Thursday, July 23, 2015

New Challenges at the Urbana Free Library: A Statement by Employee Elisabeth Paulus

It's been a while since we've posted anything here: we hoped there wouldn't be a need. In the past year, though, concerns about Urbana Free Library staffing and management have grown. Since at least April, staff members have been present at monthly trustees' meetings in increasing numbers both for solidarity and to make their concerns known. 

Over the next couple of weeks, this blog will highlight some of the ongoing challenges at the Library. Today, though, we'll start with the text of a public statement, made at the July 21 trustees' meeting, by library employee Elisabeth Paulus.

"At our most recent circulation [circ] department meeting, Dawn, the head of circ, informed us that Celeste [Choate], our director, is asking for us to provide her with some highlights of the last year in our department so that she can present them to the Board. 
And we laughed. We laughed because in the last year, our hours in circ have been cut so dramatically that we cannot do our jobs to the best of our ability. And morale is so low at circ that 3 part-time clerks, with more than 20 years experience between them, have resigned. Their positions were not replaced.
Instead, 4 hourly clerks have been hired at circ. The problem with that is that hourly clerks don’t open the library like part-time clerks do, they don’t close the library, they don’t work at the information desk, which is staffed solely by circ clerks, they don’t make non-resident cards, they don’t work on as many special projects.  They can’t work enough hours to take on all those extra responsibilities that half-time staff are expected to take on.
Circ has anywhere from 3-5 clerks working on the first floor every minute the library is open. Clerks call in sick, or schedule vacation. And someone must fill those hours. But our director has informed us that her goal is to cut all part-time staff to only 20 hours a week without the ability to pick up hours. We aren’t allowed to pick up all the open shifts, and instead are forced to work short staffed. 
Our director says that the budget only allows for hourly staff to pick up hours, but none of our previous directors have made this distinction. And hourly clerks can’t run the department alone, can’t perform every task that circulation performs, which is so much more than just checking items in and out. Circ staff has expressed concern that our customer service is declining and workflow is backing up, with longer wait times for patrons in line and on the phone, and an increase in errors. I personally have expressed this concern to my department head, who has said she understands and has tried to speak to our director about this issue. I’ve spoken with our director about it. She has said numerous times that she doesn’t mind if patrons have to wait in line longer. We mind. And the patrons mind. 
Our director, when addressing the library’s financial concerns with us, says she can’t help but notice that staff salaries are the largest portion of our budget. And she has targeted part-time staff using a myriad of excuses…like the Affordable Health Care Act, which requires only that we provide a health plan that is affordable to our full-time staff. We already do. This isn’t an issue unless there is a plan to increase the cost of our health care. If part-time staff average more than 30 hours a week, we are considered full-time according to this act, but our health care is prorated with the more hours we work. And that makes our health care affordable, unless, again, there is a plan to change this policy, there is no reason to use the Affordable Health Care Act as an excuse to limit part-time staff. 
What our director does not address is that administration makes much more than any department. In fact, according to the budget approved by the Board at the June 25th meeting, the average annual salary for the executive and associate directors and the permanent dept heads is over $77,500. While it is budgeted to give the average circulation employee almost $13,500 a year. 
My point is this:  the circulation department, specifically part-time staff, is being singled out to bear the brunt of the library’s financial burdens. Just because patrons are using the new methods of check out that we have available, doesn’t mean that circ clerks have lost our value to this library. In fact, we have been given more responsibility, with half-time clerks working at the information desks on every floor of the library. Not to mention, that a circ clerk is the one who signs you up for your library card, explains the opportunities the library holds for you, answers your questions. We are the first face you see when you walk into the library, the first voice you hear when you call. We unlock the doors of the building each morning and announce the all-clear each night. 
And we are being forced out of this library. We are being forced to give poor service. We want to know that you value us, that you care. We want you to fight for us. But don’t ask for any highlights of the last year. There weren’t any. Not for us."

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Messages from Urbana Free Library's new executive director

The blog has been quiet in recent months, but I wanted to step in for a moment with a couple of messages from Celeste Choate, who joined Urbana Free Library as executive director in April.

The first is an excerpt of an interview with Choate conducted by Sean Powers of Illinois Public Media. In it, Choate addresses a portion of the concerns that lead to last summer's #Bookgate controversies. You can listen to the excerpt here:

The second is a note from Choate to Urbana Free Library patrons and others in the community that is posted on the Library's website:

If you haven't had a chance to meet Choate yet, I hope you'll take her up on her offer. I had lunch with her last week and look forward to what seems to be a new era of transparency and responsiveness in the Library's administration. I'm eager to hear what staff and other patrons think so far.

Have you met Choate? If so, what were your impressions?


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Public Receptions for Executive Director Candidates

The following dates and times have been set aside for receptions and remarks from three candidates for the Executive Director position.

According to a News-Gazette article
"Library Board President Chris Scherer said the decision to hold public sessions with the three finalists was made to add transparency to the process. This will be residents' opportunity to give their input, he said."
There seems to be limited time for Q&A at the 'receptions,' but get out there and ask them anyway! For instance, how will the candidates

  • address staff concerns that existed before #bookgate but have persisted (and in some instances, been amplified)?
  • regain and enhance public trust?
  • improve transparency in administration?
  • include staff and community meaningfully in strategic planning?
  • bridge the digital / app / device / access divide in the community?

There's also a newly scheduled 'special' meeting of the Board of Trustees on Monday, February 3, at 3:15 pm in the Satterthwaite Conference Room (UFL basement) with two items on the agenda: public comment and a closed session for personnel matters. [Nb. We've since learned that the closed session is for the Board to interview the director candidate.] Perhaps use the public comment time to remind the Board what the community values / wants in an executive director.


The text of the official press release from Urbana Free Library follows.

Public Receptions for Urbana Free Library Director Candidates

The Urbana Free Library Board of Trustees and the Search Committee for the Executive Director have announced that three candidates are selected as finalists in the national search and will be visiting The Urbana Free Library for on-site interviews in February.  The public is invited to meet each candidate at a scheduled reception.  All three public receptions will take place from 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm in the MacFarlane-Hood Reading Room on the library’s main floor, and each candidate will make brief remarks at 5:00 pm.

The reception on Monday, February 3 will introduce finalist Celeste Choate, currently the Associate Director of Ann Arbor District Library in Michigan. The public may meet finalist Sarah Rosenblum, who is currently employed as Library Director for Marshalltown Public Library in Iowa, at the reception scheduled for Friday, February 7. The reception on Monday, February 10 will introduce finalist Debra Stombres, currently employed as the Branch Coordinator for the Aurora Public Library Eola Road Branch in Illinois.

More information may be found on the library’s website at

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Prelude to Tonight's Board of Trustees Meeting

Tonight's meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Lewis Auditorium, and as we have for the past four months, we'll be sharing the meeting via a video livestream and through Twitter (you can view the feed on this blog's front page).

The agenda and documents are available online, but in short, the Trustees will be voting on collection policy documents and discussing more about the search for a new executive director (you'll find a draft of the job description at that last link).

In the Department Reports, we learned from Interim Head of Adult Services Mary Towner that the Library sent approximately 8,566 books to Better World Books early this summer. Of these, 2810 were added back to the collection and a nearly equivalent number were officially weeded. Although the bulk of the art and religion collections are now intact, Towner notes that approximately 3,000 volumes were not returned or are otherwise unaccounted for.

The community is still watching what goes on at the Library vigilantly. For instance, on a neighborhood association e-mail list last week, a resident posted about what seemed to be another weeding project. Towner posted a thoughtful blog entry discussing what was really happening - students from GSLIS were undertaking a preliminary evaluation of a portion of the collection - and that librarians from adult services were supervising.

Stay tuned for updates, but we here at Reclaiming Our Library hope to see many local residents come to tonight's meeting (and next month's meeting and the one after that...)

As a parting note, may we all have as much desire to be involved in our communities as this 12-year old Dallas boy, profiled recently in the Washington Post blog. Take a watch!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Hunt for a New Director

At the September 10 meeting, the Trustees announced that Bob Burger - a retired University of Illinois librarian - would helm the search committee for the Urbana Free Library's new executive director and that the process would proceed, as President Scherer noted, with "all due haste."

Following that announcement, a lively and chaotic discussion ensued in which the Trustees wrangled with logistics: who would appoint the other members of the committee? to whom is the search committee accountable? what will the committee use as criteria for evaluating candidates? The answers to most of those questions seemed to reside in the person of Bob Burger. It is he, the Trustees concluded, who will appoint the committee, determine its direction, and develop evaluative criteria.

What seemed most clear from this discussion is that the Trustees don't understand the search process.

In looking back at the Board minutes from the last director search in 2006, the process worked much differently.

For instance, here's what the minutes from May 2006 state,
Kate McDowell passed out for review a new time line for hiring a new Executive Director. She also passed out the job description and the job advertisement and revised them on her laptop computer as Board members and staff made suggestions. The Board discussed a number of points, including the best way to present the salary range, whether specific details should be in the job description or a job contract, and whether specific job expectations and experiences should be required or preferred.  
The Board also discussed where and when to advertise, who should be on the search committee and advisory committee, and who should meet the top candidates. 
It was moved by Charlie Smyth, seconded by William Golden, and passed unanimously that Jane Williams and Kate McDowell co-chair the search committee. The Board will discuss at the next meeting who else should be a part of the search committee. Kate mentioned that the search committee will have two main tasks, the initial screening of candidates, followed by selecting and interviewing candidates to be interviewed in Urbana.
In this scenario - even before a committee was appointed - there was a sense of process and a concrete job description.

Here's a little more from August 2006.
Kate McDowell presented several items to the Board for their consideration.
It was moved by Jane Williams, seconded by Charlie Smyth, and passed unanimously that the Director Interview Template be approved as presented.  
It was moved by Charlie Smyth, seconded by Barbara Gillespie, and passed unanimously that the Director Hiring Process Timeline be approved as modified.

It was moved by Charlie Smyth, seconded by Jane Williams, and passed unanimously that the Search Committee should consist of Kate McDowell, James Quisenberry, Jane Williams, one other Board member, a member of the staff, and a member from the Foundation. The Search Committee will screen applications and conduct the phone interviews. The whole Board will take part in the interviews which involve bringing in candidates. It is anticipated that six to seven people will be interviewed by phone, and the top two or three candidates will be interviewed in person.  
It was moved by Charlie Smyth, seconded by Chris Scherer, and passed unanimously that the letter asking for staff input be sent out to staff as modified. 
We learn, thus, that the composition of the search committee - determined by the Board - and that there was an interview template.

Several of the current Trustees (Mel Farrell, Jane Williams, Chris Scherer) were also Trustees in 2006, so surely there is some institutional memory that can serve as a starting point. For whatever reason, it was Farrell who seemed insistent on giving power to Burger.

I'm certain more will be revealed in the next few weeks, but at the moment I am concerned that the Trustees are abdicating their responsibilities by investing an individual external to the Board with so much authority. Certainly I hope that there will be opportunities for people outside of the Library's administration who can provide input on hiring, but it would be unfortunate if in their haste to hire a new director, the Trustees don't proceed with purpose and direction.

Notes from Trustees Meeting (10 September)

Last night's meeting was relatively brief - a little less than an hour - but it was packed with information. In fact, it seemed the public learned more from the trustees and staff at Urbana Free Library about the ongoing issues related to #bookgate in last night's meeting than in any other forum to date.

Notably the trustees described the terms negotiated for former director Lissak's terminal contract and some general details about how the search for a new permanent director will proceed.

We learned too from acting head of adult services Mary Towner that 297 boxes of books were probably shipped to Better World Books (BWB) during June. Towner spent 45 minutes on the phone with BWB, but that would have been unnecessary if the employee who has access to the Library's BWB account would simply provide access to it. So it seems that among the ranks of the Library's staff, partisanship and allegiances continue to hold sway.

Another takeaway from the meeting is that the trustees might need refresher courses in Robert's Rules of Order, their own by-laws, and the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Much of the confusion focused on two issues: how to change the meeting time for the regular board meetings and on the chain of command for the search committee (e.g. who chooses who serves on it - the appointed head of the committee or the Trustees).

You can read a brief article about the meeting in the News-Gazette, but be sure to check out some notes provided by Kathryn La Barre who attended the meeting. There is also a recording available of the meeting courtesy of JP Goguen, but the sound quality is hit and miss.

Monday, September 9, 2013

With Friends Like These...

Allow me to call your attention to a brief announcement in the September 2013 Director's Report.
"The August 22-26 book sale raised $7,147. The sale included items from the library collection from the Better World Books shipment that were not returned to the collection after careful re-evaluation by the Adult Services librarians. According to the Friends, of the 145 boxes of books offered to the Friends for the sale, a total of three boxes of books were selected by the public."
Dear Reader, I attended this book sale on Saturday, August 24. Full disclosure: I bought a handful of books that had been returned from Better World Books and not added back to the collection. 

Most of the books that filled the Lewis Auditorium were donations, not discarded library books. The paperback mystery selections—no library copies among them—were lovingly attended and groomed by a circulating clutch of Friends. The romance and fantasy paperbacks were also tenderly tended. 

The Library's former books? The ones at the heart of #bookgate? They were partitioned off in two small rooms, still in boxes, difficult to browse. A few other boxes, even more jumbled, were shoved into a corner of the large room. There were signs pointing the curious to "Former Library Books."

I didn't count the boxes - adorned with the Better World Books logos on their sides - but I would be surprised if there were more than 50 available all told. 

Where were the other 100 boxes? I have no idea. Some were stacked up in the back hallway. A Reclaiming traveler said when s/he inquired about them, s/he was told the boxes contained "crap fiction" that no one would want.

Perhaps, just maybe, the Friends could have sold more than 3 boxes of the returned books if they lovingly groomed and curated even a small portion of them in the same way they did the rows of James Patterson, Sue Grafton, and Lillian Braun.

Of course, the Friends didn't want any of the returned library books to sell, period. As one of the Friends stated during public comment at the June 19 Special Meeting of the Library's Board (you can listen at about 01:26:00 mark in this recording), no one wants to buy old library books anyway. We were told to trust the Friends, that they know better than even the librarians what the community wants to read.

With Friends like these, who needs enemies?