Guest commentary: UFL Board would benefit from scrutiny

I was appointed to the Urbana Free Library (UFL) Board on June 3 and have so far attended two board meetings that had vigorous public input. The public comments at board meetings on June 11 and 19, as well as the city council meeting June 17, and the dedicated research and other materials provided by interested members of the public, will make it possible for the board to begin to address the many concerns library patrons have brought forward.

Weeding a public library of less-used, damaged, or out-of-date books is a normal process that takes considerable time and attention. With the best of intentions, the director implemented a process involving the use of spreadsheets alone and vastly accelerated pace to select books for weeding. It was not well-tested; it hindered the judgment of professionals by changing proven methods, introduced potential clerical errors, and appears to have bypassed some of the criteria specified in the UFL policy, resulting in some sections of the nonfiction collection being reduced by 30 percent or even 50 percent or more in two sections.

A 30 percent reduction in itself may not be alarming given the various goals that have been presented and the ongoing purchasing to replenish sections with more current titles. But it is likely the quality of the reduction was also poor. Leaving books that haven't been checked out in seven years just because they are newer is just as bad as removing a book that was checked out five times in the past year just because it was published 11 years ago.

Many of those books are reported to be on their way back, so we will get a second chance with those. The flaws in this process were noted by staff and community members and it was stopped. The board should continue to do damage assessment on those parts of the collection that were affected.

The library director recently put detailed statistics on the library website showing the sections that were weeded with this process. She also put board packets for previous meetings on the site along with the minutes that were already there. While this is a start to greater transparency, the board obviously would benefit from more public scrutiny. Not only was our adjournment late into the night on the 19th a violation of the Open Meetings Act, three of the first five meetings this year also adjourned after closing hours. If a member of the public wants to come to see the last five minutes of a meeting, they should be able to do that. Meeting rooms must remain open and meetings should be video recorded and archived.

From what I understand, the staff direction given at the meeting on the 19th will need to be passed again at the next board meeting, though I think it's also true that unless challenged, it is currently in effect. There was an attempt to clarify the intent of the directive to stop weeding in terms of what type of weeding and for how long, but it has not been discussed because we cannot discuss items without an open meeting. The board is not communicating logistics well and needs to meet. Apparently that will not be until the regular meeting on July 9, though I would have liked to meet earlier. I encourage others with more background to begin a public discussion of the goals and implementation vision for the strategic plan and what we expect from our leadership.

In all of this, I'd like to remind folks that our library is more than a building and books and media and meeting space. The library has achieved excellence and respect through the work of people — directors, trustees and employees. There is no point in trashing reputations, but it's perfectly acceptable to be professionally critical of those who can respond in public — the director and the board.

There is no excuse for shifting blame to employees or criticizing them in public. One of the first priorities of the board should be establishing effective grievance procedures and protections to help alleviate tension in the workplace.

Bill Brown is a member of the Urbana Free Library (UFL) Board. He lives in Urbana.

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