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.