process as it was done in such a ruthless manner that the staff had no chance to decide if a book should be put back on the shelf," Harshbarger said. "They were given cart load, after cart load in a very short time, and were not allowed to have the time to actually look at those books, and decide, 'Oh, this one we should replace."

However, current librarians at the Urbana Free Library defended the existing weeding practices.

“We have been weeding heavily for the past two years to highlight newer items, which patrons want to check out,” said Lora Fegley, the director of the children’s department. “They don’t have to weed through all that other stuff to get to what they want.”

Fegley said the number of non-fiction books checked out over the last several years has dropped as certain collections have grown. For example, she said in 2009, circulation for children’s non-fiction books was down by 9 percent from the year before, even though the collection grew by 3 percent. However, by April 2013, she said circulation for children’s non-fiction rose by 25 percent while the non-fiction collection ashrank by 13 percent.

“A thorough weeding was needed in the entire library,” she added. “There was a culture here of clinging onto items long past their usefulness in the hopes that someday someone might want them. Public libraries are not repositories, and they’re not museums."

Others at the meeting; however, like University of Illinois librarian Al Kagan, pointed criticism to the library's executive director, Debra Lissak, who in an apology has said the recent excessive weeding was the result of poor communication among staff.

"Ms. Lissak has lost all credibility with the library’s staff and the community, and will therefore be unable to lead the library in the future,” Kagan said. "It is one thing to make bad policy decisions, but it is quite another when the director blames her staff, and fails to take responsability for running a library."

Maggie Taylor works in the adult services section of the Urbana Free Library.

"In the past several months, I've seen an increased level of stress in my colleagues," she said. "My co-workers were forced to move away from the standard criteria for weeding and weed in a more rapid way. They had no recourse, and were scared about their jobs...Make it possible to do our jobs without a culture of fear."

Mary Manley worked in the adult services section at the Urbana Free Library for about 18 years until about two years ago after she said she was fired by Lissak "without notice or cause." 

"Will there be an outside investigation that includes input from the library staff beneath Deb to get to the bottom of this misstep?" Manley asked the library board.

Lissak was not at the meeting, but several of her co-workers, like children’s librarian Elaine Bearden, spoke up in her defense.

“Since the recession in 2008, she has been committed to protecting material budgets and protecting her employees from job loss," Bearden said. "Regardless of the current situation, Debra Lissak's record has shown her extreme dedication and commitment to the library.”

After the two-hour meeting, board members went into closed session, but have not said what their next steps might be in building back public trust.

"Public institutions like libraries work best when they're governed by a process," said Mary Ellen Farrell, the president of the Urbana Free Library's Board of Trustees. "Recently in the library - in some cases - proper procedures were not followed or handled in the best possible means. If they had been, much of this distressing situation could have been avoided."