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A sweeping management shake-up at the Salt Lake City Public Library — quietly in the works for months — has led to a series of demotions and retirements among veteran staffers in a move the director insists will improve efficiency.

But the overhaul, made official Wednesday, has led longtime employees to question Director Beth Elder's leadership, while others remain afraid to speak out over fear of "retaliation."

The reorganization follows the recommendations of a consultant, contracted by Elder and the Library Board earlier this year, whose report outlines a need for administrative changes.

The report was presented to the library's board of directors this fall and has been a source of consternation both in the ranks of employees and in the library community ever since. The shuffle forced the 31 members of library management to reapply for their positions.

"To require long-term, competent staff to become supplicants for positions they have earned through loyalty and hard work is both ill-conceived and humiliating," Ranae Pierce, past president of the Utah Library Association, writes in an "open letter" to the library administration. "Please reconsider this folly before you lose any more of 'The Best and Brightest' and service to the library's public is further eroded. When you take the heart out of those who manage and provide direct service to their communities, you take the soul out of the Salt Lake City Public Library."

The changes at the Main Library and the five branches are to take effect Jan. 10, according to an all-staff e-mail from Elder.

"We are excited for the new year, new opportunities and the new synergies that will be created as people join together in new groups, committees and teams," Elder writes.

In an interview, Elder said management ranks were slimmed from 31 to 27. Eighteen people kept their jobs, she said, while four retired and five were moved outside management to "special assignments."

"These processes are never easy," Elder says. "For any organization to grow and thrive, it must constantly evaluate services, innovate, reinvent."

Elder said Wednesday's announcement was met with applause. The critical letters, she says, "surprise me because we have engaged the whole staff in a thoughtful, detailed effort to prepare the library for the future. We've done it the right way — and I believe the results will have a powerful and positive impact."

The award-winning library system employs 250 people, roughly half of whom are part time. The changes affect only management.

An organization chart that outlines new titles shows a handful of positions remain open. Certain operations also were solidified or slashed. Elder says there was no reduction in work force, but critics say the new roles fail to reward loyalty.

A string of e-mails sent to The Salt Lake Tribune — some anonymous, some with names — blister the move. They insist morale is at its lowest level in three decades and note the staff is anxious and unhappy. Managers were told to keep quiet about the move, according to the correspondence, which some say violates the library's principle of intellectual freedom. The restructuring, employees lament, shows indifference to loyal employees, creates chaos and ultimately will affect the service to the public.

Some e-mails purported to be written by library staff, but The Tribune decided not to quote them directly because the newspaper could not confirm their authenticity.

Elder, who said she was aware of critical e-mails from staff, defends the moves as matching people's talents with an ever-modernizing library. "People seem to be very excited and encouraged by their new roles."

A sheet of frequently asked questions, included with Wednesday's e-mail, says a comprehensive re-application process will not be required of the "entire staff." The Q&A also notes members of management who were offered a position at a "lower classification" will retain their same salaries.

Elder, a former bookseller with 18 years of experience at the Denver Public Library, was hired in March 2008 to replace Nancy Tessman, who retired the previous June after 30 years at the library. Assistant Director Britton Lund, one of the finalists for the director job, resigned nine months after Elder was selected by the library board.

Mayor Ralph Becker backs Elder's new direction. Becker has "a strong relationship with Beth Elder and supports her ability as director to make changes," says David Everitt, his chief of staff.