The city of Winona staff downsized the collection at the Winona Public Library (WPL) last month to increase visibility of the buildings' interior architecture and, possibly, to make room for a new multi-purpose room. Hundreds of books, movies, and CDs were culled from the stacks with the goal of removing significant amounts of shelving from the building. The items were either sold for 50 cents to $1 a piece at a book sale on October 24 through 26, or turned over to the regional library group Southeast Minnesota Libraries Cooperating (SELCO).
Every year WPL librarians "weed" the collection, disposing of certain books in order to make room for new purchases, and every year, Friends of the Library volunteers staff the fall sale, a field day for bargain hunters. However, this year the sale was significantly larger than past sales and had a different purpose: to reduce the collection for the long term and open more space in the library for things other than books.
Last week, roughly a dozen sets of shelves stood empty, roughly a third of one floor of the library's glass-floored stacks. Another shelving unit was removed behind the reference desk. "There were so many books this year. It was just totally flushed out," said Winona State University Biology Professor Kim Evenson of the sale.
"There were boxes and boxes of poetry" at the sale, commented Vicki Englich of River Arts Alliance. "I was surprised by the number of classics I saw in the discards," she added.
For years, library lovers and city leaders have agreed that the stone building lacked sufficient space to hold all the books, albums, films, and public computers the community demands. At one point, city leaders considered building a new, larger library, but support for historic preservation ultimately led them to continue lending books from the stone building at Fifth and Johnson streets.
Two weeks after the sale, Winona Community Services Director Chad Ubl, who oversees the library, explained that he and his staff have yet to decide exactly what to do with the extra room they have created. "Opening up the space" in order to draw more eyes up to the interior of the buildings' dome and make archways and woodwork more visible is a primary goal, Ubl said. Using the new space to house a reading room or multipurpose room was also considered, he explained. The audio-visual room could be converted for such use, though finding a new location for the music and film collection may be overly ambitious, he continued.
Ubl indicated that the shelving that currently holds the large print collection and the audio books, located between the elevator and the reference desk room, is likely to be eliminated to draw more attention to the archways between the rooms. Currently, large print shelves occupy the doorway beneath one of the three arches. The large print and audio book collections would be relocated. Ubl added that another long, tall shelf behind the reference desk may also be removed to allow better views of the woodwork in the room surrounding it. A twin shelf that also sat behind the reference desk was already removed. "Where do you create the space for all this material?" Ubl asked, gesturing to shelves lining the audio-visual room. "You have to create it."
Ubl noted that highlighting the building's architectural beauty is a goal in the library's three-year strategic plan, a one-page document drawn up by Ubl, city librarians that serve under him, and SELCO facilitators. The Winona Public LIbrary is the oldest library building in the state that still functions as a library, he said. "In my opinion, we started covering up some of the actual beauty of the building just to make room for the collection that we had. [Now] we are trying to open up more of those spaces," he explained. Without tall shelves of books distracting visitors, their eyes are pulled up to the ornately painted ceiling as they walk beneath the dome, he said. When the room was cleared for a recent event, "A lot of people commented, 'I forgot how beautiful this building is,'" Ubl added.
Bookshelves did not prevent anyone from enjoying the library's architecture, Evenson said when asked about the argument for eliminating shelving."I don't know if that's a really good reason to remove so many books," she said.
Friends of Library President Angella Lallemont was not involved in the decision to downsize the collection but supported city staff. "I think the library is in a spot where they have to balance the needs of the patrons," she explained. She noted that many of the books culled are expected to be incorporated into other SELCO collections and may still be available for interlibrary loan.
What to 'weed?'
When city officials determined which books would be disposed of, popularity was a major criterion. The books that were the least frequently checked out were most likely to be removed. Staff were also instructed to select books that were outdated, books in poor condition, titles for which duplicates existed, and authors with multiple works in the collection. Ubl said that discretion was exercised in retaining classic literature. "We don't weed the collection to the point where a classic author would be completely eliminated," he said. However, "we are a lending library not a museum," he added.
However, visitors to the book sale reported seeing numerous pieces of classic literature in good condition, some that were without duplicates, others that were first editions, they said. "I saw books in relatively good condition that were going out; these are books that I would consider classics," Englich said.
Determining what stays in the library's collection solely on the number of times books are checked out tailors the collection to best sellers, she commented. The result is that many of the most interesting and culturally important books, as well as those that library goers simply view without checking out, are lost, she continued.
The library should be more than simply a place to borrow best sellers, Englich said. Referring to classic works, she added, "If you're getting rid of that book, you're getting rid of access to part of our culture." Ubl agreed that the classics were important, but said that everyone has different ideas of what subjects and works are the most important.
Other sale goers were shocked at the monetary value of some books being sold for cents, saying they saw books that would sell for hundreds of dollars online. Ubl said that the library has considered seeking market prices for their discards, but explained, "We're not in the business of book dealing."
Lallemont explained that Friends of the Library is interested in selling the more valuable books online to raise funds for the library, but it does not have enough volunteers. The group nearly cancelled their book sale last month due to a dearth of helpers.
There was no public announcement of the plan to downsize the collection, apart from the following mention in the library's strategic plan: "Increase community recognition of the library as a place of historic significance and beauty." The strategic plan also calls for the library to establish itself as an essential service and to stimulate curiosity.
The Winona City Council was not involved in the decision to reduce the collection. The library benefits from many generous citizen donors and volunteers like the Friends of the Library, but there is no citizen group that oversees library decision-making.
"I think it would be important for the library to explain what they're doing so that people like me don't panic about any loss of offerings," Englich said.
"It's sad," Evenson said. "I think that the Friends of the Library should have some input in the whole thing. We are the ones that really love the library. To just quickly destroy what was there before without any discussion [is unfortunate]."
Individually, library lovers have sought more details from staff. "It's good that we're talking about it," Ubl said of the public's interest, adding that he welcomes more public conversation.