Urbana Free Library patrons express concern over size and speed of book culling

Urbana Free Library patrons express concern over size and speed of book culling

URBANA — Library patrons told board members during an emergency meeting on Wednesday night that it was not the weeding that bothered them, but rather it was the size and the speed of the book culling that have them calling for the library director’s resignation.

Some of Director Debra Lissak’s employees came to her defense before the board met in closed session to discuss personnel issues. Meanwhile, the adult services director says she plans to take early retirement “after some unfortunate interactions with the executive director in February.”

Except for library board President Mary Ellen Farrell, board members themselves made no comment on the book “weeding” that many speakers felt decimated the adult nonfiction section at the Urbana Free Library. Lissak has admitted that the culling of books was a mistake and issued an online apology last week.

“I want the correct information to come to light,” Farrell said. “I do not want rumor or innuendo, vague interpretations or personal vendettas.”

Weeding of the adult nonfiction books was halted last week, but some speakers said the damage to the collection and public trust in the library director had already been done. Thousands of books were marked for removal from the stacks and shipped away, although some of those will be returned to the shelves.

The News-Gazette reported last week that 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. The most recent shipment to Better World Books arrived last Friday, and the company said it could return those books to Urbana.

“If you had asked me a week ago how I felt about the Urbana Free Library, I would not have said I am really angry about what they’re doing there,” said resident Tom Moone.

Shirley Stillinger, who said she has held an Urbana library card for 48 years, said that the more she hears, the less she thinks it was the “weeding” itself that has precipitated the public outcry.

“It’s the way in which it was done,” Stillinger said. “And it was the drastic, draconian way in which it was done that I think people are objecting to.”

Some speakers felt Lissak forced a sweeping reduction of the nonfiction collection upon her employees and then blamed the employees for the mistake. Lissak has said it was a “misstep” and the result of a “miscommunication” between her and her staff — books older than 10 years were indeed listed for removal, but Lissak has said she wanted her staff the review the list and make suggestions before the books were removed from shelves.

Lora Fegley, the director of children’s services, stood by Lissak. She said after a weeding of the children’s collection, circulation went up. In the past, that might not have happened.

“There was a culture here of clinging on to items long past their usefulness in the hopes that some day, someone might want them,” Fegley said.

Fegley also told board members that they have handled the controversy “recklessly” and have not looked at the big picture.

Two children’s librarians, Rachel Vellenga and Elaine Bearden, also vouched for Lissak’s commitment to the library.

Director of Adult Services Anne Phillips, however, said she made a personal decision to leave the library after she felt her ability to make decisions had been compromised.

“My main concern is, as always, for the staff of the adult services department,” Phillips said. “They live to serve you, and I hope after I’m gone they will be well taken care of.”

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Smirkopithecus wrote on June 19, 2013 at 11:06 pm

Time and again we've heard from members of the community, from librarians, and from professors of library science at the university. Time and again they've asked how half the adult non-fiction collection could be discarded based on publication date alone. Time and again they've asked how this fits the strategic plan, how this "mistake" can be fixed, and how the community can feel any sense of assurance that this "mistake" won't be made again.

And time again again we've heard from Deb Lissak's supporters that, oh yes, she's taken responsibility, it's pretty much all fixed already, and besides which, all those books that were removed by accident really needed to go all along because weeding is perfectly normal and the adult librarians just weren't bold enough.

In what possible world is "It's no problem, weeding is normal" ever an appropriate response to "Why was this particular act of weeding pursued so quickly and with such reckless irresponsibility?" Did Anne Phillips just not have enough bold vision to butcher her own colletion?

CarolGSLIS wrote on June 19, 2013 at 11:06 pm

I am disappointed that this article does not note Lissak's absence from tonight's meeting. Why would the executive director of a tax-supported public institution, which is mired in a public scandal, fail to be present at a public forum to hear from members of the community whom she serves?

Bookworm46 wrote on June 20, 2013 at 12:06 am

The children's weeding was done by professionals in a professional manner.  Also, Ms Lissak could make life hell for them if they spoke in opposition to her.  Let's see what would happen to a 10-year purge of their collection!  Goodbye, Dr Seuss!

cdr87 wrote on June 20, 2013 at 12:06 am

Let's get some facts straight.

The weeding started in December.

The other departments managed to weed their collections without removing the vast majority of the books.

The infamous list was not made up of books to remove but of books for the librarians who oversee the adult reference collection to review for potential removal.

The temporary staff was not hired early; the tags arrived late.

The temps, librarians, former staff member who wrote a letter to the board, former staff member no longer living in this community who wrote to Smile Politely, and all others involved never went to the director with their concerns over the quantity and selection of books being removed, only the timeframe in which it was expected to be done. They went first to angry letters and accusatory comments. Was there a miscommunication? No. There was a complete lack of communication. And if any one of them had gone to the director, what should she have done? Told the librarians a second time to do their job and review the list? With a staff that big sometimes you have to trust the employees to do what's expected of them. Obviously that was an error.

matthew wrote on June 20, 2013 at 2:06 am

cdr87, you have a number of things wrong. Please refer to the Adult Services Librarians' statements on the matter: 


rsp wrote on June 20, 2013 at 6:06 am

If her remarks are accurately reflected in the documents I think it explains a lot. A dislike for "old, smelly used books", thinking continuing education is out, and a fantasy that we'll just run out and buy new ones. Part of me wonders if there is some kind of health issue behind this, if this is a change for her. It really doesn't sound like a librarian. 

weiskamp wrote on June 20, 2013 at 10:06 am

Yes, let's stick with the facts:

35 percent (approx)  of the adult non-fiction collection was discarded in just a few weeks while the head of adult services was on vacation.  At a minimun that is sheer incompetence.

At last weeks library board meeting the director spoke several times about the need for more space in the library.  How many books did she intend to remove to create this space?  She said that she didn't know.  How many square feet was she trying to open up? She said she didn't know.

When asked what the detailed plan was for the enormous changes that the library is undergoing she said that there isn't one.  She said that she realizes now that maybe she didn't go about this the right way.  Really?  10,000 volumes are out the door with no real explanation of where we are headed?

If the director can't answer the most fundamental questions about the biggest changes the Urbana Free Library has undergone then I believe we need a new director. Today.

Further, the idea that this was some kind of staff screw up is competely non credible.  I suppose we are to believe that the director came to work each day and never noticed the hundreds of cartons of books being shipped out.  Never noticed the empty shelves rapidly appearing.  Never had time to check into that culling process that she had implemented.  Was she just to busy to notice?  Maybe we need someone with a bit more curiosity about what is going on around her.  

Maybe the actual truth is that the director, well know as a micro manager, knew exactly what was going on and got precisely what she wanted - a hug chunk of the library permantly disposed of before anyone could stop her.  I mean that would more reasonably explain how after last weeks' board meeting, in which she said that the whole weeding process was a big mistake and would stop, she supervised the packing and shipping of more books out the very next day.


These are facts CDR87.  Do you dispute any of this?

I find the utter failure of the library board to supervise their library director completely appalling.  The directorship of the library is not a lifetime appointment.  We need a new director.  If the board can't take action at this point I really don't know what good the library board is.  What would a person have to do to be dismissed?



selguy wrote on June 20, 2013 at 8:06 pm

The library board is the entity  to determine what indeed are the facts.

Jen R wrote on June 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm

"The infamous list was not made up of books to remove but of books for the librarians who oversee the adult reference collection to review for potential removal."

Yes, and staffers were expected to review a list containing tens of thousands of books in a few days. It's not feasible to do a proper, professional job in that time frame. Also, it was the adult nonfiction collection, not the reference collection.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on June 20, 2013 at 6:06 am
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I wonder whether the UFL still has dictionaries older than 10 years.  If so, one of them would probably tell you that "decimate" means "reduce by a tenth."

locavore wrote on June 20, 2013 at 9:06 am

This whole episode begs the question about how many ways a manager can do wrong before he/she is dismissed from a position of leadership. Creating a climate in which staff don't feel they can safely disagree with policy decisions? In itself, this ought to be sufficient grounds for dismissal. We've set the bar so low with respect to what we expect from our civic leaders and policymakers that it takes a catastrophe like a looted library for a real debate to begin.

At this point, the discussion ought to be about the reforms that will be implimented to make the library's leadership more accountable to the public as well as who ought to lead this effort. Wouldn't it be refreshing if the Board acknowledged the intelligent, passionate support for the library on display last night and welcomed the community to join a new conversation about the library's future?

grammadog wrote on June 20, 2013 at 10:06 am

And this is why I use the Champaign Public Library. Better selection, better service, and much less "Cronyism". I avoid the Urbana library and will drive the extra mile for the larger selection, easier check out, and hassle-free use of the library itself. It's a shame that Urbana is not up to par. 

cgirl wrote on June 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Somewhat ironically, this is why I drive the extra miles almost every weekend to go to Urbana Free though I live in Champaign: large selection, better facilities and better service. The Urbana Free Library is one of the main reasons we're looking to move to a Urbana.

My common sense is tingling. wrote on June 20, 2013 at 4:06 pm
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I'll let you stick with CPL and its "hassle-free" use. I used to work there. That's one of the reasons I no longer frequent it and why I'm so concerned about UFL's current situation.

Much less "Cronyism" at CPL is a HUGE understatement...if anything, there's a ton more. And not to keep score but Urbana hasn't raised sales taxes for a multi-million dollar library with bells and whistles it doesn't need, nor has it tried to withdraw from LTLS.

CPL is impressive, yes. But not in a "What a nice, cozy, community library" way. More like a "Whoa, this place reminds me of an airport...with books".

Conspicuous wrote on June 20, 2013 at 4:06 pm
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I live within a mile of the CPL, and would rather read billboards than go there for a book. The new facility is loud, garish, and patently unfriendly. The staff are wonderful, but the policies are horrid. I'd much rather drive the extra two miles to go to UFL.... or rather I did before this fiasco. Now I'm thinking that Mahomet can't be too terribly far away... can it?

Acl wrote on June 20, 2013 at 9:06 pm

I spoke with a couple of the children's librarians privately about this issue. She said she was just sick about it... She said that Ms. Lissak has done so much for the library  during her tenure, and that she has so much knowledge, that she fears what will happen if she is forced out. Further, apparently the Adult Services librarian was gone for 3 weeks using up her PTO before retiring - so she was planning on retiring BEFORE this happened... If the weeding has been known about since at least November, it begs the question, why wasn't she more involved with starting the weeding several months ago, instead of leaving it for people to try and rush through because she needed to use up her PTO before retiring. It seems as though maybe she had issues with Ms. Lissak, or with the new strategic plan, and not that it was done behind her back, as has been stated.

From what I had read in newspapers, it was all very one-sided, and Ms. Lissak could have used a PR company to help her respond to questions. It does seem as though maybe it was a true mistake, and if Ms. Lissak has indeed been such an asset to the UFL and her loss would be detrimental, it's best to trust the Board and the librarians who supported her. Why would the librarians speak up on her behalf at the meeting, or, to me, privately, if she wasn't a good director?

At last night's meeting it seemed as though many of the people upset with the weeding, were upset with weeding  and the new strategic plan in general - opposed to technology, childrens' programming, etc. That's the future of libraries, and to ignore it would be worse. There was one speaker who (proudly, in his opinion, foolishly in mine) claimed that he'd go to CPL and check out 30 books but not read them, but would come to UFL, check out one "the right" book, and read it, implying that UFL is better because he actually read that one book. That's bad logic - libraries and their funding depend on patron and circulation numbers, so he's not really helping the UFL by only checking out one book, while getting 30 from CPL. Another deplored the "community 'aspect of libraries - meetings, events, and suggested that schools and coffee shops were the places for that. What a shame that he wants libraries to be silent halls with no people, rather than community centers that bring people together, and introduce children to the world of books.

Gracieat5X wrote on June 21, 2013 at 12:06 am

What concerns me is the disparity between the online and printed versions of this article. It  shouldn't be necessary to read both to receive a complete picture of events. Ms. Stillinger's comments were omitted entirely from the print edition. Ms. Phillips' remarks in the print edition were truncated, perhaps because of space constraints but there was no editorial indication that this was the case. TNG struggles to get its facts straight at the best of times - Kate McDowell is a GSLIS faculty member, not a GSLIS student - and on this very important and sensitive issue, the community deserves the most accurate reporting possible.