There is now general consensus that our libraries need improvements. However, questions about the plan to achieve these improvements have been raised, including those in this newspaper's July 9 editorial (www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=8978).
In my 22 years as a manager at the Palo Alto City Library, with three and a half of these serving as director, I've been closely involved with the various studies and recommendations developed in recent years to improve our library system.
In 1994, former Library Director Mary Jo Levy and I took a funding proposal to City Manager June Fleming to upgrade the Library's technology. Before approving the proposed improvements at all branches, Fleming directed the preparation of a master plan for the library system.
That plan recommended the eventual closure of three of the library's then-six branches. The council put the plan on hold and in 1999 formed the Library Advisory Commission.
Since 2000, four more reports, one prepared by staff and three by the Library Advisory Commission, have, in part, addressed the branch question. Each council that reviewed the recommendations of these reports has reached the same conclusion — Palo Alto is best served by a branch system and no library should be closed. The Terman branch was closed when the school district needed the site to reopen a middle school, so we now have five.
While it's clear there is not unanimity in the community about the branch question, there is factual support backing the council's policy to maintain our branch-library system.
In 2006, an extensive survey by Godbe Research of residents' opinions about the library included a series of questions on potential design options. A conclusion of the survey was that residents liked the current distributed configuration of the Library. One finding was that 71 percent of the respondents felt having a "library close to home or work" was either very or somewhat important.
In contrast, 36 percent said having "library collections and services based in one location with alternate service points" was very or somewhat important.
Significantly in terms of the upcoming library-bond election, a telephone poll last June found that support for the proposed bond measure dropped significantly if the project to upgrade the Downtown Library was removed from the proposal.
I agree with those who believe that a multi-branch system is not the most cost-efficient way to provide library service in Palo Alto. We could provide a richer mix of services by operating only one or two facilities. But efficiency does not always equate to effectiveness — nor is it the only factor decision-makers consider in setting public policy.
Some people question the wisdom of continuing to operate the Downtown and College Terrace libraries and spending money to upgrade those buildings. The annual operating cost for these two libraries is now approximately $554,000, or 8.4 percent of the Library Department budget. Facility-maintenance costs are not included in this total, but these would remain even if the city used the buildings for other purposes. Approximately 5 percent of the proceeds from the upcoming bond measure will be used to upgrade the Downtown Library. The City's existing infrastructure fund will cover the needed renovations at College Terrace.
The costs to operate these two libraries have been held to a minimum. In 2003, as part of citywide budget cutbacks, we reduced hours and staffing at College Terrace and Downtown. Expensive reference collections were eliminated and professional librarians were reassigned to other libraries.
Despite these changes, circulation has increased at a faster rate at these branches in the last six years than across the library system as a whole. We seem to have found a good model for our smallest branches.
How to allocate staff in support of library service is largely a question of priorities. One of the recommendations from the 2007 Audit of Library Operations is to explore alternative patterns of scheduling staff to open more hours.
While increased hours is one goal for improved library service, the community has identified many others — better collections, additional programs for children and teens, more outreach to those who cannot come to the libraries, closer coordination with our school libraries, improved technology and better facilities.
All these goals require staff support to achieve.
A system to track staff hours spent to provide current library services is now in place. This will provide the needed data to evaluate the potential of additional hours and possible impacts on other services.
I agree with the Weekly's editorial board that Palo Alto's voters need to see a complete, detailed response to the library audit recommendations. We'll be bringing a report to council by early October about the library audit and our progress on its 32 recommendations — 80 percent of which have already been completed or are in progress.
While questions on how best to use staff and which service improvements have the highest priority will continue to be evaluated in the months ahead, last year's audit report clearly stated that Palo Alto's library facilities are in poor condition.
With the exception of the newly renovated Children's Library, our city libraries are outdated, lack space for growth of the collections, are not fully compliant with current seismic and other building codes, and do not provide the kinds of spaces enjoyed by residents in the majority of our neighboring communities.
Without upgrades that address these facility needs, the possibilities for significant library improvements are very limited. We have made and are making important strides in improving staffing efficiency and in improving our collections, but we truly need to upgrade our physical resources to make our libraries what they deserve to be to serve our residents, young and old and in between.