What happened to the books?

Candor will be required to set the public straight on the book disaster at Urbana's library.

Almost as notable as maximal disaster surrounding the mistaken removal and loss of thousands of books from the shelves of the Urbana Free Library has been the minimizing rhetoric used by library officials to acknowledge what occurred.

Library Executive Director Debra Lissak has described this disastrous turn of events as a "misstep." Library board President Mary Ellen Farrell referred to a "failure of communications" and suggested "there could have been better public preparation" for a new radio-frequency identification system of books that will allow self-checkout stations.

The loss of a significant portion of the library's nonfiction section is a misstep only in the sense that the sinking of the Titanic was a boating accident. It represents an astounding failure of management that will cost taxpayers a small fortune to rectify.

Library patrons may be reassured by Lissak's statement that library officials remain committed to "having a good collection," but that will require replacing many of the books that were lost.

It seems obvious that what happened here is a gigantic screw-up because that is the only viable explanation for such an astounding turn of events.

But it's still speculation; what's needed here is a public accounting of exactly what happened and why.

The circumstances of this disaster appear to be clear. The library is installing a new RFID system that will allow electronic self-checkout and requires each book to be individually tagged. As part of the RFID project, library officials decided to cull their nonfiction collection, that is, identifying and removing books 10 years old or older that are little used.

But culling in theory somehow became clear-cutting in reality — with sections on the arts, gardening, cooking, computer science and medicine hardest hit. Did no one see what was going on? Did anyone question the process as it left larger and larger holes on library shelves?

How could something so basic to library management — the sensible removal of old and used books — turn into such a disaster?

With the exception of occasional disputes over book titles, libraries don't generate much controversy. Communities love their libraries and their librarians and, as a result, library officials are not used to and do not like facing angry, fist-shaking patrons.

It's no surprise that Lissak and Farrell want to change the public conversation by downplaying public concerns and trying to change the subject. But the public deserves an accounting of what happened to their books, and members of the library board and the city council ought to see that they get a full explanation.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion

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rsp wrote on June 19, 2013 at 9:06 am

I think they need to put out a list of what was removed. The books belong to the public so the public has a right to know exactly how bad it is. Without having a list, we really can't know. 

parkmymeterelsewhere wrote on June 19, 2013 at 5:06 pm

It is not a disaster; book weeding is a necessary process no matter who you are.

Granted hoarding is a disease and there are many people who go to library sales and buy bagfuls of library discards and take them home and never do anything with them.

There are Head Librarians who open their mouths the wrong way; there are patrons who misinterpret what Librarians say publicly and have their own agenda about books removed from libraries as being made out of gold; they are equally poor in judgement about the life cycle of a book.

Much ado about nothing;   By Willie "the Book" Shakspeare.

DarcyG wrote on June 22, 2013 at 11:06 am

Call Me Crazy...

But this sounds like a set up. The head of the adult department is out of town for three weeks during which the tagging is supposed to take place. According to this article, the adult department staff has for some time been unhappy with Ms. Lissak. The librarians of the adult department are told to (albeit very quickly) go through the books on the older than ten years list, marking all of them that they wish to keep – this would include the expensive and priceless art books removed. This does not make them any happier with the director’s leadership. The temporary staff, having nothing to do because the tags which should have already arrived have not, are told to use the lists compiled by the librarians to remove the books, box them up, and ship them. Either the temporary staff or the librarians, which is unclear, contact an as-reported-in-this-story disgruntled former employee instead of the director. The disgruntled former employee somehow knows the titles and prices of certain books removed, and instead of going to the director writes an angry letter trying to get her fired. In the meantime, the news breaks with a story tipped off by another former employee who has for many years not lived in the community but somehow catches wind of what is going on – once again not contacting the director. The head of the adult department comes back, describes tearfully her shock at the reduced collection, when it was her staff who had gone through the lists, and several he-said-that-she-said-that-the-director-said accounts later, everyone is angry, calling for blood, and no one will be satisfied until Ms. Lissak is gone. The only thing for which anyone reportedly went to the director was the speed at which the whole process was expected to be completed. The book valued at $300 and other such details weren’t brought to her attention until letters had been written and reporters notified. Well played, I say. An angry staff gets its revenge. Then again, maybe I’ve been reading too much detective fiction.