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.