The Big Weed is up for discussion at next Monday's City Council meeting (July 8, 6 pm). Unfortunately, this agenda item isn't about a garden horror or a massive marijuana plant.
It concerns the needless removal of books from the Salem Public Library.
Jim Scheppke, who spent 20 years as the State Librarian for Oregon before he retired, is aghast at how Salem's library has been allowed to deteriorate.
He's amassed a lot of convincing arguments, backed up by solid data, in hopes that even though the library's ill-considered book removal policy is shown as only an information item for the City Council, councilors will act to stop the Big Weed.
Scheppke's report, "Why the Big Weed must end," has been submitted as advance testimony for the City Council meeting. As a lover of books, I found a chart in the report to be deeply disturbing. Here's a screenshot that includes commentary by Scheppke.
Wow. A quarter of the book collection has been lost in the past six years, with every year showing a decline.
Hopefully this long-term decimation of the Salem Public Library's book collection will get more attention from city councilors than a flawed one-month analysis of book removals and additions for May 2019 that's part of a staff report for the upcoming meeting.
This analysis was performed by library staff after it was requested by the City Council in April of this year. So to my mind it's meaningless. Scheppke and other critics of the Big Weed have been hammering library administrators for discarding books without good reason.
So rather than ask library staff to defend prior discarding of books, the City Council gave them advance notice that the next month's book removal effort would be scrutinized. Not surprisingly, for the month of May things looked more or less OK. Here's how Scheppke described this in an email to supporters of ending the Big Weed.
The so-called “tracking study” done in May is being used to try to show that the Council has nothing to worry about if they give the green light. Of course the whole thing was rigged to put the situation in the best light.
As this chart from the agenda packet shows, in May 592 adult non-fiction books were added and 499 were removed “through review.” Another 77 were weeded for condition (“snags”), for a net gain of 16 books.
Trouble is this was a totally atypical month, because we know that in the past six years our adult book collection has not grown. It has been reduced by 24%. In each of the past six years an average of 10% of the collection has been removed, the result being that we now have one of the smallest book collections per capita of any library in the state.
Our collection of only 1.6 books per capita is far below the state average of about 2 books per capita.
The May tracking study was “lipstick on a pig.” It is an attempt to fool the Salem City Council to look the other way so that thousands more books can be removed from our library, as happened last fall.
I'm bothered not only by this current example of City of Salem staff doing the lipstick on a pig thing, but how this has been a frequent way of operating by city officials during the tenure of City Manager Steve Powers. Meaning, citizen concerns often are not directly addressed. Instead, bureaucratic double-talk is used to defend otherwise indefensible city policies.
In this case, Scheppke and others have systematically documented how the Salem Public Library has failed to follow generally accepted guidelines for discarding books. Yet neither the City Librarian, Sarah Strahl, nor her acquiescent Library Advisory Board have presented cogent arguments against Scheppke, et.al.
Instead, they just say they should be allowed to keep on with their Big Weed, facts be damned. Which isn't how any government official should behave, especially a librarian who supposedly is dedicated to facts, reason, and open discussion.
There's still time to submit testimony to the City Council urging that the Salem Public Library stop discarding books for no good reason. Email your thoughts to [email protected] and reference Agenda Item 6.b
Here's another excerpt from Scheppke's tell-all report:
The Big Picture
In closing I want to step back from the Big Weed and make note of the fact that most Salem elected officials and library users do not realize how substandard our library has become. It's not just the adult book collection that has suffered a "death by 1,000 cuts" over several decades.
When I moved to Oregon with my librarian wife in 1986, the Salem Public Library, under the outstanding leadership of George Happ, was regarded as one of the best public libraries in Oregon. The library was known as an innovator.
It was the first to have an auditorium (and even today only one other public library, Beaverton City Library, has one). It was the first library to have an interactive space for children, the Discovery Room, which still draws children to the library today. There was a time with our library even offered low cost dial-up Internet service to make the Internet available to more citizens. How far we have fallen from those glory days.
The Oregon Public Library Report Card compares the 29 largest libraries in Oregon (those serving over 25,000 population) on 14 different key metrics that assess library quality and library performance. For each metric a grade is awarded based on how the library falls within a quintile ranking of the 29 libraries.
As shown in the comparison of the top eight libraries in the state, the Salem Public Library scores no better than a D or an F on 9 of the 14 metrics, worse than any other major library. Its best score is a B for Children's Program Attendance Per Capita. But all the other scores range from mediocre to poor.
What drives most of the poor scores for our library is the metric Total Library Expenditures Per Capita where our library scores an F, with expenditures of only $28.52 per capita. Our library ranks third from the bottom of all 29 libraries serving over 25,000 population. Even the Jackson County Library, which has struggled for funding in the past decade with the dramatic decline in county timber receipts, manages to spend about $10 more per capita than our library.
And the top funded library, Multnomah County Library spends over three times the amount per capita as our library. Eugene spends more than twice as much.
It should be clear that our library will stay at the bottom of the heap as the worst major library in Oregon unless some way is found to improve library funding. The Big Weed just rubs salt into the wound. To me it's madness to set out to discard thousands of books when our library's ability to replace them and to grow our collection appears to be nonexistent at this time.
Several weeks ago, I was notified by email that 4 books I checked out and planned to return before their due dates were being automatically renewed. I contacted library staff and learned that the CCRLS (the regional library organization that includes Salem Library and many smaller libraries in the surrounding area) is conducting an experiment whereby all books (and perhaps other materials as well) will be automatically renewed 3 days before their due dates. It seems that this new policy will add to the continuing decline of available books. Much to my partial shame, I still have these books in my possession. In my defense, driving from my home to downtown is oftentimes a grueling and time consuming experience.
I have written before about why the sacrifice of many valuable books and the addition of more popular books (Neil Gaiman states that 90% of new books are trash) is ill advised. An example of a book of quality that is not available in the CCRLS system is "Lila" by Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).
I purchased the book and just came upon a section that may offer a sort of tribute to Jim Scheppke and Brian Hines and helps us understand why they never seem to get the support that they deserve.
The context for the following passages is that a sailboat Captain met a single woman (Lila) who he allowed to accompany him on a voyage along the eastern coast and whose behavior became problematic.
Keep in mind that, throughout history, many of those considered "insane" were simply people with unpopular ideas. I am in no way implying that Jim or Brian are insane and the following passages, from Pirsig's book "Lila", shows us how (and why) the "insane" and those with unpopular ideas are treated in similar ways. The Captain states:
"Of course she's (Lila) unimportant. Of course she's a waste of time. She's causing an interruption of other more important purposes in life. No one admits it, but that's really the reason the insane get locked up. They're disgusting people you want to get rid of but can't. It's not just that they have absurd ideas that nobody believes. What makes them "insane" is that they have these ideas and are a nuisance to somebody else."
In a few paragraphs which preceded the one above, the Captain ruminates about whether he should abandon the troubled woman (substitute "people who involve themselves with controversy" for "people with too many problems"):
"It was a long time since Phaedrus (the Captain) had become a mental patient.
Now he saw her the same way that others had seen him years ago. And now he was behaving exactly the way they did. They could be excused for not knowing better. They didn't know what it was like. But he didn't have that excuse.
It's a legitimate point of view. It's the lifeboat problem. If you get too involved with too many people with too many problems they drag you under. You don't save them. They sink you."
I hope that the preceding makes it a little easier to understand and accept the predictable failure of Council to do the right thing in favor of blind (and lazy) support for their peers within Salem City Government.
Posted by: Kurt | July 06, 2019 at 03:37 PM