KEVIN LEININGER: Public’s passion should help library benefit from change, not avoid it

Greta Southard, director of the Allen County Public Library, says lack of reliable data has contributed to concerns about "weeding" the library's collection. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
There's nothing new about removing books from the shelves. Old titles are regularly sold, with proceeds going to the Friends of the Library. Others are donated to local groups. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Kevin Leininger

As director of the 2.4 million-book Allen County Public Library, Greta Southard no doubt is familiar with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation of how “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” She believes the turmoil that has buffeted the usually placid organization she has led since 2014 will have a similarly beneficial effect.

“We’ve been trying to think through why this has been such a flash point,” Southard said of accusations that the library under her direction has engaged in indiscriminate “weeding” of its collection while attempting to stifle voices of dissent. “(Critics) did us a great service and we need to do a reset, try to make it easier for the public to tell us what they want. Could this have been done without the public ugliness? Absolutely. But we need to be a learning organization, and we’ll emerge stronger.”

If that sounds like an apology, it’s not, exactly. And it’s definitely not an admission that the library has indeed purged 1.4 million books from its shelves in an effort to cater to popular tastes at the expense of classics or scholarship. In fact, Southard insists much of the recent controversy is rooted in misperceptions fueled by the lack of reliable data and inadequate internal procedures — both of which she said are being addressed.

“Due to years of inaccurate data and the lack of any physical inventories, we cannot determine how many books were removed,” the library stated in response to the concerns. “We’ve learned during this process that incorrect data has been reported to the state for years, which continued to build on itself and impact reporting year after year. The inaccurate data is the source of the concerns.”

Until last year, for example, the library would create a “dummy” item when a title was ordered, but not removed after the real item was received. With nearly 34,000 titles ordered in 2018, and similar numbers in previous years, the practice made the collection seem larger than it really was, just as the practice of failing to distinguish between actual items removed and computer records deleted made the weeding seem more extensive than it was, Southard said.

“One of the shortcomings of the library’s current tracking system, which has been in use since 1998, is that it doesn’t distinguish between the different reasons why an item is discarded,” the library stated, noting that records indicate 242,533 catalog records were removed last year, which in addition to actual item includes duplicate records and lost, stolen or damaged items.

With the help of technology, the library is now able to inventory its collection and to identify which books and other items are checked out most often. Such data may indeed influence which items are weeded, Southard said, but the final decision will still be left to library professionals with the help of policies and procedures being written to avoid the sort of confusion that exacerbated the concerns in the first place.

The bigger question, it seems to me, is whether the library should be immune to change. Some seem to believe that once the library acquires in item that item should remain forever, but that is unwise, unnecessary and physically impossible. As far back as 1992 library policy called for the removal of items “which are no longer useful,” and for good reason: It costs the library more than $500,000 per year to house materials that have not circulated for mare than 10 years. And even though the main library was expanded by 127,000 square feet as part of a system-wide $85 million improvement project in 2001, storage levels were nearly full by 2014, containing nearly 856,000 items in February.

“Even the Library of Congress doesn’t keep everything,” Southard said.

As a newspaperman, I have witnessed firsthand the irresistible force of digital communications. Young people often prefer non-print forms of communication, and libraries must meet their preferences as surely as it must safeguard books (just as our library says it has no plans to weed rare books or collections pertaining to genealogy or Abraham Lincoln). Books that are neither valuable nor in demand can be digitized, meaning they will remain available while making room for new and more-useful items. And libraries are also increasingly seen not only as book repositories but as public gathering places. That takes room, too.

This isn’t a matter or right or wrong; it’s simply reality. Organizations that refuse to change will not remain relevant — not even those subsidized by taxpayers.

No doubt Southard could have done a better job of communicating with her staff and the public, but her stated plan to adopt a consistent data-driven, system-wide approach is, in fact, overdue. If she and the public are willing to work together, the library– one of this community’s treasures — will indeed be the better for it.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.