A kind but annoyed reader informed me about this story. I haven’t noticed the ALA pick it up and complain about the lack of due process, but I could have just missed it. They probably don’t care anyway. After all, as they note from time to time, it’s the American Library Association, not the American Librarian Association. So the Annoyed Librarian Association will have to do for now.
Patty Wanninger, the former director of the Manitowoc Public Library, is suing the library Board of Trustees to get reinstated and her back wages. (That’s Mantiowoc County, Wisconsin, by the way. Has anyone but me noticed that the news websites most places just assume you know where the hell they are? Would it be too much of a waste of page space to put "Wisconsin" somewhere on the page? Would it?) Anyway, being a public library director seems a hazardous job, what with having to deal with the library boards. I’ve heard from another once who finally resigned in disgust at the corruption and cronyism going on at her library. This librarian was definitely fired, but nobody seems to know why. Perhaps some of you do.
She claims after being hired she let the library board know about various problems in the library. She "says the board was overly sensitive to her criticism of the library — including contentions of poor communication, customer service and technology, as well as library system flaws." Sound familiar? Based on the article,Wanninger seems very forthright. Perhaps she was insufficiently deferential to her betters and they didn’t like it that she was so uppity.
Wanninger doesn’t sound too critical of the staff. "’The library is a fabulous asset to the city of Manitowoc, and the people who work there are devoted public servants,’ [she] said. ‘They do a good job every day, and they try really hard. I don’t know what the hell happened.’" Thus, the communication problem seems to be with the library board.
There’s not much evidence that this library board likes to communicate, so there may be some truth in her claims. The board posted a notice that they would have a meeting two days later, but didn’t mention that at the meeting they’d be discussing firing the library director. At the meeting they went into closed session and had a discussion but neglected to take any minutes. Then they opened the session and had the vote.Wanninger accuses them of having the vote in the closed session, which is apparently illegal. They deny it, saying they’ve been around long enough to know that they can’t vote in closed session.
As one of the commenters points out, they apparently haven’t been around long enough to know you shouldn’t have meetings without taking minutes. The board claims they didn’t take minutes because their secretary was absent that night. The poor dears couldn’t lift a pen or type on a keyboard lest they soil their pristine hands. From the story: "The only document the library has from that meeting was provided to theHTR by interim director Carol Gibson. A handwritten note at the bottom of what Gibson called a ‘cheat sheet for going into closed session’ reads:’"Motion made by Chris (Able) that the (library board) discontinue its relationship with the (library) director.’ The motion was seconded by BobVollendorf ." Discontinue its relationship with the director? On second thought, anybody who writes like that probably shouldn’t be allowed to take minutes. To write "discontinue its relationship with" instead of "fire" should be an exit visa from the human race.
It’s tempting to think that the library board was just being especially deceptive and morally dubious on this occasion. However, a commenter notes: "Check out the website. The Board has a secretary. The board hasn’t posted minutes for 1 1/2 years. Not too keen on access to public records. Where are the bylaws for this Board? Maybe someone should look into how this board is being operated." Maybe someone should, indeed, though I think we all know no one will.
After all, this library has apparently had a lot of turnover recently, and nobody’s bothered to investigate whether the problem is that the library board is a group of incompetent moral degenerates. (I’m not saying they are, I’m just saying nobody’s asked the question). Check out this comment: "The Manitowoc Public Library has had a huge turnover in their professional library management staff. Rumor has it that almost all resigned of their own free will for jobs with less pay and less benefits prior to the actual departure of former library director Alan Engelbert….From 2005 and on, the following full-time librarians left theManitowoc Public Library: Patty Dwyer Wanninger, Alan Engelbert, Hallie Yundt Silver, Dale Gort, Lisa Bruere, Kathy Schmidt, Amy Healy, Hazel Daklke, and Brian Simons ." The specificity of this makes it sound plausible, though perhaps it’s wrong. Still, that does seem to be a lot of turnover if there aren’t major problems in the library.
From the article, it sounds like Wanninger wanted to come in and solve those problems, but the board would rather just hush them up. Come to think of it, just ignoring problems is much easier than trying to solve any, so the board is only taking the most efficient action. They should trumpet that efficiency at a board meeting. In fact, the most efficient thing to do would be not meet at all, though the article notes they’ll be meeting this week to discuss filling the director position. Maybe they’ll learn how to take minutes and post them in a timely manner to make their discussion and decisions more transparent. Oh wait, only competent people want to do that. Incompetent people want to hide their actions.
So what gives here? My correspondent implied that all sorts of bad things like this happen in public libraries all over the country, and that academic librarians just don’t understand how bad it is. It’s true, we’re all in our ivory towers sipping tea and reading the New York Times Book Review and getting shoulder massages from the student workers, but that’s not to say we don’t care about the well being of those of you out there who have to work for a living. Thinking of all these dysfunctional public libraries run by incompetent, secretive library boards humiliating and mistreating the librarians somewhat inspired the title of the post. If you haven’t read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, then you should. It’s one of several important books that are hard to finish without concluding that communists are a bunch of soulless, evil gits. In that book he describes the system of Soviet gulags that were so secret nobody knew about them except the prisoners who were sent there to labor often unto death. I’m not saying public libraries are like forced labor camps for librarians, though they might be. I’ll let my more informed readers comment on that.
The furtiveness of this library board reminded me of the opening of The Gulag Archipelago, which concerns his arrest.
"If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm?
But the darkened mind is incapable of embracing these displacements in our universe, and both the most sophisticated and the veriest simpleton among us, drawing on all life’s experience, can gasp out only: ‘Me? What for?’
And this is a question which, though repeated millions and millions of times before, has yet to receive an answer."
Is firing arrest? No. Is Wanninger Solzhenitsyn? Certainly not, and I’m not trying to elevate her or trivialize him. But something about this event reminded me of that opening moment. Why has she been fired? That question has yet to receive an answer.
It also seemed appropriate because I purchased my copy of The Gulag Archipelago at my local public library’s book sale many years ago. Maybe they were selling it because it reminded the librarians too much of their own fate.