Library director says mistake was made in book 'weeding'
URBANA — A shipment of books removed from the shelves of the Urbana Free Library only a week earlier is making its way back to the library.
Headed back to Urbana will be art books, gardening books, pet books and some cookbooks that were taken off the shelves as a result of what has been described as a "misstep" by the library's director.
"We'll be more careful. We didn't mean for this to happen. We are still very committed to having a good collection," said Debra Lissak, executive director of the Urbana Free Library.
Thousands of books were removed recently as part of a process libraries call "weeding," the periodic removal from the shelves of books of a certain age or books that haven't been checked out for a while.
But more than expected were removed, and the sight of the bare shelves on the second floor of the library caused local patrons and the librarian community to be all atwitter.
Due to a miscommunication or misunderstanding, Lissak said, "for some reason they took a larger portion out than I intended. I didn't know that was happening. I'm not sure how that miscommunication occurred. ... I feel terrible," she said. Lissak intended for staff to review a list of adult nonfiction books older than 10 years old for possible culling, but what ended up happening is many of those books got pulled.
At what cost and how long it will take to replace books recently removed from the library's shelves is not yet known.
The good news is library staff were able to touch base with Better World Books, a Georgia and Indiana-based company that receives shipments of discarded books from libraries. Turns out the library's most recent shipment to Better World Books arrived on Friday and the company said it could return those books to Urbana, according to Lissak. She did not know how many books would be returned. But librarians would have a chance to review them again. Some could be returned to the shelves, some can be given to the Friends of the Urbana Free Library for their book sales or some can be donated elsewhere.
The planned "weeding" was all part of the library's effort to prepare for the installation of new security gates and conversion to a radio-frequency identification, or RFID, system, which will allow for several self-checkout stations to be installed later this year. It also was part of an effort to carve out additional space for people in the library, said Library Board President Mary Ellen Farrell, a retired librarian from the University of Illinois.
In recent months, the board approved both moving toward the RFID system and adopting the strategic plan that calls for more community or meeting space in the library.
"I think there could have been better public preparation for what RFID entails and what creating space in the library entails. RFID involves touching everything in the collection. And touching and tagging something that would probably be culled in a few months or never gets used is probably not worthwhile," Farrell said, adding that professional literature on RFID conversions recommend libraries weed before they convert to the new system.
"When you start the (weeding) project, you have to have a baseline. The baseline for consideration for weeding was 10 years. It was not just willy-nilly get rid of everything," Farrell said.
Lissak said she had prepared a spreadsheet listing the library's adult nonfiction books with those older than 10 years old highlighted in red. Earlier this spring, the adult department had about 66,000 nonfiction books, and about half of the collection is over 10 years old, she said.
She asked staff to review the list and mark any that they wanted to keep, she said. Instead, what appeared to happen is staff started a blanket removal of books 10 years or older in the adult nonfiction shelves, according to Lissak.
Due to some staff absences, "there were too few questions asked," Farrell said.
"The board is confident in this case it was a mistake of communication," Farrell said, adding that she had confidence in Lissak's leadership at the library.
Before it was halted, the weeding included art, gardening, computer science, medicine and some cooking books, but stopped before history and biography.
Librarians order about 200 new titles each week, and can order beyond that amount with money from the library foundation, she said.
"As (librarians) have been weeding, they've keeping notes of areas in need of replenishing. We can't do everything at once," she said. But the collection will be replenished, she said.
"I hope people realize all of us love the library — the librarians and administration. We certainly intend to have a good collection. What happened was unfortunate," Lissak said.
The weeding will resume, but "with caution," said Lissak, who admitted that speeding up the process did not help matters. The weeding started in December but picked up steam recently in anticipation of the RFID tags' arrival.
The library will receive the RFID tags later this month, and training will then begin on attaching those tags to books. Once training is complete, installation of the new self-checkout stations can proceed, according to Lissak.
In addition to the self-checkout stations, staff still will be at the circulation desk helping patrons who don't want to use the self-checkouts.