Jeff Scott, far left at table, talks to members of BOLT before an Aug. 26 meeting. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Jeff Scott, far left at table, talks to members of BOLT before an Aug. 26 meeting. The BOLT member are, from left to right, Winston Burton, Abigail Franklin, Julie Holcomb, and Darryl Moore. Jim Novosel was absent. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

More than 40 people expressed concern about the actions of the Berkeley Library director at a specially called meeting Wednesday night of the Board of Library Trustees.

Those who spoke publicly – who were supported by 40 observers  – not only complained about the aggressive book weeding policy put forward by Jeff Scott, the director, but about other issues, including what they perceive as a hostile working environment and a lack of honesty and trust. They said they thought Scott had lied to the community about the number of books weeded out. (Scott initially said he thought 2,200 books had been discarded this year. He later acknowledged that the real number was 39,000). Some also said they were punished for speaking out against the collections management policy.

As Scott sat at the front of the room, his head bowed as he took notes, in what must have been an excruciatingly difficult meeting for him, a number of the speakers called for him to be either fired or suspended without pay. Others asked for an independent investigation into the weeding process: how it occurred, what might have gone wrong, and what could be learned from it.

City Council member Kriss Worthington addressed the BOLT board. Worthington said he told Jeff Scott on July 24 that 39,000 books had been weeded out, not the 2,200 Scott claimed. Worthington said he is disturbed that Scott was not transparent and honest with the public. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
City Council member Kriss Worthington addressed the BOLT board. Worthington said he told Jeff Scott on July 24 that 39,000 books had been weeded out, not the 2,200 Scott claimed. Worthington said he is disturbed that Scott was not transparent and honest with the public. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“This sad series of events must be stopped and reversed,” said City Council member Kriss Worthington. “This crisis of confidence requires an independent investigation of what went wrong .. and how we can prevent it from happening again.”

BOLT, the Board of Library Trustees, was not scheduled to meet until Sept. 9, at which point Scott will explain his collections management process. But Abigail Franklin, the chair of BOLT, asked for the special meeting to discuss a performance evaluation for the library director. She has not publicly stated why she called for a special meeting instead of waiting until September.

Darryl Moore, a Berkeley city council member and BOLT director, said Scott is coming up on his year anniversary and Franklin may have wanted to start the review process early.

BOLT didn’t take any action Wednesday night, said Moore, who characterized the meeting as “illuminating.”

“It seemed like people were speaking in accord,” said Moore. “There seemed to be a consistent message about the extent of the weeding and the information that came out of the director’s office about the extent of the weeding.”
After Scott took over as director of the library in November 2014, he changed the collections management policy. Previously, as many as 35 librarians weighed in on which books should be discarded because they were in disrepair, weren’t being checked out, or were irrelevant.

After talking to staff, Scott determined that many librarians were overworked and did not have the time to weigh in on book weeding. He streamlined the process by designating two senior librarians, aided by four other librarians, (a children’s books specialist, a teen specialist, an art and music specialist, and a reference specialist) to cull the collection.

Protests by current librarians started almost immediately with a group of 15 librarians and staff writing a letter of concern to BOLT in May. They said the change was sufficiently drastic that it should be more carefully considered.

The current librarians, as well as retired ones, also said that books were being weeded out at a rate faster than ever before, as many as 5,000 a month, and that none were being sent to the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library for sale at their stores. Instead, most of the books were pulped.

Scott initially had a completely different analysis of the situation. He said that only around 2,200 books had been weeded out and that the Friends were being offered books. He also said that many librarians were running a “disinformation” campaign.

But after Worthington sent out a press release on Aug. 12 with a list of  13,850 books that had been weeded out and completely removed from the system, Scott acknowledged that he had been misinformed and that 39,000 books had been purged from the system. Scott said he had the wrong information.

In 2014, before Scott’s arrival, 53,681 items were weeded from the library system.

In the last two weeks, the discussion among librarians and library supporters has evolved from talk about the extent of the weeding process to talk about the lack of faith in Scott. Protestors who gathered outside the Central Library building on Kittredge Street before the BOLT meeting held orange signs saying “Fraud,” “Illegal Behavior,” “Suspend Without Pay,” and “Abuse.”

Pat Mullan, the retired head of the BPL Art and Music Department and a coordinator of recent protests, said that the fraud sign referred to the sale and pulping of books, and that the illegal behavior referred to the fact that a number of people had submitted a public records requests that had not been answered in a timely fashion.

A number of speakers at the BOLT meeting said that this controversy had created a climate of fear at the library. Armin Arethna, a children’s librarian, presented a letter signed by 35 library staff members. Only 22 were willing to use their names with the remaining 37% unwilling to do so for “fear of retaliation in the workplace,” she said.

Debbie Carton, who has worked at the library for 26 years and who is a shop steward for SEIU Local 1021, which represents staff, said she had tried to get people to go public with their stories of workplace hostility. Since no one was willing to go public, Carton said she had decided to. She recounted two instances of what she considered retaliation for speaking out against the new collections management process.

José Martínez, a field representative for SEIU Local 1021, recently sent a letter to Scott telling him that public employees have a constitutional right to speak out about library issues. “However, recent statements of yours, that unspecified ‘consequences’ may befall employees who exhibit ‘negativity’ have given many of our members the sense they will suffer retaliation if they continue to exercise their constitutional rights,” wrote Martínez.

Sarah Dentan, the library’s neighborhood and youth services manager who is talking to the press about the issue, said harassment and retaliation is against city and library policy. She had not heard of any accounts of harassment and did not know about Carton’s account until Berkeleyside asked her about it. Dentan said she would report the issue to Human Resources and “do the appropriate investigation.”

Dentan also said that the weeding process was not “willy-nilly” but was done with care. The controversy has shown some inconsistencies in the policy however. For example, some of the librarians had been previously trained to always delete the record of a book when it was weeded out while others were trained to merely store the record. Many of the protesters have complained about the deleted records saying that now there is no way to really know what has been weeded out.

Scott did not return a call for comment.

One person did speak up in Scott’s defense at the BOLT meeting.

Genevieve Wilson, who serves on the Berkeley Homeless task force, said she had worked with Scott regarding the homeless use of the libraries. She said she found Scott to be very concerned for the homeless and took steps to carefully consider their needs and the needs of other patrons by setting up a task force.

“I hope there can be a way through this (the controversy) and that collegiality and cordiality can be maintained,” said Wilson.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information about the kinds of librarians involved in the collections management process and how they were trained.

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, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...