Number of books weeded from library system under dispute

The Board of Library Trustees officially appointed Sarah Dentan, far left, as acting interim library director on Sept. 10. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The Board of Library Trustees officially appointed Sarah Dentan, far left, as acting interim library director on Sept. 10. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The new acting interim director of the Berkeley Public Library pledged Wednesday night to reinstate some of the input and authority that librarians and staff lost under former Director Jeff Scott — but one of her staff members also suggested that the total number of items weeded out under Scott’s authority may have been closer to 19,000 rather than the 39,000 widely reported.

At a Berkeley Board of Library Trustees meeting, Sarah Dentan presented a report about the collections management process – a report that Scott was scheduled to present until he abruptly resigned on Aug. 31.

Dentan characterized the weeding process as more considered and thoughtful than has been portrayed by a group of former and current librarians. They have led a series of protests in the past few months to bring attention to what they saw as “draconian” book weeding. Along with City Councilman Kriss Worthington, they also raised questions about Scott’s truthfulness. For many weeks, Scott insisted that only 2,200 books had been weeded. However, after Worthington visited Scott in his office in mid-July and, with a few keystrokes, pulled up a list that showed that 39,000 books had been weeded, Scott acknowledged that the higher number was accurate. His change of tune made many, including members of BOLT, lose confidence in him.

The question of the actual number of books weeded came up again Wednesday night and revealed flaws in the library system that tracks books on its shelves. Alicia Abramson, the library’s manager for information technologies, recently tried to determine how many books had been weeded, she told BOLT. She ran two different tests and came back with two different numbers: one of 17,255 and one of 18,583 books. These were items that had apparently been discarded, she said.


Abramson said she tried, but could not reproduce the list of 39,000 items that reportedly had been weeded.

The library hasn’t conducted an audit — where every single book is examined — for 14 years, said Dentan.

Worthington, contacted Thursday, said that the 39,000 number was a figure spewed out of Scott’s computer, and he believes the number is accurate. He said he is mystified why library officials, working with state-of-the-art computers and sophisticated software, cannot get an accurate figure.

“There is something wrong with this picture,”he said. “They can allege our numbers are wrong, but our numbers are the library computer’s numbers. According to their own computer system, there are 39,000 deleted items.”


Worthington has emailed Dentan and Abramson offering to show them how the 39,000 number was reached.

There is also room for confusion when discussing the Central Library weeding as it involves discarding items other than books, though the term “books” appears to be used when “items” might be more accurate.

Library board members look at a presentation of the collections management process. This slide shows the total number of books in the library's collection in each of the past four years. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Library board members look at a presentation of the collections management process at a meeting of the Berkeley Library Board of Trustees on Sept. 9. This slide shows the total number of books in the library’s collection in each of the past four years. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The number of items in the library collection has fluctuated over the past four years, but only by about 10% of the collection, said Dentan. In 2011-12, the library had 452,316 books. In 2012-13, the library had 487,746 books, according to numbers presented to BOLT. In 2013-14, there were 463,916 books. And in 2014-15, the library had 442,243 books.

Many of the speakers at the meeting, and at a rally beforehand, called for Dentan to stop the weeding process and to restore the librarians to their former roles as full participants in selecting and weeding out books. Scott had changed the library’s longstanding practice of using 34 librarians for weeding and acquisitions after a consultant said many librarians were overworked. He created a new system with two main librarians and four consulting librarians doing the work that 34 people had once done.

“The choice is very, very clear,” said Diane Davenport, a former librarian and former board member of the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library. “Return book selection and weeding to them (the group of 34 librarians). They know how to do it.”

Dentan was not willing to go that far. She did say the library was not actively weeding right now. Then she outlined the many ways library staff can have input into selecting and weeding books. She made no suggestion that the current process implemented by Scott was not working.

Dentan did tell the board, however, that she wanted to immediately overturn another of Scott’s controversial decisions. He had locked out librarians from accessing a website that was a good source of news about forthcoming books. The Baker & Taylor website also has reviews and stories, and reading it regularly is critical for librarians’ knowledge of current books, said Dentan. They need that information to be responsive to patrons.

Armin Arethna testified that she felt “handicapped” working on the public desk without access to the information on the Baker & Taylor website.

BOLT members said they agreed that the staff should regain access to that site.

Dentan and other members of the senior staff then told BOLT about how the library goes about deciding which books to get rid of. Dentan also explained how librarians make sure the collection has books of local interest – one of the issues that was brought up in the protests. Cecile Pineda, a fiction and non-fiction Berkeley writer who has won numerous awards, including the Gold Medal from the Commonwealth Club award, told the board that the weeding process under Scott had removed her work from the library.

Dentan said the acquisitions staff, as well as other librarians, look at books coming from local publishers to find books from Berkeley authors. The library also tries to do programming around local authors.

As soon as the BOLT meeting ended, members of the library staff rushed over to talk to Dentan to give her feedback on her presentation. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
As soon as the Sept. 9 BOLT meeting ended, members of the library staff rushed over to talk to Dentan to give her feedback on her presentation. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Members of the BOLT board seemed pleased by Dentan’s report and thanked her for her presentation. But as soon as the meeting adjourned, a number of librarians came over to her and expressed dismay by the way she and Rachel MacNeilly, who heads up collections management, had characterized the process. Tom Dufour, a librarian, told Dentan there were some “untruths” in the presentation.

“It (collection management) looks great on paper,” Dufor told Berkeleyside. “It’s unfortunate it doesn’t happen that way.”

Looking ahead for a new interim director

On Wednesday, BOLT formally hired Dentan as acting interim library director and gave her a salary of $137,772. The board does plan on finding an interim director immediately, according to Darryl Moore, a city councilman and BOLT member. Former Library Director Donna Corbeil is not interested in the job, he said. Staff from Berkeley’s Human Resources department will look for a permanent interim head.

BOLT hired a search firm to conduct a nationwide search after Corbeil retired. While no decision was reached Wednesday night, the board suggested it would follow that process again.

Before the meeting, a group of concerned Berkeley residents and current and past librarians held a rally outside the Central Branch on Kittredge Street. Many of them called for an independent investigation into the weeding process under Scott to see what had gone wrong. Some said he was being made a scapegoat and there were still people employed in the library who were responsible for the way the process was carried out.

Councilman Moore said he thought BOLT would be amenable to an investigation.

Update: This article has been corrected to remove a quote that was attributed to Abramson where she said that “no one really knows how many books have been weeded.” The reporter wrote that down in her notebook and later thought it was a direct quote, which it was not. The article has been updated to reflect that.  

Related:
Jeff Scott resigns as library director (08.31.15)
Performance of Berkeley’s library director under fire at meeting of library trustees (08.27.15)
Berkeley library director admits vast discrepancies in numbers of weeded books (08.12.15)
Obscure and popular books part of the library weeding process (08.02.15)
Protesters rally over library weeding (07.14.15)
Library fans voice concern over weeding of books (07.08.15)

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Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.