Open letter to the Urbana Free Library

I learned recently of a terrible tragedy at the Urbana Free Library, which was one of the formative institutions of my childhood. The Executive Director, Debra Lissak, authorized the removal of all books from the Adult Collection which were published after 2003. That was a mere 10 years ago. The collection of short stories by Hasan Saadat Manto, one of the most important chroniclers of partition, would have been summarily tossed. Why? Because the library didn’t own a newer edition of his work. Such decisions make me wonder if Lissak even reads books, or understands the function of a public library. I don’t think one needs a library science degree to understand that a terrible travesty has occurred here. I wrote a letter to Lissak, and if you read this and care about the UFL, I encourage you to do so as well.

I’ve also started a petition via here.

The Library’s “official response” is here, and Lissak has been blaming “communication problems,” effectively blaming her staff when she should take responsibility for these acts. Her actions undermine the viability of the library and credibility of its leadership. It’s hard to be a Friend of a library whose administration is so deaf to the community it serves.

You can contact Debra Lissak, Executive Director, at 217-367-4058 or at Because she is apparently disregarding the opinions of others, you may want to CC the administration of the library:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

My letter to Lissak is below.

Dear Debra Lissak,

I just heard about the massive gutting of the Urbana Free Library’s collection done at your request, and that the sole criterion you used was to remove books that were more than 10 years old. When I read this I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach, and that feeling will not wear off for a while, I think.

I was born and raised in Urbana, and from 1980 to 1997 the Urbana Free Library was one of my favorite places to go. I was a voracious reader, and would regularly get books on all sorts of topics from the adult section. The UFL’s collection broadened my horizons and taught me about all sorts of things, from architecture to zoology. Some of the books I read were classics, definitive works in their field. Some of them were newer, like James Gleick’s Chaos, a bestseller which popularized the mathematics behind fractals and complex systems, and which steered me to my own career as a researcher.

Every one of those books was marked in red for removal on your Excel spreadsheet.

I can only hope that some of the terrible damage that you have wrought can be undone. It is difficult for me to remain charitable to someone who claims that they “probably haven’t looked at the collection for thirty years because that’s not my job; somebody else beneath me does that.” A public library is a profoundly democratizing institution — it’s the Urbana FREE Library. Perhaps you fancy yourself a “decider.” I am writing to express my belief that your decisions are wrong, and that your attitude, as expressed in public statements, makes me believe that your presence at the UFL is a liability rather than an asset.

I am upset, but not because you have so cavalierly relegated cherished memories of my childhood for resale. That does hurt, but that was in the past. My pain stems from the thought of all of the other children growing up with UFL who have been hurt by your actions. You have blithely taken away from them the ability to learn more from those writers who had the misfortune to not have new editions in the UFL collection. Your virtual “red pen” has struck out writers whose works so affected me; they made me the person who I am today. Your actions hurt me, yes, but they hurt so many more, and it is unconscionable that you cannot, or will not, understand that.

Anand Sarwate


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