Library director says mistake was made in book 'weeding'

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.

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ashrprice wrote on June 14, 2013 at 11:06 pm

This article barely skims the surface of this issue, which Smile Politely has covered in depth. I'd love to know more about the library board meeting involving the mayor that halted the excessive weeding. Or how the weeding was going on despite library staff repeatedly protesting to Ms. Lissak. Why didn't the News Gazette mention that it was the people of Urbana contacting Better World Books that initiated the return?

Jen R wrote on June 15, 2013 at 1:06 am

Good points. I wish the author of this article had contacted some of the staffers who spoke with the author of the Smile Politely article. Their account of what happened differs drastically from Ms. Lissak's. And "communication error" doesn't explain why staffers were given only a few days to review tens of thousands of candidates for weeding. I see the sense in weeding the collection before the RFID tagging project, but why on earth was that task left until immediately before the project begins?

I hope this doesn't get swept under the rug with a simple "mistakes were made."

jms wrote on June 15, 2013 at 7:06 am

Thanks for this comment. It's exactly how I see it.

mjerryfuerst wrote on June 15, 2013 at 2:06 am

The director has issued an apology, clarified the procedures, and assumed full responsibility for the incident, and initiated corrective action, including the return of a book shipment made to Better World Books. The incident appears headed to a satisfactory resolution. Certainly the library board and concerned patrons will be monitoring this.

HOWEVER, this incident raises a question about whether all books and which books should be culled when not borrowed for three or some other number years--a question that applies to any library, not just the Urbana library. I remember once going to the Urbana library to look at a book containing drawings of the artist Giacometti. I thumbed through it for a hour or so, appreciated that I could do so at the library, but did not borrow it. And sometimes a patron might take extended looks at several books, before deciding to borrow one for whatever reason. So maybe a book's "cullability" should also be in part be measured inversely to how many times it has been reshelved. With a new a RFID system, maybe this can be tracked. Again this issue is important to all libraries, especially now considering the technological changes now coming to libraries.

I expect and hope that Ms Lissak will generate enough good will for her response to the mistakes to compensate for the ill-will caused by this incident

danrice56 wrote on June 15, 2013 at 4:06 am

Ms. Lissak states that books older than 10 years of age were the criteria for removal; it was not just "willy nilly" according to her.

Solely basing age as the criteria for removing books IS willy nilly. Here is a * complete* list of criteria for weeding:

*Criteria for weeding:

    Physical condition

    Frequency of use

    Date of publication

    Duplication within existing collection

    Availability through interlibrary loan

    Long-term, historical significance or interest

    Cooperative collection agreements or collection strengths


Ms. Lessik chose ONE of these 7 criteria. She is now claiming doing so was not a mindless tossing of books.


Nonsense. No amount of good will con compensate for such a thougthless, foolhardy, and nearly devestating decision.


I suggest we *weed* her from the collection of staff.

*Criteria for weeding:

  • Physical condition

  • Frequency of use

  • Date of publication

  • Duplication within existing collection

  • Availability through interlibrary loan

  • Long-term, historical significance or interest

  • Cooperative collection agreements or collection strengths


- See more at:

*Criteria for weeding:

  • Physical condition

  • Frequency of use

  • Date of publication

  • Duplication within existing collection

  • Availability through interlibrary loan

  • Long-term, historical significance or interest

  • Cooperative collection agreements or collection strengths


- See more at:


kiel wrote on June 15, 2013 at 6:06 am

Anyone interested in this issue should read the Smile Politely story; it's much, much more informative than this one. Being a linguist, I'm especially concerned about the foreign language books that have been or may be removed on such speciously simplistic grounds. 

ashrprice wrote on June 15, 2013 at 8:06 am

I went to UFL yesterday and photographed most of the non-fiction section. The foreing language books were definiely weeded, but not heavily. I didn't look closely but just from number of books alone I would think it was thoughtfully weeded.

The gardening, religion and art sections were at least halved. Most of the rest of the library has been untouched thanks to the UFL board and Mayor Prussing calling a halt to the weeding activity (per Smile Politely).

dbm wrote on June 15, 2013 at 8:06 pm

It should also be noted that the weeding project began months ago; it did not take place over a one-week period. The fiction collection and children's collection were weeded based on several criteria (see the library's website for their weeding criteria.) 

The non-fiction books are the portion of the collection that were weeded based on the 10 year publication date. I'm just clarifying based on your statement that the rest of the library is "untouched." The rest of the collection has been thoroughly weeded the *right* way, which is why the collection still looks full. The gardening and art books were basically culled. 

jms wrote on June 15, 2013 at 7:06 am

This article presents the best possible spin on this story. Smile Politely is much more informative about how Lissak got rid of books she didn't want to tag. The shelves are quite empty. I saw Lissak last night on the news: blamed the staff, didn't follow directions (they were the ones who let the board know what was going on and went to Smile Politely), "miscommunication." Does she expect us to believe that she didn't notice thousands of books being packed up and shipped off?

Ridiculous. Go the the board meeting on July 9 at 7, or at least write to the board and to the Mayor Prussing.

ashrprice wrote on June 15, 2013 at 8:06 am

I spoke with Deb yesterday (called the library, they passed me up to Deb immediately) and she was supposed to be on vacation. Anne Phillips, director of adult services, was out of the country. The most charitable view is that planning a major overhaul of the collection to be carried out by brand new shelvers while key staff are on vacation is incompetence. This is Deb Lissak's fault, not nameless "staff." She was alerted several times, and protests went all the way to the mayor.

I'm personally not calling for her to lose her job, but I can't imagine she's going to be able to keep it after all this.

rsp wrote on June 15, 2013 at 8:06 am

I'd rather have the books than the meeting space. I spend time at the library looking at books and don't always check them out. Does that mean they should be tossed? Because I'm trusting the library to have it when I come back?

Orbiter wrote on June 15, 2013 at 8:06 am

Writers above give various criteria for weeding. Topping those lists is "physical condition".  Yet it seems to me that a worn book is a book that is heavily used and valuable to the collection and its readers. Such a book is a candidate for REPLACEMENT, not for "weeding".  

serf wrote on June 15, 2013 at 9:06 am

The things some people choose to get worked up about amazes me.

johnny wrote on June 16, 2013 at 6:06 am

Yeah, only nerds care about, like, books.

Danno wrote on June 16, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Yeah, the above post is authored by, like, well...self evident...I guess...

asarwate wrote on June 15, 2013 at 10:06 am

A number of people I have spoken to think that there should be a public forum to explain what happened.  While I believe all parties want to make the UFL a better place, the "miscommunication" appears to be a red herring.

sweet caroline wrote on June 15, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I'm with rsp.  My favorite weekend afternoon activity is relaxing at UFL, browsing and reading a little out several books, then choosing one or more to borrow.  I want my library back.

basset wrote on June 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Hmmm.  Hire someone who is not a professional librarian for the director's job.  Staff turnover in key positions, disgruntled staff members, and now a really bad decision that reaches the surface.  Is the Library Board asleep at the wheel?  This was foreseeable. 

C-U Townie wrote on June 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm

When Illinois is a state of little to no funding for organizations such as these we have to be frugal with how we make decisions. Tossing books with ONE criteria is ridiculous. For someone who makes as much money as she does she wouldn't want someone to weed throug her salary tossing what they don't feel she needs to have in her salary. It's so unfortunate that a director... someone who staff and the public rely on to ensure that the library is operated correctly... for this person to be the one to toss away valuable items is ridiculous. This wasn't an issue of oversight. This isn't an issue of miscommunication. This is negligence at its worst. If a city official were to do away with valuable city resources their head would be on a platter. I see no reason why Ms. Lissak should keep her job considering the gross misconduct she has committed. And that poor behavior includes serving up her staff as the scapegoat. Bad response. Throw yourself on the sword and take all the blame. Don't villify your staff. She's a bad director and a bad leader for staff. She needs to go. 

Marti Wilkinson wrote on June 16, 2013 at 3:06 am

My mother spent several years working in a library, and there is a lot that goes into making sure that it's run smoothly. It used to be that people had to have paid subscriptions to use library resources, and Urbana had one of the first libraries that people could use for 'free'. Going by what was written in Smile Politely, this was not so much a weeding but a purging of books.

Lissak is being quoted here as saying that she didn't know what was happening, but the books missing from the shelves managed to leave noticable gaps. So the quote that has been attributed to her only manages to make her look incredibly foolish.

One of the positive things to come out of this story is that the people of Urbana care enough about this resource to keep an eye on what's going on. There were also people in Champaign who showed their support for the library when it appeared that hours would be reduced.

Conspicuous wrote on June 17, 2013 at 9:06 am
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Ms. Lissak has proven that she is not director material. Let's hope the Library Board doesn't buy Lissak's blame-game, and instead replaces the obvious cancer at the center of all of this.

Rand Hartsell wrote on June 17, 2013 at 12:06 pm

A special meeting of the Board of Trustees of The Urbana Free Library will be held on Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 7:00 p.m. in the Lewis Auditorium of The Urbana Free Library, 210 West Green Street, Urbana, Illinois. This meeting will be open to public comment with time limits strictly enforced. Special Board Meeting 
Date: 6/19/2013 
Start Time: 7:00 PM 
End Time: 9:00 PM
Location: The Lewis Auditorium (Ground Floor)

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on June 17, 2013 at 2:06 pm
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Rand old pal, I wish I could attend simply to see time limit enforced.


I recall speaking at a candidtes forum in 2009. Everyone was given 2 minutes. The shortest was 7, and the longest was 9.


Mine was 1:59.


Moral of story: Everyone should take a class in writing for radio.

Rand Hartsell wrote on June 17, 2013 at 3:06 pm

The more passionate the issue, the longer the oration, in my experience. But library folk are a fairly orderly lot.