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.”