Urbana Free Library executive director to leave after book weeding scandal

The Urbana Free Library will now be looking for a new executive director. Tuesday’s board of trustees meeting ended with President Chris Scherer announcing that the board came to an early separation agreement with current executive director Debra Lissak.

Scherer said Lissak’s end date will be figured out in the next couple weeks as the trustees search for an interim director.

This early separation agreement comes after last month’s special board meeting when dozens of Urbana residents spoke to the board about their disagreement with the rapid and extensive book weeding that happened in the nonfiction section of the library in early June. Carol Inskeep, an employee of adult services, said 9,600 books were weeded from nonfiction in a matter of four days.

After the objection of the Urbana community, the library contacted Better World Books, a retailer where the weeded books were sent, to see if they could return as many books as possible. Lissak said at the board meeting that 259 boxes were returned, but the library does not know how many of the original books this is because it is not known how many boxes were sent out.

Scherer said the books that were returned will be weeded with the usual UFL standards. Books that are chosen to be weeded out will be given to Friends of the Library for a book sale.

Community members asked for Lissak’s resignation or replacement at the special meeting last month and a “lack of leadership” was discussed during public comment at Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“We have a crisis of leadership at this beloved institution,” said Laura Haber, Urbana resident. “Although the director has made plenty of positive contributions to the library, she has been isolated from the public, from the collection and from much of the staff. The director has had power without accountability.”

Haber then went on to talk about how because the public scrutiny of the weeding of the nonfiction section, that she has been more concerned with protecting herself than listening to her staff or the public.

“You can’t manage a public library without talking to the public,” she said. “The public is not an obstacle to be overcome. It is who you are serving.” 

Inskeep described the experience of being on the staff told to weed the nonfiction section.

“There was a great deal of pressure to weed quickly and deeply,” Inskeep said.

Inskeep cited Lissak’s lack of responsibility for the weeding. Inskeep pointed to a quote — “being OK with what happened,” which she said Lissak said at last month’s regular board meeting. She also pointed out a quote from a Chicago Sun-Times article, “they should have used normal professional judgement,” saying that she was essentially blaming the staff for what happened. 

Another thing that many members of the Urbana community addressed was the library’s strategic plan that led to the vast weeding of the nonfiction section.

“It is neither strategic, nor planned,” said Carol Tilley, Urbana resident.

Scherer said in response to this that the board decided to make the library’s plan open to public scrutiny and suggestions but is not being officially “reopened.”

Due to public complaint at the special board meeting last month, Scherer also said that the library is working on getting live broadcasting of the monthly board meeting on UPTV, Champaign-Urbana’s public television that broadcasts local events and meetings.

Kat can be reached kboehl2@dailyillini.com.

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