Forthright library board is a must

Judging from the acrimony at a public meeting, it's clear the controversy at the Urbana Free Library isn't going away.

Urbana library board members held a special meeting last week to allow citizens to speak out about a book-culling process that turned into clear-cutting.

The special session was fine as far as it went, no doubt cathartic for some people. But what matters more than citizens speaking out is how the board members respond. In that sense, it was disappointing.

Board members had nothing to say, going into a private session afterward while pledging to issue public statements addressing the issue later.

It is, of course, difficult to conduct a meeting of this sort. No board member wanted to get into a back-and-forth dialogue with any individual, some of whom were agitated and emotional.

But the board members must speak, and they need to address more than the issue of the culling of books because it's apparent that there is significant discord in this revered institution. As if to underscore that point, it was disclosed that the library's director of adult services is leaving after a job-related dispute with her superior, library Director Deb Lissak.

Controversy surrounding the library, of all places, has been growing since reports became public about the recent loss of thousand of books from the library's nonfiction collection. Library collections are routinely culled as part of the management process, eliminating older, low-circulation volumes to make way for new ones. There's nothing controversial about that.

In this case, the culling was part of an electronic tagging process designed to permit self-checkout stations. But instead of removing select books that fit special criteria, whole sections of books on cooking, arts, gardening, medicine and computer science were thrown out.

The question is: how did this happen and who is responsible? It's the board's responsibility to investigate and report back to the public.

It's pretty clear this is a task board members will not pursue with relish, perhaps not at all. Libraries aren't used to controversy, particularly as it relates to personnel and especially if it involves a potentially toxic work environment in which rival groups of employees have taken sides.

It's apparent that there is some side-taking going on. Several employees spoke favorably of the library director and her dedication to her work. Others suggested there are leadership issues that ought to be addressed.

It represents the kind of ugly stuff that makes some board members wonder why they ever wanted to serve the library in the first place. But serve they do, and it's their responsibility to figure out what's wrong and make it right.

Last week's meeting made it clear that community members not only love their library and its books, but also they love the idea of the library and what it offers to all people. That's why they were so appalled at the disappearance of thousands of books and concerned that this unfortunate instance represents more than just a costly one-time mistake.

The pubic's confidence is shaken, and it needs to be restored. The library board can do that, but it will require full disclosure, something that so far has not been forthcoming.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion

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Bin44 wrote on June 24, 2013 at 10:06 am

There is so much in here that is not factual. I guess that's why it's on the Editorial Page.

The Director of Adult Services put in for her retirement before all this happened. She was using up 3 weeks of her PTO time before she retired. And she knew that the weeding was going to happen while she was gone. She knew and left it to her staff. Anyone who has managed a large group of people, knows how toxic one unhappy person can be to the rest of the group. Here, we have a lady who was clearly unhappy in her job (my opinion) and who was supposed to be showing leadership. Instead she made it difficult for Ms.Lissak to go forth with the strategic plan of moving the library forward. Who  should the staff in adult services show their allegience to, their immediate supervisor or the director? No wonder some of those people were so stressed out. If she and anyone else who did not like their job or the direction the library was/has to move in resign like the professional you are supposed to be. Don't talk to the media about inter office politics. Let someone else have your job that is motivated, excited and wants to be part of a cohesive group.

As far as the Board Members not speaking out. My opinion: they are trying to figure out how to handle this mess. They can not act on emotion. They are looking for facts of not only what happened but how and why. They are not going to judge this based on a picture of an empty shelf. That's ludicrous. The citizens of Urbana, although they meant well, are not looking at this rationally. It does not bode well for the town or the library. "Get rid of Ms. Lissak!" makes this town of academics sound like idiots.

Ms. Lissak, on the other hand, (and I know she isn't currently popular on social media) has remained private, like a director should. She shouldn't be out making a case for herself and airing office politics. I think (my opinion again) she should retain a lawyer - something just doesn't add up here.I don't know if she was set up, but there is a possibility, and it should be looked into. Again, all my opinion. Her ability to do her job as she was hired (give direction and expect your employees to follow) diminished when a Board Member jumped in and undermined Ms. Lissak's authority. I hope you all realize that this stopping of a necessary weeding process is costing the tax payers money.  And while I'm talking about social media, just because you scream the loudest, talk the most or post on many sites, doesn't make you automatically on the right side of an issue. And it doesn't necessarily represent the majority.

And of course, you are going to hear from the Board. You make it sound like they think this is going away. There are many issues than none of us are privy to except the Board, the director and probably some people in the library. And it should be that way. I just hope it works out well for all involved. We all love the library; not just the outraged citizens. There are many of us who are happy to embrace change.

rsp wrote on June 24, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Having actually served on boards the library board should have known what was going on. Do you really think a board member, who the director reports to, is undermining her authority by trying to stop a mistake? It's cost money to stop the weeding? What about throwing out thousands of dollars in books and telling staff "we can just replace them"? Would you consider that wasteful? Even ones the library just purchased. Tossed. Even a thousand books at $20 each, which would be cheap. No big deal, right?

Bin44 wrote on June 24, 2013 at 1:06 pm

In response to rsp:

Do you know anything about "chain of command"? Have you worked in a large organization? If you have a problem you go to your immediate supervisor first and then it goes all lthe way up the line. I would think the same goes for a Board Member. If he/she has a problem with what is happening in the library, he/she should go to the director, who then goes to the dept. head, who then goes to the staff. It was not the Board Member's position to give orders to staff. If she/he had a problem with something she saw, this Board Member should have gone to Ms.Lissak first. This Board Member started something that could have been taken care of quickly in house by going through the proper channels. Someone then giving information to past employees who went to social media. If it wasn't so sad, it would be funny. How did anyone think this was in any way going to help the library?

To your point of saving the town money... Leave that to the professionals. They know how much it cost to retag these books, get rid of books, buy books etc. They know what books need to be saved. If the head of Adult Services had acted in a responsible fashion, none of this would have happened - the books should/would have been weeded properly.  Ms.Lissak was instrumental in renovating the library. I think she knows budgets. You're questioning her expertice in the movement of books? My opinion, but many of the books that the public was so outraged were missing and have been returned with a big fanfare probably didn't have to be. I think it was a gut reaction from the Board to please the public. Yes, and that did cost extra money.

Again, that is why the Board is going slow on this. (My opinion). Lots to think about. Let them do their job with integrity to come up with a solution that is good for the town and the library not some vocal critics. 

Bookworm46 wrote on June 25, 2013 at 11:06 am

The library board vice-president went into the library on Monday, saw the destruction to the collection, and told Ms Lissak to stop weeding until after the board meeting on Tuesday.  After he left, Ms Lissak immediately told the shelvers to continue weeding.  Ms Lissak willfully ignored the board member's request.  It took a call from the mayor to stop it.

Also, Ms Phillips trip to Tibet and Nepal was arranged long before her decision to retire.  Her staff have been weeding the even larger fiction collection, so Ms Lissak's adding nonfiction at the same time, plus their weeding compact discs, was poorly timed at best and malicious at worst.  At the regular board meeting on Tuesday, it was obvious that the board backed Ms Phillips and ignored Ms Lissak. One board member pointedly asked "What does Anne want?"

Ms Lissak's comments to the Chicago Sun Times would lead one to think she was totally clueless, faultless, and certainly didn't mind throwing her staff under the bus to protect her image and paycheck.  If her communication skills are really that poor, Ms Lissak does indeed need to retire.

Bin44 wrote on June 26, 2013 at 5:06 am

In response to your comment: At the regular board meeting on Tuesday, it was obvious that the board backed Ms Phillips and ignored Ms Lissak. One board member pointedly asked "What does Anne want?"

Wow - that sounds like a democratic process...

asarwate wrote on June 25, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Its interesting to me how here and elsewhere, "Bin44" seems to insinuate that there are dark conspiracies going on at the library, but such information has not come to light through the documents gleaned from FOIA requests. If, indeed, some of the details described in their comments are true, then they must have some inside knowledege of the situation -- knowledge that could only come from someone inside the organization.  This represents a conundrum, as

(a) the admonition to not "talk to the media about inter office politics" seems to be violated by posting "inside information" on office politics on social media.

(b) some of the references to personnel issues and the details of PTO etc suggest that some of this information may be violating privacy regulations regarding HR information.

While indeed those who comment on "social media" may not be the only opinions out there, it seems to me that taking to social media to reveal possibly private information and tar others with innuendo under a cloak of anonymity is being less than forthright.  Indeed, as the editorial notes, "it's apparent that there is some side-taking going on."

I do not think it is true that a "true professional" remains mum when there is so much outcry.  The Library is not a military or corporate institution.  It is a public instituion, and is responsible to the public. I, for one, don't have a predetermined outcome in mind. But I am in favor of transparent, accountable governance, and in the leadup to this RFID tagging project, there has been very little of that from both the Executive Director and the Board.  The question is really how to improve transparency and accountability, and the silence offered by both parties does not instill me with confidence.

Bin44 wrote on June 26, 2013 at 5:06 am

This is a repost from the News Gazette:

Inside information?

From acl

"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 Bin 44

Talk about violation of privacy...How did the disguntled former employees that wrote angry letters and to social media have specific information about what books got sent back- specific information about the books that only a few people on the staff would know?

I have been posting because there is so much negativity out there and it is very much one sided in the media. Like I said before, the Library Board/city/Ms. Lissak have not spoken out because they are trying to figure out, with facts -not emotion, what exactly happened. And how this situation can be avoided in the future. (My opinion)

peanut farmer wrote on June 26, 2013 at 9:06 am

Ok Bin 44.  This last post was the last straw for me.  I cannot sit passively by and let you skew the public record so blatantly.  You are hiding safely behind your veil of anonymity and so will I.  Your comments around every smilepolitely and NG article on this topic reveals you to be either a library employee or someone very closely associated with admin- perhaps someone who knows Deb personally.  I am a library employee and so to protect myself from your clear antagonism I will not reveal my name here.

 

First, this tidbit:

 

In response to your comment: At the regular board meeting on Tuesday, it was obvious that the board backed Ms Phillips and ignored Ms Lissak. One board member pointedly asked "What does Anne want?"

Wow - that sounds like a democratic process...

Bin- yes, that is what is called a democratic process.  A professor of library science was at that meeting and kept a tally...40 people spoke- 6 in support of Lissak, 2 neutral...and the rest expressing concern at the whole process.  This is actually what we call democracy.  When a board backs someone that is called 'support.'  Asking what someone wants is not a sign of dictatorship.  Lissak was free to come to that meeting (or any meeting) and defend her actions.  

 

You clearly hold Lissak in high regard and state that she is using 'facts, not emotion' to analyze the situation.  Here are some facts: since the former director stepped down the number of 'disgruntled employees' leaving the library has gone from zero (to my knowledge under Fred Schlipf) to, well, a whole bunch.  I would try counting but it hurts my brain.  Right now I would hazard a guess that about 90% of the library is deeply upset with Lissak...especially since the Sun-Times article (look it up folks!) where the adref staff are clearly blamed for this whole mess- by Lissak.  This would be the same adref staff who were verbally abused by the director when they expressed reluctance and dismay at how quickly they were being asked to weed.  No, I don't use that term lightly.  There were a number of employees who heard the yelling and it's not the first time this has occurred.  

So back off Bin.  You are either in deep denial or simply unconcerned with truth- or perhaps concerned for your job or all three I don't know.  But you are not to be trusted and the public needs to know that.

Oh and one last thing regarding this comment...

How did the disguntled former employees that wrote angry letters and to social media have specific information about what books got sent back- specific information about the books that only a few people on the staff would know?

Yes, we employees of the library know which books are on the shelves or being sent or coming back.  We work here after all.  And, no, that is not confidential top secret information...actually quite opposite- we not only tell people what they are we even publish it in a CATALOG!  It's crazy how much transparency there is here.

So grow a heart Bin and try to feel what librarians who are micromanaged, insulted and then lied about in the press are feeling.  You may find a shred of humanity in yourself.

Bin44 wrote on June 26, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Obviously I hit a nerve. There are many misstatements in your comment, but I'm not going to go back and forth with you. Let's just move forward and restore some confidence in the great Urbana Free Library. Having a cohesive staff that works well with all the other departments is crucial to its success. I hope you would agree and do your part to better this situation where you work, not make it worse. 

I was clear to say in my statements that they were "my opinions" (based on the news that is out there). Just because I am stating an opposing view to a very vocal and emotional group, doesn't mean I'm wrong or "not to be trusted". I am interested in a good outcome for everybody, but especially the library I love. 

 

 

Smirkopithecus wrote on June 26, 2013 at 4:06 pm

And here I was looking forward to seeing how you'd try to refute peanut farmer's points. You know, trying to be the bigger man usually works better when you don't precede it by calling the other person a liar, refusing to address anything she said, and then running away. And then you worked in that bit about Ms. Lissak's critics being "emotional." That was really nice.

Unlike peanut farmer, I don't work at the library, but if attitudes like yours are common in certain departments there, it's easy to see why all the rest of the staff are so fed up.