One for the books: citizens’ reporting creates collection detailing a controversy

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John Paul Goguen with his iPhone streaming video during a special board meeting of the Urbana Free Library on Tuesday, August 27, 2013. photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Journalism into Agribusiness

In the wake of the controversial weeding of books from the Urbana Free Library, wanted to highlight the citizen research and social media that helped track and monitor the issue.

Since the controversy arose in June, the library board has sought early separation with Director Deb Lissak, 259 boxes of books were returned to the library from Better World Books, and more than 2,000 books have reappeared on the shelves.

By Janelle O’Dea/ — The research into “bookgate” began with John Paul Goguen, who works at the University Library at the University of Illinois.

“I heard that all of these books (at the Urbana Free Library) were missing so I went to the library and took some pictures on my phone and posted them on Facebook,” Goguen said.

“I digitize books (for the University), ironically,” Goguen added.

Goguen alerted alternative newspaper Smile Politely reporter Tracy Nectoux about the weeding – the same day, Nectoux had also heard  of the situation through an Urbana Free Library employee. Using Google Drive to exchange information with Goguen, Nectoux wrote an article explaining that thousands of books at the Free Library had been removed using one of seven removal criteria (see page 5) and sent to Better World Books. Google Drive allows users to store and share information online.

It turned out that new part-time employees, directed by library director Deb Lissak, carried out the removal. All titles published before 2003 were tagged for removal to make way for new books.

After his initial Facebook posting and the conversation it sparked, Goguen decided to get more involved.

He went to the next library board meeting with a recorder. He said the meeting’s events confused him as well as many of the citizens present at the meeting. Over and over people asked how many books were gone, Goguen said, but the board continued to answer the question indefinitely, saying “we don’t know.”

With the help of some library school friends, he posted his own notes, along with the board meeting’s transcript and a short timeline of events on separate Google Drive documents. After posting the information from the board meeting, Goguen began archiving all of the news articles written about the weeding process.

As the issue emerged, an associate professor and assistant professor at the University of Illinois also began collecting documents and posting them on the Google Drive timeline.

Carol Tilley, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and Kathryn La Barre, an associate professor at the School, read the Smile Politely article and looked at Goguen’s work. They then worked together to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain years of past meeting notes and board agenda from Urbana Free Library Board.

Tilley coined the term “bookgate” for the weeding.

Currently the Google Drive documents contain more than 20 pages of news articles, library board minutes and agendas, and other materials that provide historical context and show how digital tools, social media and the hard work of individuals can expose an issue.

Tilley, La Barre and Goguen emphasized in email interviews they were not the only three who are interested in what happened at the Urbana Free Library.

“Dozens of locals attended both the June and July board meetings,” Tilley said in an email interview. “More than a hundred folks are making use of social networking to stay in touch and share information about these issues, and a sizable number of folks worked a table at a recent Urbana Market and handed out flyers to publicize our concerns.”

The public can visit Reclaiming Our Library: Toward a Stronger Urbana Free Library, access and add to the Google Drive documents and search for #bookgate on Twitter to keep tabs on the situation.


Synopsis of #bookgate

Below is a summary of what happened from a timeline created by three citizen researchers and from articles in the News-Gazette.

During the week of June 3, library Director Deb Lissak created an Excel spreadsheet of the nonfiction collection. All titles published in 2003 or before were marked for removal to make room for new books. Staff were told, “no one wanted to use old books,” according to statements from the Adult Services Staff at the June 11 Library Board meeting.

Anne Phillips, head of Adult Services, returned from a three-week vacation to find a large part of the collection she oversees had vanished. 12 part-time staff members, hired two weeks before the weeding began, had removed the books. The 12 part-timers were originally hired to help with a different project.

Staff was instructed to look over the removal list and mark books they wanted to keep. Staff knew the weeding needed to happen rapidly; they were given the impression that the idea was to buy new books and fill in any holes they created. If mistakes were made, they could be replaced, employees were told.

Library employees expressed at the June 11 meeting they did not have enough time to properly look through the lists; helping patrons or other duties kept them from giving the list as much attention as they would have liked. Some books, like pet or gardening books, require a certain level of knowledge to determine which books should be removed. The staff members with those levels of knowledge on those subjects did not necessarily have ample opportunities to look over the lists.

Since the weeding, 259 boxes of books have been returned to the library containing more than 2,000 books. According to a July 9 article in the News-Gazette, the Urbana Free Library Board decided to seek early separation with Lissak. Library Board President Chris Scherer said the library and Lissak are still figuring out the details and legal terms of her separation.

The timeline created by Goguen, Tilley and La Barre shows not only the events in the actual weeding itself, but also how decisions dating back to 2007 led up to the weeding. It contains media reports about the weeding; resources about library trustees; discussions/documentation about the library space plan; questions asked by the public at the emergency Board meeting; initial figures from FOIA documents; links to FOIA documents and a bibliography done by the timeline’s creators.

June 8-9 – Removal of books begins with non-fiction collection

June 13 – Smile Politely breaks story

June 19 – Emergency Library Board meeting to discuss weeding

June 21 – Google Doc that is now timeline is created

July 9 – Urbana Free Library Board announces it will seek early separation with Deb Lissak

August 18 – News-Gazette reports more than 2,000 books return to shelves

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