Another Library Scandal: They’ve Thrown Out All the Preciouses

Here’s some recent library scandal: Deb Lissak, the director of the Urbana public library, created a list of all the adult non-fiction books, sorted it by publication date, and asked 12 new part time employees to pull and discard all of the titles that were ten years or older.  This happened while the person in charge of the collection was out of the country.

Then someone who writes for a local online magazine noticed what was happening and was  outraged.  She stated that 50 or possibly even 75% of the collection was being removed.  Thousands of books were being discarded!  As fervor grew, various steps were taken to stop this from happening and punish the director.  A petition was even started on to “Hold a public forum and make Lissak explain her decisions.”

There is a lot of very detailed information about this available online, most at the original article here.  People are outraged.  People are *appalled.*

I am not.

Here’s why: ten years is old.  Think about what the world was like ten years ago.  We had never had an African American President.  We had only just begun our war with Iraq.  Know any 8 year olds?  They weren’t born yet.  Pluto was still a planet.  Facebook wasn’t yet a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eye, and you could not have Tweeted about this.  You most likely would not have had a smart phone anyway.  What were you wearing ten years ago?  Would you care to see it featured in a style book?  Here’s a scary one: would you like to take ten year old advice on how to manage your HIV?  How about ten year old recommendations on how to get a new job?

Sure there are ten year old books that are still relevant.  Poetry, Shakespeare, art books, etc. etc.  And there are books that are more than ten years old that would be important to a community, such as a collection of essays by city founders. I would not suggest that a library get rid of all books that are more than ten years old.  But I don’t think it’s an appalling thing to suggest.  Just a little short-sighted.

Here’s another thing: books wear out.  Say a book was checked out once a month for ten years.  That’s 120 uses!  At one point in time, eBook publishers tried to suggest that 27 uses was the lifespan of a library book.  It’s not, but even if we double that, that’s much fewer than 120.  It is wishful thinking to assume that your books would go out once a month for ten years though.  Say they went out once a month for two years, then every other month for two years, then twice a year thereafter.  That’s 24+12+(2*6) or 48 uses.  That is still a well-used book.  That is a book that’s tumbled around in 48 backpacks, maybe been taken into a few steamy bathrooms, and probably had a little chocolate wiped somewhere.  That might be a book with still some use in it, but it also might be a worn out book.

Here’s the final reason I’m not appalled.  I can see how this decision was made.  The 12 new employees had been hired to do RFID tagging, a process where weeding (discarding) beforehand is highly recommended. They had started, but the tags and training were not in place for them to do the work they were hired to do.  So the director had 12 staff people she needed to find work for.

Staff are at a premium in libraries.  There are not enough people to do the work.  A surfeit of employee time needs to be utilized, in the most cost-effective way possible.  Many people who are upset about what happened are decrying the waste of taxpayers’ money.  But staff also cost taxpayers money.  In fact, staff cost taxpayers more money than books.  I can see that this project might sound like a good use of extra employees.

The fact that 50-75% of the collection was more than ten years old seems to indicate that not enough weeding had been happening.  Now, some librarians are hoarders. Serious book hoarders.  I have no idea if this librarian was, but I can also see how there might have been some temptation to get in there and clean up while she was out of town.

So I can see how this decision might have been made, and I’m not appalled by it.

It was not a good decision.  The director’s plan should have been rethought, and reworked.  She should have looked at circulation statistics as well.  She should have put processes in place to catch the valuable and irreplaceable items. She should not have tried to apply a one-size-fits-all criteria to the collection.

But I can’t see vilifying her for making this decision.  It probably sounded like a good idea at the time.

Miss Grace Sutherland



4 responses

  1. Pingback: I’m in Your Library, Hugging Your Books | MLISsing in Action

  2. librarians have professionally ethics, part of which involve following the libraries set and available-to-the-public policies… sure, she could have done this without a problem if the library’s weeding policies were changed.

  3. The best NF library collections are varied and more complex than you can apparently imagine. They reflect local interests and not just local history. But they are also a reflection of epistemology, taxonomy, the whole of human knowledge in less haughty terms. Obviously, certain topics date out — medical, fade diets, etc — and Dewey sections like the low 000s, 300s, 600s, 700s need to be evaluated for content more frequently. Yet a book-by-book analysis is still necessary since old content does not equate to dated content. Yes, people actually knew things before Twitter! Other sections like 100s, 200s, 500s, 800s, 900s are good examples of areas where content can be 50 years old and still accurate and valuable. History, for instance, does not typically change every ten years (I’m being a bit tongue and cheek here but it begs a bit of teasing to assume anything more than 10 years old is not invalid, untrue or irrelevant — nah, ‘dangerous’). And, one inaccuracy does not make for a dead book. We as literate persons are also capable of evaluating material for currency — retaining the eternal and filtering the time static.

    You also talk a lot about turns but I’d suggest that should be a factor in replacement not cull — a totally different animal. Low turns also should not be the great decider, imho, since the number of check outs does not measure the significance of a book to a subject area. I do believe in conditional culling but managed by the librarian in charge of the collection so that we don’t toss out the baby with the bath water so to speak. This scenario is a classic case of why a librarian should be in charge of collection-related decisions, imho. Non-credentialed staff are increasingly finding their way into all sorts of library jobs and the impact is generally to have fewer ‘best practices’ and more random decisions based on a hodge-podge of ideas about what constitute a good library. That is where policy actually protects the interests of the community and the integrity of the collection/services, etc. The idea of hiring temps to hatchet a collection while the librarian is away is appalling to me, and I applaud the community that gave the director some push back. The libary is not ‘hers’ after all. She is merely a steward. Perhaps if the director studied Collections Management before deciding he/she is an expert on such matters this rash and unethical decision would have been avoided in the first place.

  4. This post answers most of that already:

    My point is not that she made the right decision, just that I can see where she might have been coming from. I think a lot of the criticism came from academic librarians and library students, who may not understand the continuous short-staffedness and other dynamics particular to public libraries. Of course she made a bad decision. But to be “appalled” seems a little naive.

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