November 16, 2017

Berkeley PL Director Resigns Amid Controversy

High school student Enrique Lopez, Berkeley City Council summer intern, reads his statement about the California Public Records Act Request to now former-library director Jeff Scott, at the “Librarygate” Save the Berkeley Public Library Books rally on the steps of the Central Library, August 12, 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: Pat Mullan

High schooler Enrique Lopez, Berkeley City Council summer intern, reads his statement about the California Public Records Act Request to now former library director Jeff Scott at the Berkeley “Librarygate” rally, August 12, 2015.
PHOTO CREDIT: Pat Mullan

In the wake of multiple controversies involving his staffing decisions, management style, weeding practices, and perceived levels of transparency and honesty, Berkeley Public Library (BPL) director Jeff Scott announced his resignation on Monday, August 31, after less than a year in the post.

Scott joined BPL in November 2014, having most recently served as county librarian in Tulare County, replacing former director Donna Corbeil after her October 3 retirement. One of his first acts as director was to initiate a deaccession plan for the Central Library organized around the Continuous Review Evaluation Weeding (CREW) process, which Scott outlined at a January Berkeley City Council meeting. He explained that most books were pulled for review and subject to discarding if they had not been checked out in three years; art and music books if they had not circulated in seven years; and large print if it had not been checked out in two years. Materials, grouped by Dewey Decimal category, were reviewed on an ongoing basis.

From the time of his arrival to the January meeting, BPL had reviewed and weeded the 500s (natural sciences), 600s (applied sciences), 300s (social sciences), and 700s (arts, music, and entertainment), with plans to review the rest of the collection through the end of the year. Deaccessioned items, Scott told the board, would then be offered to BPL’s Friends of the Library, online booksellers Better World Books, or DR3, a recycling company associated with the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Shops.

CENTRALIZED COLLECTION

In addition, as part of a new strategic plan, Scott reorganized the library’s collection development system, disbanding the existing team of some 25 subject specialist librarians who each contributed to the selection process and replacing it with a team of two managers, assisted by four librarians. “The information I had from the collection development team was that we had thought about doing centralization in the past,” Scott told LJ in August. “We had a consultant come in to do a review and that’s what they recommended as a staff-saving issue. In the February collection development meeting I announced wanting to centralize the collection development…. As far as I knew going forward there was conversation, we worked out a plan with the staff, and in April it seemed like everyone was pretty happy with that.”

While Scott cited the personnel decision as a way to reduce staff workloads, members of the library’s former collection development team were unhappy with the new arrangement, and expressed dismay to their peers and the local press that their concerns were not being heard or addressed. Librarians who had formerly been responsible for selection reportedly found themselves locked out of the ordering system once the decision had been made.

Some staffers, who wished to remain anonymous, reported an atmosphere of divisiveness and said they feared retaliation from library management for speaking out about their dissatisfaction. The board of library trustees approved new collection development policies in May. In a letter to the board dated May 28, 15 librarians requested that the board “postpone your approval of the new collection development policy and the new proposed collection development work assignments until a more robust, representative, and transparent conversation can be had.”

INSIDE CRITIQUE

Staff also reported that a large number of materials were being weeded at a rate they felt was inconsistent with the idea of careful review—as many as 5,000 books a month. Sources within the library claimed that some 20,000 books had been discarded between January and July.

The deaccession, Scott answered critics, was in line with BPL’s standard weeding practices, and was overdue. Although BPL has a strong reputation, he told LJ, “we rank 23rd in the state for circulation per capita and 27th in total circulation. So even though it’s high, it’s not the best. And I think that’s because we haven’t been maintaining the collection very well.” Weeding discussions had begun in October, he added, before he began his tenure as director.

In response to a July 14 Public Records Act request, Scott said the number was closer to 2,200 discarded books. At the time, Scott advised the press that records were not kept of books designated for potential weeding, nor of items sent to recyclers. Six library staff members and supporters had met with the board chair and Scott on July 1 to present their concerns. In addition to the staffing reorganization and the contested weeding numbers, Scott was taken to task for not offering the discarded books to the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library. “One wrinkle that came up in January and February was that the Friends could not use much of the items that were being weeded,” Scott explained in a July 8 statement to the Berkeley Daily Planet. “The person who ran the bookstore said in a Friends meeting that she…can’t sell books that are old or out of date either. As a result of that conversation, we have been sending books to the DR3 that meet these criteria.”

However, Diane Davenport, past president of the Friends who was also in attendance at the meeting, attested that Scott had not offered the weeded books to the Friends to begin with. Another former librarian at the meeting, Andrea Segall, who worked for BPL for 18 years as an art and music reference librarian, told LJ that Scott expressed distrust of the meeting’s attendees and was unhappy that his staff had gone to outside library supporters. She felt his responses at the meeting “were very divisive in nature,” she added.

DISCREPANCIES REVEALED

In mid-August, Scott released a statement to the press acknowledging that the initial numbers of weeded books provided to the public were incorrect. The discrepancies, he stated, were due to his misreading of lists generated by the library’s collection management software. He had believed that the number of materials marked as “withdrawn” reflected the books that had been reviewed and weeded. “I have since discovered that this information was misleading and inaccurate,” Scott continued. “I originally understood that weeded items had been marked withdrawn, leaving a record in the system. This week I discovered that the items are being deleted from the system instead of being marked as withdrawn.”

In fact, an accurate list revealed that 40,820 books had been deleted from the library’s records since November 2014, included 13,850 last copies—books for which there were no duplicates in the system.

Some believed that Scott knew the correct number weeks prior. According to Kriss Worthington, District 7 City Council member and a longtime BPL advocate, he met with Scott on July 27 in Scott’s office to discuss the discrepancies. Worthington told LJ that he was able to access library reports on Scott’s computer giving an accurate count of deaccessioned books. Scott was surprised at the number, Worthington reported, yet said he continued to cite the figure of 2,200 books until Worthington sent out a press release August 12 containing the accurate numbers.

In the same release, Scott noted, “What this list cannot tell us is why an item was deleted. An item is deleted for any number of reasons. It could be missing, damaged, lost, or withdrawn. It also does not include items that we have since replaced.” He added, “Historically, the total items deleted this year are consistent with items deleted in past few years. For instance, last year we deleted 53,681 from the collection.” Scott also said that he would work with staff on a new plan “to create a more transparent process that will make it easier to respond to inquiries with more accuracy.”

“LIBRARYGATE”

With hard copies of the new deaccession numbers in hand, library advocates began to voice concerns about Scott’s honesty. While he did not necessarily question Scott’s weeding decisions, Worthington told LJ, “My interest in this has more to do with the fact that he repeatedly distributed inaccurate information.” Worthington also noted that two separate Public Records Act requests from July regarding deaccession records and the correspondence between Scott and his staff had not been complied with. “In Berkeley, people are used to being consulted,” he said. “And even if they’re never going to agree…you at least give them the chance to have a conversation.”

Segall added, “He kept saying that people in the past hadn’t been doing any weeding and that’s why he needs to do this great weed. And now he’s saying that he deleted the same amount as was done in the past. How can both things be true?”

Local media picked up the story, dubbing it “Librarygate,” and a group of former BPL librarians and library allies organized to protest what they perceived as bad management practices. A website, Save Our Berkeley Public Library Books, was created to publicize the issue. The site provides links to press coverage; trustee email addresses; photographic evidence of boxes of books being discarded; an open letter signed by 13 former BPL staff members and their supporters; and a MoveOn.org petition demanding that the library board halt the “destruction of Berkeley’s library collection,” conduct an investigation, and suspend or fire Scott.

At a rally held on July 29, a crowd of roughly 30 gathered outside BPL’s Central Library. Pat Mullan, now retired, who worked for BPL for 25 years and served as head librarian of the Art and Music Room, wore a whistle around her neck in homage to staff whistleblowers. “Thousands and thousands of books have been tossed without the librarians’ input,” Mullan told the assembled crowd, according to the Contra Costa Times, referring to “threats of retaliation” reportedly made against library workers for publicly voicing their objections.

A second rally was held on August 12 on the steps of the Central Library, attended by some 70 people including Worthington and the retired librarians. A guerrilla theater performance portrayed the library director, played by comedian Marga Gomez, shoveling books into a wheelbarrow before a cast of “stunt double librarians” with tape over their mouths. Attendees were asked to gather again at the main library to speak at a specially called board meeting on August 27.

CULTURE CLASH

At the session, convened by board chair Abigail Franklin to discuss Scott’s performance evaluation, some 40 community members spoke up as Scott steadily took notes. Several speakers mentioned what they described as a hostile work environment at BPL, including charges of racism. Children’s librarian Armin Arethna read a letter from 35 staff members, only 22 of whom were willing to sign their names, describing a July 16 meeting with Scott to discuss concerns that were never addressed afterward.

Debbie Carton, a shop steward in SEIU Local 1021 and a BPL librarian for 26 years, described an incident where a $4,000 order that she submitted with colleague Tom Dufour was deleted from the system—“in an attempt to discredit us as not having done our work,” she said. In addition, Carton told the panel, she claimed that her responsibility for ordering the library’s classical CDs had been revoked in retaliation, after her request to review art books pulled for weeding had been denied.

Many called for an independent investigation into the situation. The MoveOn.org petition, bearing nearly 1,000 signatures, was presented to the board. Genevieve Wilson, chair of the Berkeley Homeless Task Force, was the single community member to speak in Scott’s favor, citing his concern for the Berkeley homeless, which including writing a grant for a local shelter. “I hope there can be a way through this,” said Wilson, “and that collegiality and collaboration can be attained.”

Much of the testimony invoked perceptions of culture clash between Scott and the Berkeley community. Although he spent most of his career in California, many of those who spoke at the board meeting made it clear that they saw him as an outsider. Some speakers said they believed Scott didn’t understand his constituency—what one referred to as “one of the most intellectual and culturally diverse communities in the world”—and that his management of BPL reflected his adherence to a “toxic branch of anti-intellectual library science.” One speaker asked if he was part of “our local chapter of ISIS.”

Another speaker said that she understood that it was a “trend across the country” to cull books, but added, “The Berkeley Library should be different.”

“If anybody dared to put a Walmart in Berkeley people would freak out, and it’s kind of like that for the library,” Segall told LJ in August. “There’s going to be a lot of resistance.” She added, “It’s a very outspoken community.” In 2006, BPL director Jackie Griffin resigned after a five-year tenure after ongoing complaints from employees about her leadership.

Scott’s resignation will be effective September 8. The Library Board of Trustees will begin a search to fill his position, with acting deputy director Sarah Dentan serving as acting director in the interim. Scott still plans to run for the presidency of the California Library Association.

“Unfortunately, due to the current political climate and the constant media coverage, this has created such a distraction from the library and its mission that I have decided to step down as Director,” Scott wrote LJ. He added, “I am proud of the work that we accomplished during my time at Berkeley Public Library. It was an honor to have worked there and I wish them the best.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

Share
What is Design Thinking?
From space planning, redesigning services and staffing, to developing more user-centric approaches, design thinking can help you problem-solve through ingenuity and creativity, and better understand and serve your patrons. Our introductory online workshop, Demystifying Design Thinking is designed for library professionals who want to take a fresh approach to tackling their library’s challenges through human-centered design.

Comments

  1. Debbie Carton says:

    If you are reading this because you are considering applying for the director position here, you should know that Berkeley Public Library is a fantastic opportunity for the right kind of library director. We have a dedicated tax base that ensures a healthy budget, all new buildings, a Foundation that raises millions per year, a generous and committed Friends of the Library who provide $100,000/yr in program support, and a staff in place dedicated to making this the best public library for this community. The main thing that you need to understand is that Berkeley is a highly political place where the people will tell what they want. They don’t want our vision, your vision or ALA’s vision of “best practices” imposed upon them. This is a super educated community that values diversity in all forms; our patrons expect materials and programs that other public libraries might find overly challenging. As staff, we respond to our community’s needs and desires- after all, they’re paying for it.

    • Knicker Bocker says:

      Super educated they are not if they think that weeding the library is a bad thing. They want books on shelves for the sake of having books on shelves, not that they are actually needed but because that’s what they think the library should do. It’s a travesty to say that they are highly educated when they will not consider facts that are contrary to their world view. Highly opinionated and highly entitled is more like it.

    • Cardboard Box says:

      Ms. Carton is a representative of the old guard who thinks only she and her cohort know what Berkeley Public Library users want. The “Save our library group” are using the same tactics they used years ago to drive out a previous director (http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2006/05/ljarchives/more-turbulence-in-berkeley-board-defends-library/) this time under the guise of a “weeding controversy”. Not only that, her group brought in a City Council member who receives sizable campaign contributions from Ms. Carton’s union, SEIU, to embark on a politically motivated witch hunt and go directly at City employees AKA “library managers”. Isn’t it kind of just basic decency to not carry out personal vendettas against people you don’t like so publicly? Also a bad precedent to offer up the Library as a political football?

      Too bad Library Journal didn’t dig a little deeper into this story, starting with looking at it’s own archives.

  2. SpongeBob Librarypants says:

    While I have no inside or immediate knowledge of this situation, some of this sounds like the inmates taking over the asylum. Directors and administrators are hired for their supposed or perceived abilities to correctly run a library. You don’t hire a director then turn around and thrown him or her under the bus at the first complaint from a patron or staff. I am not saying this gentleman was in no way at fault. I don’t know. I am saying that there are two sides to every story and Berkeley sounds like one tough place to be a successful library director, between the public second-guessing your every move and the staff wanting to do their own thing.

  3. Andrea Segall says:

    Dear editors of Library Journal,
    Why do you allow “SpongeBob Librarypants” to make an anonymous, reckless, uninformed statement about the situation? Would he dare to insult the talented, dedicated, and respected librarians at Berkeley Public Library if he had to sign his name? By allowing him anonymity, are you protecting him from being fired from his job? I doubt it. His comments really lower the level of discourse.

    • Cardboard Box says:

      Ms. Segall, it is arrogant in the extreme for you and the s”ave our library group” assert yourselves arbiters of what should and shouldn’t be done at the library, for example what should be weeded and what should not. Should every last book be run by you and your group? Or perhaps the weeding candidates list should be put before the Berkeley voters every few years, and left untouched until the results are in. Follwing your logic, your group or some other should be appointed to review selection of materials as well, and libraries should be stripped of their neutrality and put in the hands of whatever citizens group yells the loudest. It sounds Orwellian.

      Those librarians who happen to be managers are librarians too, yet just stick the title “manager” in front of their name, and it seems the save our library group thinks this gives them license to go after individuals. Did you ever face such threats?

      Re: Anonymity: Apparently your old friend John Berry agrees that even us anonymous folks have a right to free speech. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2015/09/opinion/john-berry/the-need-to-be-anonymous-empowering-and-liberating-free-expression-blatant-berry/

      Free speech isn’t just for those who yell the loudest or who have the protection of a well funded union behind them.

    • anonymous coward says:

      Cardboard Box is SOOOO right here. The actions of Andrea Segall and her group are antithetical to public librarianship. One wonders why she hasn’t been hired on as director of said library, since she obviously knows how to run a system better than 2 other directors…

  4. Tanya grove says:

    Knicker bocker is responding to what s/he assumes is true without bothering to find out the facts, which are that Berkeleyans are indeed an educated group as a whole (though of course not every single resident is) and that library patrons who took part in the protest were fully aware that culling is a necessary process. But the manner in which books were whisked away without review by the staff and pulped (not offered to the Friends of the Library as was claimed) was the true “travesty,” rather than the mistaken notion that we are merely opinionated loudmouths who want books on the shelves for the sake of having them there (which makes no sense, by the way).

  5. Ginger Trow says:

    Lack of communication with, and failure to fully understand your user community and staff dynamics seem to be the key management missteps here. This is a very sensitive issue and an area fraught with potential problems to begin with. It needs to approached deliberately and with understanding of potential outcomes–good and bad. And I’ve seen “weeding” lead to trouble elsewhere if not handled well.

  6. “Another speaker said that she understood that it was a “trend across the country” to cull books, but added, “The Berkeley Library should be different.”’

    It is not a “trend.” Libraries have been deaccessioning outdated, unwanted, unused, no longer relevant, and downright erroneous materials since the beginning of libraries. Public libraries are not warehouses for unused and unneeded books. When a collection has not been properly maintained, more books may be culled when weeding begins. A general rule of thumb is that you will weed about 5% of the collection each year. Do the people complaining not ever throw out any outdated clothing from their closets?

  7. David Young says:

    The story says, “We had a consultant come in to do a review and that’s what they recommended as a staff-saving issue.”

    There are uncanny similarities between LibraryGate at the Berkeley Public Library and BookGate at the Urbana Free Library (Urbana, Illinois), including the influence of a consultant (Urbana’s consultant was named Sandra Nelson—who was Berkeley’s?), a hurried weed that was ordered by the director against the professional judgment of the librarians, a rush to get the books off the premises (they were sent to Better World Books), and the director’s inability to answer basic questions about what was going on.

    • Centralization says:

      The consultant recommendation was for the centralized collection development, not the weeding. The deleted record numbers for weeding are consistent with previous years, so the weed is not larger than usual. The difference is who is doing the weeding. (Centralization took effect in May.)

      The real issue here is the centralization of collection development.

  8. Sounds like a nightmare of a place! So glad that this isn’t the library that serves my community. 1) Can the librarians show that the way they have always selected and deselected materials is beneficial to the community? It appears that the collection was in bad need of weeding. It is really harmful to a library to have OSOS (old “stuff” on shelves) as it says to people that the library doesn’t have anything relevant to offer me. 2) Is this a matter of librarians trying to keep things from changing, meanwhile holding a whole community hostage? I think some people needed to be let go as there is a difference between whistleblowing and insubordination. Ugh! This gives public libraries a bad name.