Berkeley Central Library: A number of library staff say their workplace has become a place of discomfort and distrust. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library looked fabulous Feb. 11, the night of the annual dinner to celebrate local authors. The long tables in the main reading room on the second floor had been moved to make way for round tables covered in black tablecloths adorned with book-themed centerpieces. Large flat-screened television sets were placed strategically so all of the guests, who had paid at least $500 a ticket to be there, could see when hosts Linda Schacht Gage and former television anchor Bill Schechner introduced the authors. The lineup included the chair of the evening, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner T.J. Stiles, as well as Maxine Hong Kingston, Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida and more.

Gage and Schechner also took some extra time to introduce Heidi Dolamore, the new director of the library. Dolamore, who assumed the post in September, spoke briefly about libraries and the power of books. She then extended a welcome to Elliot Warren, who had just taken the post of deputy library director.

The annual Author’s Dinner, produced by the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, is always an evening of triumph for the library. The event sells out in advance and raises thousands of dollars that is used to buy furniture and equipment and to remodel parts of the libraries.

But this year, tension lurked below the surface of the glitzy event. A number of the library staff helping out during the evening said their workplace had become a place of discomfort and distrust. Over the past 18 months, the library administration, they said, has questioned the actions of some of the staff, particularly those who have been vocal about recent library policies. Seven staff members have been subjected to an amorphous investigation on “potential misconduct” that has gone on so long the ACLU has lodged a formal complaint. Some staff members were told they were “insubordinate,” may have “violated” library policies and could be fired, according to half a dozen employees who asked not to be identified because they fear for their jobs.

The result is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in many departments, particularly at the Central Branch. The employee union, SEIU Local 1021, has filed numerous grievances, many against one manager. One employee was fired and then rehired after he threatened to file a wrongful termination suit. A number of employees have left as a result of the work atmosphere, according to multiple interviews with library staff.

Berkeley officials have said they are not, nor ever have, investigated city staff based on union identification or for criticizing city policies. City officials understand and respect the contracts it has with its unions, according to an August memo written by City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley.

The president of the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT), Julie Holcomb, wrote in an email to Berkeleyside: “I can say that I have the full confidence that the Library, and the City of which it is a part, respects and fully complies with all worker protections, including all negotiated agreements with our unions, as well as all applicable State and Federal laws.” Holcomb said she cannot comment on personnel issues.

Yet even the Berkeley City Council has recognized the challenges faced by some library staffers. On Feb. 28, on the recommendation of City Councilman Kriss Worthington, Mayor Jesse Arreguín issued a proclamation declaring that day “Berkeley Librarian Whistleblower Day.” (See the proclamation.)

The proclamation commended a group of 20-25 people for pointing out that in 2015 the library, under former director Jeff Scott, had embarked on an aggressive book-weeding program that mostly excluded the input of senior librarians. Scott initially defended the program and said publicly that only 2,200 books had been thrown out, and none of them had been checked out in more than three years. He said that book weeding — known technically as “deaccession” —was an important process that kept a library’s collection current and it was part of best practices.

A number of current and former librarians disputed Scott’s assertions. They held protests outside the Central Branch to call attention to the fact the library was jettisoning a process that had long used the expertise of senior librarians and exchanged it for one that relied on decisions by just a few managers.

Some librarians praised the new weeding process and called it long overdue, however.

“In my 18 years in Berkeley, I have never witnessed anyone approach weeding with [the] clear head or regularity needed to keep a collection fresh, vital, and above all useful to the population it’s intended to serve,” wrote Nora Hale, a children’s librarian at the West Branch, in a September 2015 letter. “On the contrary, the overriding culture at BPL has been to hold onto books at any cost…. Since we are a public library, not an archive or a research library, it is not only reasonable but responsible to weed the collection based on usage rather than nostalgia or our individual sense of what is (or should be) valuable. Our patrons, by their choice of material checked out, let us know in no uncertain terms what it is they value and use at their public library. Our space is limited, and books really do need to earn their keep, so to speak.”

The disgruntled librarians insisted that Scott was hiding the scope of the weeding process. They contacted Worthington with their own calculation of the number of books that had been tossed. Worthington then went to the library, asked to use Scott’s computer, and then showed the director that 39,140 books had been discarded, not 2,200. Scott said he was shocked, insisted that his staff had never told him that number, and resigned a short time later.

But the problems did not stop with Scott’s August 2015 resignation, according to Worthington.

“Some librarian whistleblowers in their defense of the public interest have reported harassment, gag orders, and threats of termination,” read the Feb. 28 proclamation.

“The employees are still reporting they are the victims of harassment and intimidation,” Worthington said last week. “It’s a very hostile workplace”

The question now in people’s minds is whether Dolamore, who inherited the controversy, will resolve the tensions. Worthington is hopeful.

“I am optimistic that Heidi will be able to wrap herself around the issue and bring some healing to it,” he said. “You can’t expect someone to [immediately] heal great gaping wounds that have been bleeding for some time. It’s going to take time.”

Dolamore told Berkeleyside she has taken a number of steps to improve staff morale since her arrival. She has launched an employee engagement group “to start having open conversations about what kind of place do we want to create for ourselves? What does it mean to feel you can contribute your best everyday? How can we all take steps to build our connections as a team? We are just getting started with that.” She also sent out a 12-question survey, designed by Gallup, to gauge workers’ attitude.

Dolamore declined, however, to discuss the ongoing investigation into various staff members, citing personnel privacy issues.

Heidi Dolamore, left, director of the Berkeley Public Library. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

But several employees have said that, while they had high hopes for Dolamore, so far she has disappointed them. One of her ideas to improve employee morale was to put up flyers in the elevators with encouraging messages such as “You are appreciated,” they said, suggesting this was not enough.

Dolamore has not taken the time to fan out among the workforce to get to know them individually or ask about their concerns, they said. She only met with union officials for the first time in January, three months after she started as director.

“That’s how you are going to assess employee engagement?” asked Andrea Mullarkey, a shop steward for SEIU Local 1021 and a teen librarian at the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch library. “Not by talking to employees but by making them take an online survey? … We had been hopeful that they [the Board Of Library Trustees] would select a director who would be inclusive and a great listener and really interested in bringing a sense of peace to the library operations. That is not who they chose. They chose a person who continues to have a top-down, hierarchical approach to decisions.”

And the book weeding controversy continues

The heart of the continuing tension between the library administration, the BOLT, and some library staff appears to be the controversial book-weeding program, even though it seems to have been informally scaled back.

In January 2016, before the appointment of Dolamore, BOLT hired Beth Pollard as interim library director. Pollard did not have a library degree but she had served as an interim deputy city manager in Berkeley for a few months and had been Albany’s city manager for 12 years. BOLT directors praised her administrative experience.

Pollard stepped in and continued the centralized collection process started by Scott and repeatedly endorsed by BOLT.

“The library’s practice is for trained, experienced librarians to evaluate materials in the library’s collection on a regular and ongoing basis, using self-generated statistical requirements as a first step,” Williams-Ridley wrote in that August memo. “During the review process, materials are evaluated by many criteria, some of which include age and/or currency of material, condition and community interest, among other factors. Materials may be removed, replaced or repaired after professional review. Throughout this process, all staff are encouraged to participate in the many avenues available for their input.”

While the Central Branch continued an aggressive approach to book weeding, other branches were basically left alone to come up with their own approaches, said Mullarkey.

“It’s a completely ad-hoc process,” she said. “Each location, each division is doing whatever they think they have to do to get it done.”

Some librarians found adult books that had not been checked out for three years (or nine months in the case of teen or children’s books) that would have been earmarked for deaccessioning, but which they thought should remain on the library shelves. So some of the librarians used their own library cards to check out those books and then quickly return them. This created a circulation record for the book, ensuring it would stay on the shelves.

Berkeley librarians have been doing this for decades and even got Scott’s explicit permission to do so, according to Mullarkey, who recounted to Berkeleyside her own recent experiences with culling.

Mullarkey works in the teen section at the South Branch and, she said, if she didn’t weed out books there soon would not be any room on the shelves since the library acquires so many books.

Mullarkey does a computer search to see which books have not been checked out in the previous nine months and selects ones to weed from that list. But there are often books that show up on the list that Mullarkey knows should remain in the system, she said. For example, in the past few weeks, Richard Wright’s Native Son, a classic, appeared on the list of books that had not been recently checked out. But the book is often assigned at Berkeley High and other schools, so Mullarkey knows it belongs in the library system. Mullarkey checked Native Son out and back in using her own library card so the book would not be flagged again soon.

Mullarkey cited books about gender identity, family dynamics and sexuality that fall in that same category. Teens often come into the library to look at those books but don’t check them out. Mullarkey knows that the books are used, even if there is no circulation record.

“I find them lying all over the teen room because people are picking them up and browsing them and not taking them home,” she said. “Of course I need to have those books. They are important for young people. Just because they don’t run though our system doesn’t mean they aren’t valued.”

Berkeley is not the only place where library staffers have used their or others’ library cards to check out books to make sure they remain in circulation.

In Orlando, two library employees created the fictional “Chuck Finley” who checked out 2,361 books over a nine-month period, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The intent was, according to Boing Boing “to trick the system into believing that the books they loved were being circulated to the library’s patrons, thus rescuing the books from automated purges of low-popularity titles.” George Dore, of one of the employees said: “He wanted to avoid having to later repurchase books purged from the shelf,” according to the Sentinel.  “He said the same thing is being done at other libraries, too.”

But in Berkeley, this process — of librarians using their own library cards to ensure certain books remain in circulation — has become the focus of an investigation that that has now been going on for ten months. In April 2016, Pollard enlisted the help of Camille Hamilton Pating, a senior attorney for Meyers Nave, a law firm frequently hired by the city of Berkeley. While the focus of the investigation remains secret, it appears to focus on librarians who used their own cards to check books out and in. Pating asked Rachel MacNeilly, a senior library administrator who headed up Scott’s book-weeding process to look into the circulation records of various staff members. Sarah Dentan, then the deputy library director, sent out about seven letters to various staff (now known by some library staff as “the Reference 7”) on April 18, 2016, informing them that the library was “investigating potential misconduct on their part.” In what may or may not be a coincidence, the staffers who were targeted were all those who had been vocally opposed to the weeding practices under Scott, or were active in the union. (See one of the letters.)

The letter ordered the staff members not to discuss the issue with anyone other than their union representative. The employees were told they could not share the letter with anyone else. It told them to appear at a certain time and certain place in City Hall to answer Pating’s questions. The letters said they had to answer all questions posed and “be honest and forthright,” and not to “withhold any information.”

The employees were also told to bring their cell phones into the interview so they could be checked — so the investigator could examine them for any communication regarding the library — and to not destroy any emails with other people under investigation. The employees were instructed to print out relevant communications and bring them to the interview.

“Although I anticipate your full cooperation, I must inform you that failure to attend the investigatory interview, cooperate in the investigation, and/or follow these directives may be deemed insubordination and separate grounds for discipline, up to and including termination of employment,” stated the letters.

One employee was informed the library was investigating his unauthorized use of another patron’s card. The card belonged to his brother-in-law, who knew how it was being deployed, according to library staff.

The employees who were ordered to appear described the meetings as “scary” and “excruciating.”

“It’s very upsetting for the people involved,” said Mullarkey, who estimates that 75% of the library’s roughly 130 employees have deep concerns about the library administration.

The investigation prompted 104 protest emails expressing concern about “the library whistleblowers” to be sent to the City Council, prompting Worthington to ask Williams-Ridley to investigate. She concluded that there was no “witch hunt” against vocal employees and said only one employee was being disciplined, but not for issues related to weeding. Williams-Ridley noted that the majority of the emails appeared to be identical and that it appeared they came from an orchestrated campaign.

Berkeley Public Library Foundation Authors Dinner 2017, held at the Central Library on Feb. 11. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

On Sept. 22, José Martinez, a field representative for SEIU Local 1021, sent a letter to Dentan expressing “grave concerns about the revelation that manager Rachel MacNeilly has been reviewing the patron records of union members….. This kind of snooping raises serious privacy concerns.”

One library specialist and union activist, who has asked that Berkeleyside not use her name, then filed a grievance. She charged that the library, by investigating a patron’s circulation record, was violating its own privacy policies, as well as other city and state codes.

Dolamore denied the grievance in a Feb. 8 letter, and said that the searches done by MacNeilly were on the orders of the library director and city attorney. Dolamore denied that the search violated the library’s Patron Privacy Policy or state law.

“Furthermore, these reports were generated as a direct result of the Library’s obligation to respond to potential non-compliance with City policies and State regulations,” wrote Dolamore. “That investigation activity is specifically exempted from Gov’t Code 6267; accordingly, your grievance on that issue is denied.”

The length of the investigation has drawn the attention of the ACLU, which sent a critical letter to BOLT on Dec. 29.

The investigation “appears to include protected activities of the library employees relating to matters of public concern,” wrote Alan Schlosser, senior counsel for the ACLU office in northern California. “This raises questions about the free speech and privacy rights of the employees, particularly those who have spoken out about library issues and who have been critical of library policies. “

The letter went on to say that the length of the investigation and its broad, unfocused scope was a concern. It cited an opinion issued by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that criticized an eight-month-long investigation done by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “The investigation by the HUD officials unquestionably chilled the plaintiffs’ exercise of their First Amendment Rights,” the opinion read, according to the ACLU letter.

Union officials have heard that Pating’s investigation was completed in January and that the results are sitting on Dolamore’s desk. No action has been taken, nor has there been an announcement that the investigation did not turn up any wrongdoing, leaving many staff members still on edge, staffers said.

In fact, the Gallup survey Dolamore asked staffers to take turned up deep dissatisfaction in the ranks, according to Mullarkey. The survey ranked Berkeley Library workers against all the other workers in the world who have taken the independent survey. The poll revealed that only 2% of the library workers are satisfied with their jobs, according to Mullarkey, who sits on the library employee engagement committee.

“The results show that BPL staff are in the bottom 2% of all people who have taken the survey,” she said at a BOLT meeting Wednesday night. “That means that 98% of people who have ever taken the survey, in public, private, and nonprofit institutions, are more satisfied with their workplace than BPL staff.”

Before the results of the survey were known, Dolamore told Berkeleyside how proud she was to lead a library system so attuned to its community, and so committed to providing the best service possible. She commended the staff for their commitment to service, innovation and free speech.

“We want to create an environment where everyone is welcome,” she said.

This story was updated after publication to include the example of checking out books in Orlando.

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...