Bookgate: When Urbana Free Library Purged Thousands of Books

Rachel Smalter Hall

Staff Writer

Rachel Smalter Hall may be a professional Book Rioter, but she still hangs out in the public librarian clubhouse. Two of her top three loves include audiobooks and knitting, and her favorite song is Cold Hearted Snake as performed by Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese on season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. She co-runs a boozy book club in Lawrence, Kansas, in her spare time. Twitter: @rach_smalls Website: Rachel Smalter Hall

The public library in Urbana, IL, is currently under fire after removing thousands of their 66,000 nonfiction books in just a single week. Director Debra Lissak ordered librarians to “weed” all nonfiction books with a publication date more than 10 years old, and gave them a weekend to review Excel spreadsheets and mark any titles they wished to keep. Lissak was eager to put extra shelvers to work that had just been hired to assist with an upcoming RFID tagging process – in which every single item in the collection is tagged with a costly Radio Frequency Identification tag – and hurried to finalize the weeding lists to give the idle shelvers something to do.

Library users voiced concern when they noticed the drastic reduction of nonfiction books on the shelves, and the weeding project came to an abrupt halt (after thousands had already been removed) when their complaints reached the library board and mayor. Community members attended a city council meeting on June 17 to ask for Lissak’s resignation, and the library board met on June 19 to gather facts before determining a course of action. Twitter has dubbed the controversy #bookgate, and bookish people everywhere are trying to figure out just what happened at Urbana Free Library and how to prevent such a large scale purging of cultural resources in the future.

Shocking, right? Why would they get rid of so many books?

What many library-loving people might not know is that libraries consider weeding (or deselection) an essential, ongoing process that’s just as important as deciding what books to buy in the first place. Libraries remove titles that are outdated, inaccurate, or underused to make room for new books and help the best materials bubble up to the top, as well as to create space for library activities like studying, reading, working collaboratively, storytimes, and author events.

Yet libraries often agonize over what to weed, because we librarians love books, you guys! And it’s understandably tough not to get emotional about it. It’s actually become a pretty big issue in the library community, and many libraries struggle to keep their collections adequately weeded because it can be such a sensitive and complex process. The fun-loving and wonderful blog Awful Library Books was born out of the growing need two librarians saw to advocate for the importance of maintaining relevant and current library collections.

So how do libraries decide what must go? Many library collection development policies use some variation of these criteria:

  • Physical condition – is it stained or damaged beyond repair?
  • Frequency of use – has it been checked out within a year?
  • Date of publication – is the information still accurate/relevant?
  • Duplication within existing collection – does the library own extra copies of the same or a similar item?
  • Availability through interlibrary loan – is it easy to borrow from another library?
  • Long-term, historical significance or interest

Libraries also tend to agree on several no-no’s that should almost never be weeded, such as:

  • Local history
  • Local authors
  • Regional settings
  • Annuals / yearbooks
  • Award-winning books
  • Reference materials not outdated by other materials (think: philosophy, religion)

It’s absolutely imperative for library staff to know what’s in the collection, the needs and interests of their community, and how often the materials are being used in order to do a good job shaping the collection through weeding. And while weeding is an ongoing process, it cranks into especially high gear when libraries prepare for costly, time-consuming cataloging or moving projects, such as barcoding or RFID tagging the entire collection, or moving the collection into a new library building.

So what went wrong at Urbana Free Library?  So. Many. Things. But first I want to take a moment to acknowledge what actually went right. Urbana Free Library is preparing for an expensive RFID project, so now is absolutely the right time to conduct a large scale weeding project, especially with the extra shelvers on hand to help pull books. And while the scope of the project is boldly aggressive, it’s also in many ways in step with current library trends towards maintaining relevant and current collections – so that you can actually find a copy of The Pioneer Woman cookbook instead of getting stuck with Be Bold With Bananas. The library director justified her decision by reasoning that, if they made any weeding mistakes, they could easily repurchase those books and still save money compared to what they would have otherwise spent on staff time and materials to tag outdated books in the first place.

But the mistakes Urbana Free Library made were critical.  No other library anywhere – ever – would say it’s OK to use such a limited weeding criteria (publication date only!). It was also a major misstep to rush their professional staff through the selection process. Weeding is complex, yet librarians state they were expected to evaluate lists of thousands of titles in under 30 minutes and weren’t allowed to look up circulation statistics or physically look at the items. But perhaps the biggest mistake of all was the library’s failure to communicate what was happening with their community.

When I discussed this story with other librarians, my fellow Rioter put it best: “I think one of the saddest parts of the situation is that it has made it more difficult for good, responsible librarians to advocate weeding, which is totally necessary for a vibrant collection. It puts a rather nasty face on weeding.”

Readers, how do you feel about Urbana Free Library’s decision to weed almost all nonfiction more than 10 years old? What would you like to see happen to old library books?

For in-depth investigative coverage of #bookgate, check out Smile Politely, Champaign-Urbana’s independent online culture magazine.


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