Librarians say the Central Library is moving away from its commitment as a research library, hastily discarding thousands of books and degrading their professional roles within an increasingly demoralized workplace.
However, administrators say they are weeding large numbers of books to largely make way for a new tagging system while undertaking prudent changes in collections and needed staff restructuring during a period of great change.
The cash-strapped Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system currently has a nearly $4 million budget gap that is being covered by a rainy day fund, reductions in hours and elimination of 36 1/2 full-time equivalent positions across four unions. That has affected 76 people, including 35 librarians, who have been laid off, seen a reduction in hours or changes to their job.
Administrators had considered eliminating 105 full-time equivalent positions before the Erie County Legislature restored $3 million of the $4 million that County Executive Chris Collins had tried to cut from the 2011 budget.
"We're looking at changing the Central Library from a combination research collection and popular materials collection to more of the popular, at the expense of a more complex and diverse collection," said Tim Galvin, president of the Buffalo and Erie County Librarians Association.
"The policy seems to be diminishing the role of the Central Library as we know it."
Galvin said the discarding of "thousands and thousands" of books from the library's collection since October has borne that out. "They are greatly diminishing the size of the reference collection," he said.
But the Central Library has been steadily moving away from being a research library for the past dozen years because academic libraries are fulfilling that role, said Bridget Quinn-Carey, director of the library system.
She said she was not aware whether a disproportionate number of books removed in the ongoing weeding process were from the research collection. But she said the print reference collection is shrinking as more content becomes available online.
"Since we've been here, we have been looking pretty aggressively at the reference collections to see what is more appropriate to have in print versus online, and what's more cost-effective, balanced with what's being used," she said.
The main reason for taking books off the shelves now, she said, is that the library is converting to radio frequency identification technology over the next 18 months, which requires retagging every book in the system. Discarding books now, she said, makes sense to save on retagging costs for books no longer desired in the collection.
The timing -- amid job layoffs and reassignments, and floor consolidation at the downtown library -- was coincidental, she insisted.
The removal of so many library books has become a flash point for some librarians.
Both librarians and administrators say libraries must weed their collections for books that are in bad shape, contain outdated material or are rarely checked out. The library maintains a "dusty book list" for books that have not circulated in five years.
But what has happened since October goes far beyond that, with thousands of books winding up in bins marked Metro Waste Paper Recovery (now owned by recycler Cascades Recovery), said a librarian who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
"We were instructed by the administration that anything that was a duplicate, even if it was a popular title, or books that hadn't been checked out since 2008 were to be taken for a book sale. But not all of them made it to the book sale," the librarian said.
The librarian claims to have seen 18 large bins full of books discarded for recycling in the past three months. "It was against all weeding policies that we have ever learned. I couldn't do it. It was horrible. It's not what I do," the librarian said.
"The standards are not the same as they were, and I have been a librarian for 22 years and at Central since 2004," he said. "We were offered to come in and volunteer at overtime, but many of us were too nauseated at the thought and refused to be a part of it."
But Quinn-Carey and Mary Jean Jakubowski, chief operating officer, disagreed.
The books -- with the exception of ones in poor condition, or with outdated information -- were offered at book sales first before being discarded, they said.
Four book sales were held at the Central Library during the first week of December and included books moved from basement storage and used books already for sale in the now-closed bookstore.
"We take very seriously the rules that govern how we must get rid of materials. We have to make them available to the public for sale, or give them to [not-for-profits]. If they don't sell, then they go into recycling," Quinn-Carey said.
Galvin remains unconvinced. "I don't see how that is possible. It has gone on since October, and thousands and thousands of books have gone out the door," he said.
A library spokeswoman said the library would provide figures on the total number of books removed to date on Tuesday.
Other librarian concerns, Galvin said, include:
*Librarians are being moved out of their area of expertise without consultation.
*Librarians fear being driven into "irrelevance" to save costs.
*Centralizing collection development responsibilities will diminish a primary librarian responsibility.
*Librarians have not been consulted on management changes. They say consultation, though not contractually required, could improve morale.