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Why do the shelves at Urbana Free Library look so empty?

A routine clearing old books recently went awry UrbanFree Library. |  JP GOGEUN PHOTO

A routine clearing of old books recently went awry at the Urbana Free Library. | JP GOGEUN PHOTO

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Updated: July 23, 2013 6:02AM

Both gardeners and librarians must weed, to make room for new plants and new books.

But just as even the best gardener will sometimes accidentally dig up a valuable plant, so librarians can yank books they later wish they’d kept, which is the awkward position the Urbana Free Library finds itself in.

“There was a miscommunication,” said Deb Lissak, director of the library for the past six years, who had told her staff to flag all non-fiction books more than 10 years old and consider them for removal.

“I said clearly mark the ones you want to keep, and they said we thought you wanted to get rid of the lot,” she said.

This left the library with expanses of empty shelving, which caught the eye of patrons, who raised a cry online.

“Extremely disturbing,” Tracy Nectoux, a former part-time librarian, wrote on Smile Politely, an Urbana blog, saying that over the past two weeks non-fiction books have been discarded in a “hasty, arbitrary way.”

Lissak explained that the library is about to implement a system using electronic chips — RFID tags — to track and check out books. Rather than go to the expense of placing tags — which cost about 15 cents apiece, plus the manpower to insert them — into outdated books that are rarely checked out, she thought it would be better first to cull the collection of underused materials.

“We do this all the time,” she said. “I pulled the entire shelf list, every single item we know older than 10 years, and created an Excel spreadsheet, with call number, publication date, the last time it was checked out, the total number of times checked out and number of times checked out over the past 18 months. They weren’t being told to take all those off the shelf, only to look at those and decide what to keep.”

Part of the problem was that the library had hired a dozen temporary workers to insert the tags, and those workers were brought on before the books had been sorted. So the tag inserters were put to work culling the collection.

“It was a perfect storm,” said Beth Scheid, a member of the Urbana Library Board. “They hired a bunch of people to help. The department head of adult services, Anne Phillips, happened to be taking a well-deserved vacation. She was out-of-the-country. So you’ve got these paid-for people, and increasing the pace of weeding-out books was something they could do, under the direction of true librarians. I think the communications were not good whatsoever, and Deb was very overeager to get some of these things weeded out. The staff felt pressured, and the librarians took her communications as marching orders.”

Lissak blames her staff for the problem.

“I don’t know why they didn’t keep more,” she said. “They’re experienced people. I had no reason to be double-checking. I’m not sure what went wrong. Nobody raised an alarm. I was not dictating what they should send out. It’s not my job, it’s theirs. They should have used normal professional judgment and I don’t know why so much left. They weeded too much — nice books, expensive books.”

She said of particular loss were art books, but they might have been able to claw those back from BetterWorldBooks, the processing company the discarded books are sent to. “We think we caught the shipment,” she said. “It looks like we’re going to be able to pull those art books back.”

What nobody has yet is a list of exactly how many books are gone — hundreds if not thousands.

“I’m trying to compile it,” said Lissak. “The whole intent was not to handle and tag older things. The shelves are pretty empty. I don’t know why they didn’t keep more.”

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