Activist Thwarts Library's "Evaluation" of a Special Section

A view of the pillars of the Selby Public Library, facing Selby Five Points Park and the Sarasota Opera House. A provision in Sarasota County’s comprehensive plan states that the county is required to maintain and pay for a special environmental section at the library. (H-T ARCHIVE)

A view of the pillars of the Selby Public Library, facing Selby Five Points Park and the Sarasota Opera House. A provision in Sarasota County’s comprehensive plan states that the county is required to maintain and pay for a special environmental section at the library. (H-T ARCHIVE)

Just strolling through Selby Library’s special collection on environmental matters and reading the book jackets there is like taking Introduction to Environmental Issues 101.

Some books are about local rivers and the waters of Sarasota Bay, and underground water, and mangroves, shore birds and manatees. Obvious things like that.

But others are about things you might not think of: Mosquitoes. Grass. Snails. Just walking through, the whole web of life thing kind of jumped out at me.

But I wasn’t at the Sarasota downtown library to browse. I was checking to see if the environmental books were still there. The fact is, some aren’t, and it is hard to even guess how many are gone.

It seems Maynard Hiss was right.

Hiss, a longtime environmental activist, had told me he was flabbergasted to learn through the grapevine that the county library’s special environmental section was being dismantled. Books were being quietly given away. Some other libraries had been invited to send people over to help themselves, and some did.

Nothing was announced publicly, you understand. The sign above the environmental section was in place as usual, with no added note alerting the public to any change.

So Hiss contacted County Administrator Tom Harmer to ask what was going on.

Harmer replied that he knew nothing, and directed Hiss to Sarabeth Kalajian, director if the library system.

I talked to her, too, but I don’t know what to think about what she told me.

By the time we spoke, Hiss had reminded county officials of a provision in Sarasota County’s comprehensive plan, a massive document with lots of details about development rules and the like. It has lots of details that few people know without looking them up.

But Hiss knew about one thing in there that Kalajian really should have been aware of: The comp plan clearly states that the county is required to maintain and pay for that special section, just as it has for many years.

So I’m pretty sure what I heard from Kalajian was some high-speed backpedaling.

No, she wasn’t dismantling the section, she told me. They were just evaluating it, considering some changes. After all, most people do environmental reading and research online now. Not many do it at public libraries.

“The use of it has really diminished,” Kalajian said. So she and the staff have been asking themselves, “Do we need a special collection?”

Yeah, and the same might be said about books in general, I said. Are you asking if we need a library at all?

No, she said. Some special sections are hot. The kids section, for instance. The section next to the environmental section — genealogy — is quite popular now. There are volunteers who come in to help people look up their relatives on other continents and such. It’s a thing.

But there’s no buzz in the environment section, so some, um, changes seemed to be called for, she said. Some scaling back, maybe.

Why? I asked. Is there a space crunch, or plans to use that area some other way? It looks pretty spacious up there on the second floor. Lots of room on the shelves. Is there a problem?

No, she said. No space problem, no plans. Just routine evaluation.

Right. Evaluation. The kind of evaluation that has employees leaking the word that the section is being killed, and the kind that lets other libraries come in and take whatever they want.

She didn’t mention those help-yourself giveaways until I did. Oh, she said, that was just the result of thinking that some environmental books and documents might be better off at New College or at Mote Marine Laboratory.

I see. Sounds like quite an evaluation. Instead of drawing attention to the collection — something the library staff is so good at — the intent was to keep it quiet and little noticed while giving away the best and most attractive books, no matter their cost. Soon maybe no one would even care what happens, after the section quietly shrinks to just a drab shelf or two.

Whatever the plan, I’m pretty sure the brakes are on now.

I’m convinced that, thanks to Hiss and his mention of that pesky provision of the comp plan, the library director's evaluation took a sudden turn just in time to save the section.

Or what's left of it.