Public scrutiny of the book weeding controversy at the Urbana Free Library last month has shed light on the leadership of the beloved institution. The Executive Director, Deb Lissak, who had pressured the staff to perform the weeding of books at a reckless pace, and then blamed them for the mistakes, has agreed to step down.
The Library Board of Trustees has bowed to public pressure and has agreed to revisit the new Strategic Plan and allow for addendums based on public input. Important questions are now being asked about how the library serves the community and how the administrators should engage with the public and staff. The attention brought on by the sudden loss of about 9,300 books has brought hundreds of concerned citizens into the board room to learn and participate.
History of the Blunder
This process of inquiry began in June when patrons noticed thousands of books were being removed from the non-fiction shelves seemingly overnight. A couple days after the mass book removal began, several people attended the monthly meeting of the Board of Trustees to ask questions directly to the administrators. Community members were assured that removing books from the collection was painful but necessary, however later conflicting accounts were presented about how the weeding had taken place. As a picture emerged it was clear the library had violated its own policy and thousands of books had been improperly discarded. The tide began to shift when the story broke on Smile Politely and the details of the botched weeding project entered public discourse. The story was shared hundreds of times on the internet and a frank public conversation began about what had happened at the UFL. Who was responsible for the weeding mistakes? Why was the public unaware that such dramatic changes were taking place at the UFL? How did the new Strategic Plan justify such a drastic downsizing of the collection? More questions emerged as voices joined the discussion. People began spreading awareness and advocating for more public scrutiny.
Within days there were concrete results from the community inquiry. Better World Books, the non-profit to whom the books were sent, had already been contacted by outraged Urbana residents and were working with the UFL to send the books back. The library posted a public apology for the overzealous weeding, asserting that problems with the weeding procedures were being addressed. They also posted a FAQ for the coming changes. When the information packets given to board members at meetings were requested via FOIA, the library responded by posting a whole year’s worth on their website, a true win for transparency. Furthermore, a call was reawakened to begin broadcasting Trustees’ meetings, as already was standard practice with most other local boards.
Shockingly, amidst all the scrutiny, Lissak publicly blamed her staff–in the newspaper, on the radio and on TV–for all the weeding mistakes. Enough people had read the first Smile Politely article, where Lissak claimed that she was “okay with what happened,” to know that she was being disingenuous at best, and outright lying at worst. With so many people now paying attention to the story, and with numerous statements pointing to Lissak as the instigator of the weeding agenda, her actions rapidly increased calls for her termination. They also increased public advocacy for the staff members who were ordered to weed aggressively and then blamed by their superior.
From all the discussions and documents uncovered through investigation, several clear areas of concern had emerged. There had been an inadequate level of transparency and public accountability on the part of the Board, which over time led to the erosion of channels for public input. The Strategic Plan used to justify the weeding process seems to have been created with only token community input, and has implications that have not been clearly communicated to the public. Personnel conflicts at the UFL had been allowed to simmer for years because no adequate grievance policy existed to allow staff to speak without fear of retribution. The Executive Director, instead of building consensus for change, had adopted a strategic planning process promoted by an outside consultant. This process had alienated many staff members who raised objections. While the discussion began about an overzealous weeding project, it was now clear that the institutional problems precipitating the weeding mistakes were much more significant than the lost books.
The Remedy of People Power
This whole episode has been an incredible demonstration of people power. Individually, each voice would have been easy to ignore, but a well-informed group acting collectively proved to be an effective force that couldn’t be dismissed. Dozens of letters and phone calls to public officials prompted the Board of Trustees to hold an emergency meeting on June 19th. Over 200 people packed the room, many with prepared statements to be read during the public comment period. With the help of the UCIMC, the event was live-streamed, and as many as eighty-nine people watched live. While Lissak did not attend that meeting, several attendees spoke in her support, citing her long tenure as a library employee. The overwhelming plea however was for the board to take action and many asked for a new executive director.
After the emergency meeting, there was a clear sense that the changes the library needed to pursue were not in the number of books on the shelves but rather in the leadership philosophy guiding the institution. After the meeting the board began to address public concerns. Directives were ordered to halt the aggressive weeding and to review the Strategic Plan, but stopped short of addressing the personnel concerns. The public remained diligent and organized a large turnout for the next board meeting on July 9th. Once again the room was full of passionate and articulate voices urging to board to reflect deeper on its own decisions.
By the July 9th meeting, there was enough evidence obtained through FOIA requests to show that the director’s continued statements to the media were misleading and hurt public trust. At the meeting, the board also embarrassingly admitted that the current grievance policy had not been updated in twenty-one years, and promised to review it. Many members of the public seemed better informed than some board members, and the event seemed more educational to the board members, while cathartic for the audience. Since the board had accidentally violated the Open Meeting Act at their last meeting by going into open session while the building was locked, several dozen people stayed for over an hour to hear if the board would make a public statement. Indeed, after deliberating in closed session, the board announced it would seek to break the existing contract with Lissak and begin searching for a replacement.
While the work needed to rebuild the trust in the library is still far from finished, it’s important to note that in one month public pressure has achieved concrete results. The books are now being properly weeded according to professional library standards. The grievance policy is up for a total rewrite. The Board of Trustees is now open to broadcasting their meetings and is taking steps towards greater transparency. Implementation of the Strategic Plan has halted until the public is given adequate time to review and comment. The director who steered the library into this mess will soon be replaced with an interim director. Taken as a whole, this represents an unprecedented opportunity for the people of Urbana to reinvest in their library and help it become an even more beloved institution. Despite the intense stress this situation has caused, several of the board members were outspoken in expressing appreciation to the public for their scrutiny and feedback. As this process continues, the trustees, the staff and the patrons need to work together to rebuild trust and ensure that the library grows into a stronger, resilient, and more responsive institution.