Updated: Urbana library to seek early separation with director

Updated: Urbana library to seek early separation with director

URBANA — The Urbana Free Library board announced on Tuesday night that it would seek early separation with Library Director Deb Lissak.

Board President Chris Scherer said it was a mutual agreement between the board and Lissak, and they would announce an end date for Lissak's employment while they work out the details and search for a replacement in the coming weeks. Lissak and board members declined further comment.

Another crowded meeting convened nearly a month after deep "weeding" of the adult nonfiction section became a controversy. Some speakers called for the replacement of Lissak, who has said the culling of books was a "misstep."

Weeding of the adult nonfiction books has since halted. Thousands of books were marked for removal from the stacks and shipped away, although some of those will be returned to the shelves.

Patron Laura Haber called it a "crisis in leadership."

"The director has had power without accountability," she said.

According to statistics compiled by Lissak, 9,343 books were removed from the stacks during the weeding process. The weeding encompassed sections that include 29,502 books — about 42 percent of the adult nonfiction collection — meaning the sections that were included before the weeding stopped were reduced by about 32 percent overall.

Portions of the arts sections that were included in the weeding were among those hit the hardest. One specific section of the arts stuck out: Books with call numbers between 700 and 741.4 were reduced by 54 percent.

The same was true about a specific section of technology and applied sciences: Books with call numbers between 660 and 699 were reduced by nearly 63 percent. Lissak has said that those two sections may have raised red flags for people, and some library officials have defended the rest of the weeding.

Better World Books has since returned 259 boxes of books, some of which will go back on the shelves.

Adult services librarian Carol Inskeep said she was one of the staff members "pressed into weeding." She called into question the method that was used: working off spreadsheets of books without actually going into the stacks to look at the books themselves.

"Weeding vast sections of the collections without looking at the books violates the most basic professional standards and defies common sense," Inskeep said.

She said she hopes library officials can learn a lesson from the controversy and avoid repeating the "destructive" event.

Scherer said officials plan to "re-evaluate" their strategic plan for the library, but do not plan to reopen it for a rewrite. He said public comments can be added to the document as an addendum, but that was not enough for some speakers.

"We must be honest and concrete with the public about our strategic plan," Inskeep said. "We must slow it down."

Board member Scott Bennett called the difference between reviewing or reopening the strategic plan "semantics."

"What we're interested in is really good ideas," Bennett said.

The library is taking steps to make its meetings more accessible, after patrons called for more transparency during that June meeting. Tuesday night's meeting was recorded for televising later on Urbana Public Television, and library officials plan to broadcast meetings live in the future.

Lissak also said board packets — not just the meeting agendas, but rather all the information board members themselves receive — will begin to be posted on the library's website at the same time as board members receive them.

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on July 10, 2013 at 1:07 am
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I hope to read the Lissak book. I assume she has a hell of a story to tell.


If one assumes that she cares as much about books, and libraries, as her 30 year career suggests; one almost necessarily assumes there's an interesting tale of bureaucracy, government funding, arguments with "taxpayers" and way too many conferences and seminars on "best practices."

787 wrote on July 10, 2013 at 7:07 am

Now, only if some of the people in Urbana would realize that Prussing does the same thing to city employees...   

DarcyG wrote on July 10, 2013 at 9:07 am

Are we handing the Urbana FREE Library over to a small (but powerful in this city) group of elitist white academics? Did anyone see any hispanics or any people of color at the meeting last night? Is this still going to be a "community" library or just cater to the people who have the time/energy/resources like the University people? 

"We must be honest and concrete with the public about our strategic plan," Inskeep said. "We must slow it down. This is a quote from someone in adult services, surprise! Friends, I'm sure with the "popular group" in town. With bullying all over the news, does anyone else feel that this small group in town bullied the board/director/taypayers?

The following is from the Urbana Free Library site on how the Strategic Plan came about. I think fairly represented - or maybe you all want to listen to the "cool group" in town...

Planning Process

The planning process was an interplay between the Community Strategic Planning Committee and The Urbana Free Library Board and staff. 

Committee members, representing key constituencies and Urbana neighborhoods, met on February 13 and March 13.

At the first meeting, the committee discussed their vision for the future of Urbana and the library’s role in delivering that vision.  They reviewed 18 typical library services and forwarded 11 of those to the Board and staff for comment.

When the committee returned in March, they reviewed the Board/staff analysis and selected their final service recommendations, which the Board adopted.

The process was facilitated by Sandra Nelson, a leading library planning consultant, whose clients include the Public Library Association, the Gates Foundation, and hundreds of libraries both big and small.

Community Strategic Planning Committee

Guadalupe Abreu - East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center

Robin Arbiter - Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee

Lynne Barnes - Carle Foundation Hospital

Mark Dixon - The Atkins Group

Rupert Evans - Clark-Lindsey Village

Tori Exum-Johnson - Human Resources, UIUC Extra Help Services

Ben Galewsky - Common Ground Food Co-op

Aditi Kambuj - City of Urbana Community Development Services

Millie Martinez - PNC Bank

Janice Mitchell - Urbana Neighborhood Connections Center

Hua Nian - Hua Nian Art Studio

Don Owen - Urbana School District 116

Chris Ritzo - Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center

Benita Rollins-Gay - Community Elements Crisis Line

Joel Spencer - The Urbana Free Library Staff

Iván Villamar - Urbana High School Studen

Jen R wrote on July 10, 2013 at 9:07 am

What's elitist is for the consultant to focus on serving the needs of the upper middle class users of the library to the detriment of others. The strategic plan calls for getting rid of huge amounts of books, printed periodicals, CDs, and DVDs to replace them with digital media. How many people in this community don't have the equipment or reliable internet access to use the digital versions, and will simply lose access to material?

Nobody is impugning the members of the Community Strategic Planning Committee, but they're still only 16 people and anyway, it sounds as if the amount of input they were allowed to have into the process was severely limited. Again, how is it more elitist to want more community input instead of basing the library's future direction on a few options picked from a constrained menu presented by a (well-paid) outside consultant?

I agree that the attendance of last night's meeting was lacking in diversity, and find that troubling. Both the library and the community members who have been pushing for changes need to work more on including our entire community in discussions of what we want and need from our library. But let's not pretend that what's gone on before now was inclusive either.

peanut farmer wrote on July 10, 2013 at 10:07 am

Darcy you really are something.  To summarize your charges: racism, elitism and bullying led to the ouster of the current Director. 

Let me try and wrap my brain around that.  So a bunch of elitist white people conspired to kick out the director because she happened also to be white and well educated.  No, wait, that doesn't work.  Let's come back to that.

Bullying!  Well, that would include things like harrassment and threats.  Surely you can't be referring to the concerned citizens sharing their views respectfully in turn at peaceful public meetings?  I suppose you could call that bullying but wait you say you're AGAINST elitism so you must value public input.  So it must be harrassment and threats and the like.  I bet you have examples of those that you're keeping secret somewhere and will reveal in good time.  I await the revelations.

As fas the planning committee and Sandra Nelson goes...well, I just don't have the time.  If you're not paying attention to what has been said about the planning process (which I had to suffer through) at these public (excuse me, elitist bullying sessions) meetings then no repitition of these things here will do any good. 

So enough already with these generic charges...racism, elitism, conspiracy and god knows what else.  If you have something of substance to share or something that looks like a genuine concern then please feel free to let the world know.  Calling everyone who disagrees with you the 'cool kids' is not what one would call a well rounded argument. 


ialdabaoth wrote on July 10, 2013 at 4:07 pm

If we were to follow Sandra Nelson's lead without question, we would soon have an Urbana PRIVATE Library. If you had been present at last night's public meeting, you would have heard a letter Chris Ritzo wrote decrying the Community Strategic Planning Committee as a vehicle for community imput into the Strategic Plan.


Did you bold the section mentioned the Gates Foundation because you thought that would help your argument? The Gates Foundation has been one of the foremost forces closing public schools and opening private charter schools around the country. Their website and publications claim that the best way to reform education is through privately administered standardized testing, interpreted with Microsoft database products.

Deborah wrote on July 13, 2013 at 10:07 am

As a past student, employee and user of libraries, I'm sad to say that "power without accountability" is typical in libraries. Moreover, people like Lissak are voted into powerful positions but they don't really know how to handle it. Often, they bounce from one group's opinion to another, nearly always veering to the side of the group that yells the loudest. That's a clear sign of weak and ineffective leadership. Libraries and their ways of handling "weeding," activities and other processes are too medieval. Even their ways of handling the task of digitizing collections is backwards. These people simply do not know what they are doing. I've found that it does not pay to ignore the community/patron's wishes.  What libraries need are creative thinkers--people who can come up with innovative ways and practices.  Innovate, instead of counting the days to  retirement.