Berkeley’s Central Library on Kittredge Street: its collection is being weeded and not everyone is happy and how it’s being done. Photo: Kaia Diringer
Berkeley’s Central Library on Kittredge Street: the weeding of its collection proved controversial and eventually contributed to the resignation of library director Jeff Scott on Aug. 31, 2015 . Photo: Kaia Diringer
Berkeley’s Central Library on Kittredge Street: the weeding of its collection proved controversial and eventually contributed to the resignation of library director Jeff Scott on Aug. 31, 2015 . Photo: Kaia Diringer

Berkeley Library Director Jeff Scott was not forced out of his job but decided to resign after a conversation with Abigail Franklin, the chair of the Board of Library Directors, in which they both agreed he was not a “good fit” for the position, according to Franklin.

Franklin went to see Scott, 38, on the morning of Thursday Aug. 27, the day after a contentious BOLT board meeting in which some Berkeley residents called for Scott’s resignation because of his clumsy handling of a book-weeding process at the central library, and what they perceived as his untruthfulness, among other issues. That was the first time Franklin had had a chance to talk to Scott after the BOLT board held a closed session to consider accelerating the evaluation of Scott’s job performance. Scott took over as library director in November 2014 and hadn’t been scheduled for an evaluation for another few months, but the controversy prompted BOLT to bring up the issue earlier than expected.

“I’ll use his words when we were having one of our final conversations,” said Franklin. “He just admitted this probably wasn’t a good fit. I agreed.”

Jeff Scott: resigned as director of the Berkeley Public Library on Aug. 31, 2015

Scott submitted his resignation on Monday Aug 31. His last day will be Sept. 8, but he is no longer showing up at the library.

Sarah Dentan, who was promoted from manager of the library’s children’s and neighborhood services to acting deputy director of the library about an hour before Scott’s resignation, will serve as interim director of library services. Dentan, who has 21 years experience in libraries, will be paid $9,721 a month or $116,652 a year, which is a 5% increase over her previous salary. Scott earned $170,000.

Although the scope and handling of book weeding at the central library caused the furor that led to Scott’s resignation, people involved with the library said other factors, including Scott’s management style, were also involved. Scott may have had difficulty adjusting to the way Berkeley does things, according to a number of observers. Scott came from Tulare County Library in Visalia, which served a population of 432,000 residents. Library staff there was not unionized, unlike in Berkeley.

Franklin speculated that Scott was not used to working with a team.

“In the past, it seemed, he was more accustomed to working with more autonomy and not necessarily needing to rely on such a large team to effectively make decisions,” said Franklin. “Berkeley is a very collaborative place. The library is a very collaborative place with great library staff, with a great management team. Perhaps he was used to working a little more solo.”

Scott, who declined to talk to Berkeleyside, emphasized in earlier interviews that he enjoyed working with the community. Scott did set up a number of collaborative ventures, including forming a homeless task force and gathering community feedback on the library’s strategic plan.

“He’s just not a Berkeley type of guy”

One member of the board of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation said when Scott came to talk to them about the book-weeding situation, he was convinced that his critics were lying about the number of books culled. He insisted that only around 2,200 books had been weeded, not more. Scott was not open to reconsidering his position or the fact that he might be mistaken, said the board member who asked not to be named.

The board member also thought Scott erred in not taking the time to get to know the community by visiting the mayor, city council members, the city manager and other officials.

“He’s just not a Berkeley type of guy,” said the board member. “It’s a tough place to work if you are not familiar with the territory – what the sensibilities are, who the players are.”

Many of the protests against the weeding were led by retired librarian, including Pat Mullan (center left in brown jacket), photographed on July 14, 2015 . Some supporters of Scott have said that he was up against an group of people who were more backward than forward looking. Photo: Francesca Paris

A number of community members and Berkeleyside commentators said the problem wasn’t Scott’s management style per se, but the fact that he tried to make changes in a calcified system dominated by librarians mired in the past.

One of the biggest issues in the book-weeding controversy is that Scott narrowed the number of librarians selecting books to be discarded from around 35 down to a team of two top librarians working with four consulting librarians. Scott did that after many librarians complained about their workloads, he said.

Many other library systems have streamlined their book-weeding processes in a similar way as that mandated by Scott, and that step is accepted in the library world, Bill Kolb, a supervising librarian in the North Branch, wrote in a letter to BOLT.

“The continued use of large ‘teams’ of professional staff tasked with ordering and maintaining relatively small sections of library collections has largely gone by the wayside in most progressive library organizations, in favor of the more nimble, efficient processes made possible by developments in technology and made necessary by the shifting role of libraries and librarians in the community,” wrote Kolb.

Diane Davenport, who retired from BPL 11 years ago and who serves on the Berkeley Public Library Foundation Board, said that Berkeley should be different because it serves such a literate and engaged community and it takes a certain kind of knowledge and experience to understand what kind of books appeal to that community. While many libraries around the country have had to streamline their collection management processes because of a lack of money, that is not the case in Berkeley, which has a dedicated library tax, she said.

A stack of books that was weeded from the Berkeley Public Library. Photo: Sayre Van Young

What the staff objected to was not the sheer number of books — 39,000 that were weeded— said Davenport. All librarians know that collections have to be aggressively culled to stay fresh. It is routine to regularly cull 5% to 10% of a collection. Using that criteria, the weeding done under Scott was in line with industry norms. The library has about 554,761 volumes, so 39,000 is about 7% of the collection. In 2014, the library weeded 53,681 items.

What the staff objected to was the process by which the books were weeded, said Davenport. It went too fast, and not enough people had a chance to make sure good stuff wasn’t being tossed with the bad.

“Here’s the difference,” said Davenport. “He was putting 39,000 books out the back door, not allowing the librarians to look at them, never being able to go back to see if these were Berkeley authors, or what if this was the last book in the consortium of libraries we have, so the last book in Link Plus? “Of course we have to weed…. It’s how he went about it.”

Scott also narrowed the number of librarians in the book acquisition process in the spring when he locked most of them out of the Baker and Taylor ordering system which has book reviews, book previews, etc. Librarians need to know about the latest books and what people are saying about them to be able to respond to patrons’ questions, she said.

“We had a system that was working extremely well,”  said Davenport. “We didn’t need to change that system.”

When concerns were raised about the process, Scott was unwilling to concede there might be an issue, leading some to regard his actions as arrogant, according to the member of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation. Others were dismayed that he insisted for so long than only 2,200 books had been discarded. When he acknowledged on Aug. 12 that 39,000 had actually been weeded, people didn’t know if he was out of touch with his own institution or had been lying previously. That lost him much of the broad support he once commanded — and the backing he needed to survive the challenge to his leadership, according to observers.

Another question that was raised was where the discarded books were going. Scott told Berkeleyside they were being offered to the Friends of the Berkeley Public Library, then, if they were not wanted there, to Better World Books, a nonprofit that distributes books to the developing world. The final option is a book recycler, he said. However only 100 books — mostly art, music and reference items — were taken by the Friends, which raised red flags for Scott’s critics who feared thousands of volumes were being pulped. In fact, the Friends, whose two bookstores sell donated books to benefit the library, traditionally take very few library books, either because of their poor condition or because they don’t have resale value. It’s unknown whether Scott was aware of this or simply miscommunicated the situation.

Jeff Scott, far left, came under fire at a special BOLT meeting on Aug. 26, 2015. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Concerns about finding a new director

The BOLT board is scheduled to meet on Sept. 9, and members will discuss the process for selecting a new library director. Since two of the last three directors have been forced out because of community pressure (Jackie Griffin resigned in 2006 over union-related issues) some residents are concerned that it won’t be an easy task.

It wasn’t easy finding Scott, either. The BOLT Board had to do two rounds of a search, said Franklin. The board offered a position to one candidate, who declined. The board then reopened the search process. Scott was unanimously selected in the fall of 2014.

Filling other top spots in library administration has also been challenging. The deputy director position has long been vacant. Dentan was appointed to that position briefly on Aug. 31, but was appointed to fill Scott’s role just about an hour later, she said.

Franklin said she is not concerned and believes they will attract strong candidates.

“I am hoping that as we look for a new director people will look beyond this recent time of challenge and see this is a great opportunity to lead a great, vibrant organization in a terrific, diverse community,” she said. “It think it would be a great job for somebody who really embraces all that Berkeley has to offer. So I am optimistic we can find somebody terrific.”

Franklin also said she wishes the best for Scott, who will have a lot to offer another community.

“I only wish Jeff well,” said Franklin. “He will find somewhere else where he will shine. He will be great at some other institution.”

Going forward, Sarah Dentan faces challenges

Sarah Dentan, the interim director of library services. Photo: LinkedIn

In the meantime, Dentan, who has been at the Berkeley Public Library since 2011 (she had an earlier stint here from 1999-2003) faces many challenges, including bad staff morale and negative press.

One of the first things she did after her appointment was to make sure that Human Resources investigated complaints about retaliation from Scott in the workplace. (At the BOLT meeting on Aug. 26, at least one librarian said she felt she was punished by the administration for complaining about the weeding process). So far, Dentan, a former union shop steward, only knows about one live investigation, but there may be others, she said.

Dentan told Berkeleyside she also plans to communicate better about the collections management process, both internally and externally. She might tweak it slightly, and she wants to make sure librarians and staff know exactly how they can weigh in on discards and acquisitions, and offer input, she said. She may also start issuing a monthly statistics report to push more information out to the staff and the community, she said. Dentan will present a report on the weeding process to BOLT on Sept. 9.

Dentan also hopes to facilitate conversations among staff about what happened. All the negative press has impacted morale.

“We need to address the fact it’s hard to work in a place that is in the press so negatively,” she said.

Staff is split on the weeding process and Scott’s resignation, too. While people have been respectful to one another in the workplace, Dentan wants more discussion about what happened.

“We need a chance to talk about this,” she said. “Not everyone feels the same way on this issue. That causes a certain amount of tension and we need to work our way through that.”

On Thursday, the library got a bit of good news for a change. Congresswoman Barbara Lee nominated the library for a National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The award “honors institutions that demonstrate extraordinary approaches to serving their constituents and that exceed expected levels of community outreach,” according to a library press release.

Jeff Scott resigns as Berkeley library director (08.31.15)
Berkeley 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)
Op-ed: The Berkeley Public Library is central to our community (01.15.15)
Op-ed by Jeff Scott: Berkeley Public Library is a shelter from the storm (12.12.14)

If you like the variety of news on Berkeleyside, you will like the variety of voices we present at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas. Early bird tickets with early bird prices are on sale now for the festival in downtown Berkeley on Oct. 16-17. Click here to see the list of speakers.  

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...