Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 8, 2006

Library survey supports maintaining branch system

Results of highly anticipated study also state residents want more services

by Bill D'Agostino

Although it's clear the community is divided on what to do with Palo Alto's libraries, newly released results from a city-funded survey could shut the door on any future proposals to close any of the community's five branch sites.

According to the highly anticipated results, 65 percent of responders said having the library's collections and services divided among multiple locations, "like it is now," was either somewhat or very important.

On the other hand, 42 percent said having "library collections and services based in a single, larger location with limited services and collections in smaller branches" was important.

Asked if they wanted multiple programs available in a single location or in multiple locations, responders usually said they wanted them in multiple locations. Two-thirds of responders, for instance, said they wanted homework centers and trained staff in multiple locations.

The survey did not specifically ask how many branches residents wanted or force a choice between the two types of systems.

On Thursday night, the Library Advisory Commission will discuss the results of telephone survey, which took approximately 18 minutes to complete, at a special public meeting. Approximately 600 residents answered the city's questions in January.

The debate over the city's branch-library system dates back decades. However, it was reinvigorated in 2004 when Library Director Paula Simpson proposed closing the College Terrace and Downtown branches. She argued the city's library service was suffering because the city only had adequate funding for two-and-a-half branches.

The council voted against her proposal in December 2004. At the same meeting, the council asked its Library Advisory Commission to come up with a new plan for improving the city's libraries.

The survey is one tool the commission is using to gauge community sentiment. The commission plans to return to the council in the spring with its recommendation. Last month, the council picked the libraries as one of its top three priorities for 2006, with a goal of having a firm decision about the system's future in place by the year's end.

Valerie Stinger, a member of the library commission, agreed the survey results support the city's branch libraries.

"It confirms what City Council told us 14 months ago - the political reality is we're not ready for a single library," she said.

For the commission, the survey will be most useful pointing out those services residents most want, Stinger said.

"This helps us drill down on things that are really important," she said.

The survey clearly shows the public is clamoring for new services, especially an expanded collection - 85 percent said they wanted more books, media and other materials. Half said a "bigger and broader" collection was "very important."

Other popular services were homework centers, children's programs, online databases and outreach services to those who cannot physically get to the library.

The least popular services were books delivered by mail, a "distance learning and videoconferencing center," and meeting rooms.

Despite much community debate about the merit of the Palo Alto library in the past few years, 56 percent said they are "very satisfied" with the system. Only 3 percent said they are very dissatisfied.

"We've got a great foundation to build on," Stinger said. "I think we need to make sure we retain ... the people who are happy."

Still, while 17 percent thought "no changes are required" for the system, 56 agreed that while residents are "adequately served" by the library, "there is some room for improvement." Also, 18 percent agreed the library facilities are outdated "and their collections and services no longer meet needs." And 12 to 14 percent of survey responders reported visiting libraries in each of the closest cities - Los Altos, Menlo Park and Mountain View - in the last year.

Other members of the commission did not wish to comment on the new report or hadn't seen the results by the Weekly's deadline. Simpson, the controversial library director who announced last week she was leaving the city in July, also refused to comment on the results, saying she wanted the community to first "have the benefit" of the analysis by the research consultant, Godbe Research, Thursday night.

"I don't want to put any of my own conclusions out there," Simpson said.

A representative from Godbe Research did not return a call for comment by the Weekly's deadline.

At times, the survey results show Palo Alto residents are having vastly different experiences, possibly explaining why the community is so split about the value of the branches.

The most common compliment residents gave, in an open-ended question, is the library's collection. But an inadequate collection was also the most common complaint.

The second most-common complaint was outdated or cramped facilities. However, in November 2002, voters rejected a $49.1 million library bond measure that would have repaired and expanded two of the city's libraries, including the most crowded: Mitchell Park Library.

The second most-common compliment was the "helpful staff."

The survey did not describe what services the library already provides, and the results could be a useful tool for marketing the system's little-known strengths. For instance, the city librarians already deliver books to homebound customers, although the program's popularity has diminished over time. The library also has a fairly broad collection of databases already available on its Web site.

The biggest challenge for city leaders in coming months will be finding ways to increase funding for the library system for any expansion of its collections or services without proposing any closures. When the council awarded the commission $35,000 for the survey in August, council members warned the commission not to return with a "wish list" the city couldn't afford.

Council members also told the commission to include questions about whether residents would pay more for new library services or upgrades. However, the commission did not listen to the council.

Godbe Research advised not including a question about funding, saying it was the wrong time, so the commission complied, Stinger said. The new results will nonetheless aid the commission winnow its ideas for the library system's future, she argued.

"The survey will help us not to put together a wish list," Stinger said. "It's clear we can't put together a wish list. That's not fair to the council and it doesn't reflect well on us."

The Library Advisory Commission's special meeting, to present the results of the library survey, will be held on Thursday, Feb. 9 at 7 pm in the City Council Chambers.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be reached at bdagostino@paweekly.com.

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