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How does your garden grow?

I’ve been following the weeding debacle* at the Urbana [Illinois] Free Library and feel fairly invested for some reason.  I have loads of thoughts about all of this – about the management angle, the focus of the strategic plan, and the weeding itself.  I hope a lot of people in the library community are paying attention as it unfolds, because we can all learn a lot about a whole slew of topics from this incident and how it is being handled.  UFL may not be our library, but I’m seeing this push for rapid, dramatic change in lots of places, and we need to be aware that there are good and not so good ways to make changes in the Library for our communities.

I’ll begin by saying that this situation is still unfolding and that the media reports I’ve read include some inconsistencies.  I wasn’t there; I didn’t speak directly to anyone involved; I don’t know firsthand what happened.

I did my first hands-on librarian work at the UFL during a teen service practicum at the University of Illinois GSLIS program.  Coming from a community with a library that was first crammed into a too small space, and then moved to a giant – but empty – building, I was entranced by the UFL’s double bounty: a beautiful ample space and funds to fill it.  My reference instructor was the fabulous John Dunkelberger, a now retired reference librarian (who has been quoted here and there objecting to the handling of the weeding) from the UFL.  I’ll forever be grateful to him for reminding us that we’re not tied to the reference desk — we’re attached with a rubber band.  Your job is to go out to the patrons, then come back to the desk.  Go out into the stacks, then come back.  Connect the people with what they need.  Find the people, welcome them, help them.
But the weeding, as I understand it, was first and formost HUGELY disrespectful of both the people and the collection. There appear to be serious management issues and a problem of collegiality in the disrespect to the adult services head who was out of the country when this happened, to the reference development librarians who were reportedly given just 30 minutes to review the weeding reports and instructed not to examine the books or their circ numbers, and to the staff in general who was maligned in the media by Lissak for not asking enough questions and not doing what she had intended they do.  That is a topic for another day as the information is still being sorted out.

I’m going to address the stewardship issue, as in the disrespect this type of weeding shows the community in the display of apparent disregard for the collection.  If those items really did need to be withdrawn, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of them really did need to be withdrawn, it should’ve been happening continually.  It’s poor stewardship to keep books around that aren’t being used, that are outdated, and that are damaged.  It’s unnecessarily startling to patrons to see shelves suddenly emptied, even if they’re emptied of bad books.

It’s also poor stewardship to move so quickly with a weeding project that you’re unable to do a real assessment.  Is there a newer edition that should be added?  Is it still circulating and in need of replacement or repair?  Is the item still being used only because it’s the only book on the topic and we need to find something more current?  Is it not circulating because it’s a sequel to a book we don’t own?  Is it full of information that is duplicated in one of our databases?  Is it just a bad smelly book that really does need to get pitched?

When it comes right down to it, our collections are not “ours” but our communities’.   We owe it to our communities to maintain their collection, continually, so that it’s easy for the community to use it and find what is needed when it is needed.  Calling it weeding is very apt.  Just like a garden can’t thrive if it’s overgrown with weeds and plants that distract and pull nutrients from the veggies and flowers, nor can a library collection thrive when overrun with outdated, damaged, unused books.  Just like a garden, where a beautiful new ornamental in full bloom is going to look mighty lonesome without some stalwart favorites to balance the landscape, a library collection makes more sense when the new and properly maintained old are there to support one another.  I can think of a lot of nonfiction books that are older than 10 years that fit just fine in a collection like the one at Urbana Free.  It’s a deep collection.  The community is full of academics and folks who aren’t just interested in the newest popular material.  I can also think of a good number of nonfiction books that are just timeless, and though they need to be well maintained, should always be a part of a public library’s collection.  At the same time, there shouldn’t be old, outdated books in places like the computer or health sections, and if a book really is still popular after ten plus years, it may be time to replace it with a shiny new copy.

All this to say, I don’t fear weeding. I fear bad weeding, thoughtless weeding, wasteful weeding, and weeding that prioritizes novelty and fads over respect for our users and their financial and personal investments in the library.  It is not our collection.  It belongs to the community.  We have been given the opportunity and privilege of maintaining it for them.

This old thing?

I received the email above from a coworker just this week.  This book, Pearl S. Buck’s The Mother can be purchased used on Amazon for under $3.  I don’t doubt that the book is worth much more to this library patron, so why didn’t she just buy it years ago, instead of coming to check it out?  What is she, some kind of a cheapskate?  No.  She is someone who deeply values the service that the library provides.  Coming to the library, finding this beloved book on the shelf, and bringing it down to read again, she was reacquainted with an old friend.  But unlike she would with a book on a home bookshelf, she knew that while her friend was waiting for her, someone else had a chance to meet and enjoy this book.

There is value in this.  This builds community, albeit in a different way than large plush conversation furniture and coffee bars do.  There is value in that as well, but one thing that makes the library different is that while you’re away from it, a piece of you remains to be discovered by someone else.

We read to know we’re not alone. (C.S. Lewis)

I sincerely hope that the residents of Urbana get their library back.  Not just the books, but the whole community resource.  What is happening now is bad for everyone.  No one is happy, no one is going to “win” here.  I hope the meeting tonight is civil and productive.  I hope that all the folks who are so impassioned about the UFL this week can hold on to that passion and stay involved with the library, as regular users and supporters, as active Board members and guests, as Friends and frequent comment-card-filler-outers long after the chips have fallen, been swept up, and stacked back tidily.  I hope the Board, Director, and staff will be able to start to rebuild some camaraderie and trust, because their patrons will certainly know if they don’t.  I hope those of us paying attention will all take a step back and think about the ways we can apply the lessons learned in Urbana to our own communities, collections, and plans.  Karen likes to say that the library is the beating heart of the community, and I definitely felt that heart beat for the short time I lived in Champaign-Urbana.  

*If you’re new to the issue, start reading here, then here for more media outlet coverage links, and here.

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