Smile Politely

Voices from Urbana City Council

Photo courtesy of Heather Ault

Last night’s City Council meeting in Urbana was so full that many attendees had to stand, both inside and outside the room. The meeting was overflowing, but one notable citizen, Deb Lissak, did not attend.

Several people spoke passionately, and sometimes angrily, about the library’s overzealous weeding. Some stated their professions, others simply spoke because they’re patrons of the library and they care what happens to it. Tellingly, no one spoke in defense of the UFL’s director, her managerial style, or her policies.

I recorded the meeting and have transcribed what was said there. Unfortunately, due to the frequent clapping between addresses, my recorder failed to pick up two of the speakers’ names. My sincere apologies for that.

A special meeting of the Board of Trustees has been called for Wednesday, June 19, 7:00 p.m., at the Urbana Free Library Auditorium. The agenda includes time for public comment and an executive session.


Al Kagan, University of Illinois Librarian: There are many reasons why Deb Lissak is unqualified to continue to be the Executive Director of the Urbana Free Library… First: Although weeding collections at public libraries is appropriate and necessary, there are some standard, professional criteria that should be used in clear and deliberate fashion. Ms. Lissak disregarded such criteria and demanded that her staff follow her sledgehammer approach.

Two: Ms. Lissak made it clear that the process was to proceed extremely rapidly without sufficient time for appropriate consideration of library materials. In addition, this process was carried out when the relevant Department Head was on vacation, a very convenient time, I might add.

Three: Trashing thousands of needed books and CDs has resulted in squandering tens of thousands dollars of taxpayer dollars.

Four: Ms. Lissak clearly has poor administrative skill and has alienated her staff.

Five: Ms. Lissak has lost all credibility with the library staff and the community, and will, therefore, be unable to lead the library in the future.

Six: It’s one thing to make bad policy decisions, but it’s quite something else when the director blames her staff and fails to take responsibility for running the library.

Finally, Ms. Lissak has made bald-faced lies to the public. That alone should be grounds for dismissal.


JP Goguen. I visited the Urbana Free Library last week and saw something that really hurt… My favorite section, the gardening section, had been gutted. When I walked through the nonfiction stacks, I was totally dismayed…

More details are emerging every day as the staff and people under Deb become less and less afraid to speak out. I’m concerned about retribution to the staff, but I’m also concerned about the future integrity of the library…

I have a few questions: How did the administrative structure play a role in this debacle? I’ve been told that the library doesn’t have a proper HR Department, and that appealing directly to the director was the only recourse of action for the staff, who were told to violate their own work duties and violate the weeding policy by Deb. What has been the financial loss for all of these mistakes? And how can the community restore trust in the library? Finally, there have been calls to move forward, and part of restoring trust is being able to align what was said with what was done, and make sure that there’s transparency and honesty in that process. There are conflicting messages being said, and we’re in the process of resolving those conflicts.


Carol Tilley, University of Illinois Assistant Professor. I’m a librarian by profession; I’m also a faculty member at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Since the story broke you’ve been filled in, certainly, what’s been going on at Urbana Free Library. [My comments] have less to do with the actual weeding that took place and more to do with the issues related to personnel management. In speaking with current staff members, I understand that they feel as if they’re working in a hostile workplace with no clear grievance policy, no clear means of reporting concerns that they have… To the extent that the city’s Human Resources Department can be made available to provide support, to provide an ombudsman for grievance policy and procedure, that would be useful.

I also have great concern about the strategic planning, which led to the weeding that took place in the last couple of weeks. The strategic planning, the patron survey, is five years old at this point. It was a survey of registered cardholders only, so about 13,000 residents of Urbana were eligible to participate in the survey. The response rate was about 30%. It was geographically skewed. And to my knowledge the library did not follow up with focus groups of underrepresented areas, low-income persons, or other minority or underrepresented people. I want the Urbana Free Library to be a library for the people. And I think the Strategic Plan, as it moves forward, does not adequately represent the community.

Finally, I would like there to be more transparent and public information provided, particularly from the board. The board information is limited to minutes, but if you look at the minutes over the last several years, you will find that the integrity of the minutes has degraded. The information provided is more telegraphic than it was just a few years ago. Unlike most other city departments and organizations, Urbana Free Library does not make the board packets available to the public, so only the minutes and the agenda are available for public view on the website.


Kate McDowell, University of Illinois Assistant Professor. I’m a faculty member at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. But before that, I was a Board Member on the Urbana Free Library Board; I was a trustee. Before that, I was a Children’s Librarian at Urbana Free Library. I was also a Circulation Clerk and a Shelver…

Editor’s note: Ms. McDowell read her open letter to board members and to the press, which you can read in its entirety here.

I was concerned by the audio that I heard at the last board meeting. I was concerned about the lack of care expressed in relation to public resources, but I was also concerned about the cavalier attitudes toward public perception, and I think we’ve already seen some fallout from that. Frankly, I know what weeding is very well, and I’m a little tired of people explaining it to me; it’s what I keep getting in response to the questions I’ve been asking. I teach weeding. When it’s done well, it is a considered process that takes quite some time, and takes into account a number of different factors. Stewardship is about both books and trust. And I think it’s the latter that I’m most concerned about here.

[Regarding] televising meetings. The reason that I’m asking you about this is that I think you should think about this in the broader sense. What does it mean? Do we allow boards to say whether or not they will be [unintelligible] or, in fact, is that something that city has a role in saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got the technology; we’ve got the resources; let’s make everyone have the same accessibility and the same accountability.’

In the big picture, … public libraries are changing, and they’re changing fast, and we need good strategic planning. I think that the survival of the public library as an institution is going to be contingent on a continued public goodwill… We do need strategic planning, but in this case, this strategic planning process, I believe, has been rushed. I believe it needs to be slowed way down and to be reconsidered because if this was the first phase of the implementation, then we have a problem of real disconnect between public expectations of the library and the strategic plan as it has been crafted … so far.


Mr. Weiscamp, attended the June 11 library board meeting. First name unknown]. I can’t say that I’m an expert on how libraries ought to be run; however, there were a couple of things that stuck out in my mind. Number one, this big reorganization and the weeding that’s taking place when the primary person in care of adult stacks and the adult collection is gone — that seems very inappropriate.

The other thing was that we asked the director a couple of questions: What did she hope to achieve? She’s trying to create some empty space in the library. We asked, well, how many square feet are you trying to create? How many books do you think you need to get rid of? She said she didn’t really have any particular goal in mind. She was asked, since the library’s undergoing this huge change, it’s going to become a new library of some type. We just [remodeled] the library ten years ago. You might think that would do for a while, but again I don’t know. Maybe the library has to constantly be changed. That’s fine. But I think a very reasonable question to the director is: Where is the written plan for this? Where are we headed? What exactly are we trying to do? Are there architectural drawings or some kind of schematic? What’s the floor plan for this new, revised public space that we’re trying to create? And the director says there is no such plan available.

I’m not sure what we expect of our director, but I thought that was a very direct question. What is the plan? What is it that we’re working toward? And she said that she doesn’t have such a plan. Now I know that there have been meetings and there’ve been some focus group meetings, but none of that, apparently, has congealed down to a direct plan or goal of what we’re going to…

Regardless of whatever else is going on, if we’re at a situation where we’re turning the library upside down, we’re headed toward something, and I think it’s very reasonable to ask the director what exactly it is we’re heading toward. What are you trying to do? Make more space for seating? More teenage hangout space? A bigger snack bar? I don’t know what it is, and she couldn’t say either.


Desiree Yomtoob. One of my very, very, very favorite things about Urbana is our library. We have an amazing library. The adult collection is very intelligent. I’m a book lover, and the way that the books have been collected and organized is breathtaking and it’s brilliant. It represents one of the better things, I think, about Urbana… There is a sort of wealth or generosity in terms of learning and in terms of knowledge, and I think the university supports that, but you can sense that, when we go to the [Urbana Free] Library. The intention of the library is to be there to inspire people to grow as learners. I’ve known people from other cities and other countries who have come to Urbana and have told me that they love our library.

So, I started to read the articles about what’s going on at our library and, it sounds crazy, but if you love books, maybe you would understand. I was so, so upset. I’ve known the staff at the library for a really long time because I’ve known them as reference librarians, and to know that their intentions and their hard work has been put off by their boss, it’s like … people talk about trust, but [this is] something that has absolutely broke my trust in the head director of the Urbana Library…

When someone has a minimum wage job, if they’re late three or four times, they lose their job. Now, there’s a whole bunch of us here who are upset enough about what’s happened at the library to come out, which shouldn’t happen. The director should be doing her job, and I am sure she has not because we’re all here, our books are missing, and the worst part is that the staff is intimidated right now. And the staff are the people who have kept that library going and they do a magnificent job.

There are three things that need to happen: One, we get rid of the existing director; two, the director that replaces [her] shows competence in terms of maintaining a collection; and three whoever gets the job next needs to be able to be fair to their staff.


Ilyona Matkovszky. Former student of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. I was shocked to hear about the recent weeding of the books at the library, and I went over there to check what happened, and I found there that the library was half empty. It was a shocking sight that nobody who loves books and libraries would like to see. We were told that the weeding, the expensive weeding, happened for two reasons: to provide additional space and in anticipation of installing a self-checkout system. I cannot imagine how checking out ourselves from the library can be more important than checking out books. We cannot have self-checkout at the price of throwing out books from the library. We cannot expand the space in the library by throwing out books, which is what the library is for. It’s for books, for people to go there and check out and use books.

I did a little bit of calculation about the amount of money that was very thoughtlessly thrown away here. We were told that there are 66,000 volumes of books in the nonfiction section, half of which are more than 10 years old. That means 33,000 books, if we sold for $1 at the Urbana Library sale, just $1, that’s $33,000. At $2, that’s $66,000. But these were bought for a lot more money. Say, $10, that’s $330,000 worth of books. But some books were $300 worth. So, we are throwing out hundreds of thousands [of dollars] worth of books and sending them away for nothing. I don’t think this can be allowed. What I’m here for is to ask that we have a much bigger oversight how public money is spent, especially at times when money is extremely restricted.

I am also here to ask that you step in and ask for immediate moratorium over weeding the books — which are now arriving back to the city; thanks to the staff, some of them are arriving back — until proper policies are worked out for weeding.

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