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'Increase library efficiency before seeking $$'

Original post made on Sep 12, 2007

Palo Alto's bedraggled library system should focus on increasing staff efficiency and better tapping technology before seeking voter support for funds to improve "very poor" facilities, City Auditor Sharon Erickson told the City Council Monday night.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, September 11, 2007, 5:53 PM

Comments (30)

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2007 at 9:23 am

I wonder how many of these so called experts have actually used our libraries like the rest of us. How many have arrived at the library on a hot day to find it closed. How they have looked up the catalog to find the only available copy of a book is at a different library.

This sounds truly suspicious.


Posted by PA mom, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 12, 2007 at 9:39 am

How many of still think we have too many libraries?

We should close (rent the facilities??) the downtown and college terrace libraries and focus on Mitchell Park and the Main Library.


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 10:18 am

Sharon Erickson is a treasure! She and her team do wonderful work.

"Several council members said the audit will provide the city the opportunity to demonstrate it is using existing resources efficiently, before the upcoming $45 million bond measure -- targeted for June or November of 2008."

The most efficient way to use existing resources would be to close branches. The decision to keep all branches open was made without any financial analysis. Our former library director, Paul Simpson, was run out of town when she did the analysis that resulted in her recommendation of one library.

The audit says that delivering services through five branches is more expensive than a single facility system. It requires duplication of effort – the example on page 16 was Santa Clara which only needs 11 employees to staff customer service desks in its 80,000 square foot library, compared to Palo Alto that needs 14 employees to staff customer service desks in our total of 51,000 square feet (spread across 5 facilities).

Adopted budget for each branch:
Main $1,723,973
Children's $682,563 (from Sept. 07 when it reopens)
Mitchell Park $1,290,806
College Terrace $256,846
Downtown $252,205

The largest expenditures in the budget are salaries and collections. There's no way to find out how much is paid for maintenance, utility costs, etc. for each branch, because the city keeps budget and cost information by line item and by division (e.g. salaries, supplies) rather than by location.

However, we do know that fixing up all the facilities will be costly: "Estimates for Main Library renovations range from $9.5 to $13.5 million, while the Downtown Library needs about $5 million worth of work, according to a consultant's estimates." Web Link

From the library survey done last year:

- 71% of the respondents use the library from a few times/month to never. Only 28% are frequent users.

- 63% use the Main Library; 53% use Mitchell Park; 33% use the Children's Library. Only 13% use College Terrace and 24% Downtown.


Posted by Voter, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 10:35 am

PA Mom, I agree with you Downtown and College Terrace Libraries should be closed and available resources used on Main and Mitchell. However, this won't happen for political reasons; Downtown and College Terrace communities are too powerful and continually lobby to keep them open. Ironically a lot of PA residents agree with you but the idea is "dead on arrival". Because Downtown and College Terrace will remain open I plan to vcte against any library bond because that's the only way I can express my opinion.


Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 12, 2007 at 10:46 am

You are right, Voter--College Terrace especially knows how to get what it wants from the city-- a personal library branch, endless traffic calming etc. I also agree with you that I will not vote for th elibrary bond as long as all the branches remain open and the city council refuses to properly address this issue, as opposed to giving in to a vocal minority.


Posted by Library user, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2007 at 11:05 am

Didn't the Main Library just undergo a major upgrade? Is it even finished? and now another one is being planned?


Posted by Library user, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2007 at 11:11 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Benjamin, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 12:01 pm

Palo Alto receives a positive return on investment, in terms of benefits derived, from every dollar we spend on libraries. This is true of probably all public libraries, as demonstrated clearly in 23 municipal studies, to date.

Palo Alto's citizens have clearly stated in surveys and polls that they want to keep the branch system.

We value our walkable neighborhoods, and the fact that libraries are intricately related to PAUSD's success in many ways - from helping our students succeed, to keeping them involved in volunteer and other cultural activities that contribute to gaining university access, and preparing them for later life.

Libraries have FAR more benefits than the costs associated with building and mainitaining them.

Palo Alto will pass a library bond in 2008, to repair a library system that has suffered from underinvestment and neglect, for years.

The audit clearly says that the ;atter is the case.


Posted by Rick, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 12, 2007 at 1:37 pm

Here we go again. Mitchell Park library needs expanding!!!

It is crowded. What kind of a city is Palo Alto if it won't support libraries?

If branch libraries are kept they should be built throuhout all of the city, equally distanced!!! College Terrace is a tiny section of Palo Alto. What kind of a council do we have that is only concerned with "Special Neighborhoods" that make demands?

This "Special Neighborhood" approach is so "blankeyt-blank----" such as undergrounding of power lines, special parks, a pedestrian underpass to nowhere, etc., etc.===

It's not hard to figure out who is really running this city and it's not ordinary homeowners/residents, concerned with the quality of life in the whole city.


Posted by PA mom, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 12, 2007 at 2:25 pm

"Palo Alto's citizens have clearly stated in surveys and polls that they want to keep the branch system." I'm sure if you asked the same people if the would like a new car, a room for each of their children, or a new computer, they would say yes to that too. Just because you want something, does not mean that you can afford it. Last time we had a library bond, it didn't pass. There are many people, myself included, that did not and will not vote for a bond which includes the Downtown or College Terrace Library.


Posted by Tara, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 12, 2007 at 2:26 pm

Rick, College Terrace library is used by citizens from all over Palo Alto, to a significant degree.


Posted by PA mom, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 12, 2007 at 2:30 pm

Tara -
I suspect all those citizens (who if they are from all over anyway, are driving or biking) would find their way to the Main Library or Mitchell Park. We could also use our school libraries as "transfer points" where people could pick-up and drop-off requested books. There is a school in almost every neighborhood.


Posted by Voter, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 2:45 pm

The title of these postings is: "Increase library efficiency before seeking $$$" Closing Downtown and College Terrace would increase efficiency and save money. Unfortunately, the library survey was so biased in favor of giving the answers the library zealots wanted there was no chance of expressing a desire to close the branches to save money.


Posted by Still don't get it, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 3:41 pm

What exactly do these 23 studies show?

My quick look at one showed that buying a grand piano for $40K and limiting to one hour/week use by each resident,we would see a return to the city of 2.4M/year (assuming 6 day/10 hour/day access). Because everyone using the piano got $40K of use (they didn't have to buy a piano). That is a 6000% return/year. Not including the extra hotel business driven by people coming to hear these improved piano players.

Could someone succinctly explain the meaning of these famous 23 studies?


Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 3:56 pm

Oh good heavens, please not the 23 studies again! The death knell of all library threads.

Our libraries blow - I mean really, I am hard pressed to find name libraries in any town worse than ours. "Dump" is about the right word for most of them. And yes, the zealous few have triumphed over the complacent many over and over again. And I expect they will again - UNTIL CITY COUNCIL LEADERSHIP EMERGES to lay out a vision, show they can actually execute on it, and sell the voters on change.

Personally I adore libraries and am ashamed of ours. But only a crisis will precipitate the kind of culture change PA politics seems to need. Vote no.


Posted by Anna, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 4:34 pm

Terry's is a voice of sanity (and not just on the infamous cliched 23 studies). Libraries are something the city should have, and something the city should place a high priority on.

When done well, libraries add a lot to the community, and are something which garner widespread support. Whether their benefits exceed costs when done well in the "23 Studies" sense that Benjamin and (and Mike of College Terrace, his alter ego) suggest is really beside the point. The city would have no difficulty getting votes if the Council were to lay out the vision Terry suggests.

As the last library bond vote shows, voters are not willing to vote en masse for the ill-thought-out, poorly run system we have now. And in a city with as much natural support for learning and libraries as Palo Alto, things have gotten pretty rotten at city hall when they can't sell a library bond. Until a crisis precipitates a change in the way the city does things, there ain't gonna be no library bond.


Posted by Hmmm., a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 9:25 pm

I think part of the issue is that the world has changed around libraries, and their role needs to be re-examined.

Books have been around a long time, but no one can claim that they are the main source of reference now. Nor entertainment.

Internet access is not limited to "one at a time" like a physical book is. A library for providing internet access just doesn't make nearly as much sense as a library that lends physical objects.

What is a library really for? That is, what will replace old-fashioned libraries? Is there a need or role for a direct replacement for them, or do we start thinking along the lines of, "how can we invest in general information/entertainment resources for the city population in a way that makes sense now and in the future?"

Use of libraries has evolved to include being a place to bring your own books and study and a place to play video games. In fact, when I go to Mitchel library in the afternoon, most people in there are not using the library as a place to find books to borrow.

Can we be leaders in investing in new ways to serve the city, while still preserving traditional library services?


Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 9:54 pm

Hmm, we could be leaders; but I would be happy to be just a follower in doing a decent job. You don't have to look far for decent 21st century libraries - meeting rooms, big audio and video collections, tons of screens, gallery space, coffee bar. It isn't rocket science and doesn't require great innovation. My big concern is just block and tackle - get the basics rights and get the job done; manage the spending well, be frugal and efficient.


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2007 at 11:46 pm

Yes, those 23 studies are indeed back to haunt us. We are told that "no less than 23 well-designed studies have clearly shown that public libraries actually pay back a profit to municipalities, based on real benefits received for tax dollars spent."

Problem is, no one making this claim seems able to provide any hard data.

From the Ohio library study at Web Link

"Nine public libraries in Southwest Ohio spent $74.4 million in 2005 on library operations. These expenditures included amounts for materials, database services, salaries, and other costs of operations at all main and branch libraries. Library patrons received direct benefits from library services during the same period of about $190.4 million."

Note that the benefit to LIBRARY PATRONS was calculated by figuring out how much they would have paid to purchase books, DVDs, etc. if they were not able to get these materials free from the library. While taxpayers spent $74.4 million on library operations, $190.4 million did not go into the general fund.

In this calculation, there is no real return, just a shift in cost from a small group of people (library patrons) to the general tax-paying public. There are no real dollars generated.

I obtained a print copy of the St. Louis Library Study, which was done in 2000. It provides similar information.

The study uses cost benefit analysis to determine direct benefits to an individual user (not to the entire population), e.g., for borrowing a book. It estimates how much users would be willing to pay for such items if they didn't have the library.

The study specifically does not incorporate indirect benefits -- e.g., the collective benefits to all members of a neighborhood such as a shared sense of community -- because they can't be calculated.

I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with any of this. It's just important to read the studies carefully, look for real data, and understand exactly what benefits are being claimed.


Posted by ValueForMoney, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 13, 2007 at 7:59 am

"no less than 23 well-designed studies have clearly shown that public libraries actually pay back a profit to municipalities, based on real benefits received for tax dollars spent."

This is a joke, right? Are you seriously trying to use this as an argument to spend more money on PA Libraries? PA Libraries already get more per-capita than any neighboring city and we have libraries that are worse. How do these studies show that spending even more money will address this?

<table><tr align="center"><td> </td><td><b>Spending<br>Per<br>Capita</b></td><td><b>Hours<br>Open<br>Annually</b></td></tr><tr><td>Palo Alto</td><td>$97.01</td><td>10,488</td></tr><tr><td>Santa Clara</td><td>$57.70</td><td>5,439</td></tr><tr><td>Mountain View</td><td>$55.19</td><td>3,175</td></tr><tr><td>Menlo Park</td><td>$61.58</td><td>4,818</td></tr><tr><td>Sunnyvale</td><td>$49.97</td><td>3,403</td></tr></table>

PA Libraries are open more hours but the PA library service is worse. Neighboring cities have similar populations, these numbers scream reduce the amount of hours our libraries are open not spend more money. There is no justification for spending nearly twice the amount as neighboring cities for an inferior service.

We should be looking at ways of making our libraries as good as the neighboring cities libraries for a comparable per-capita budget.


Posted by Happy reader, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2007 at 8:33 am

Palo Alto libraries are extremely agressive with fines. Which is why I use the Santa Clara County Library in Los Altos. It's nicer than any of Palo Alto libraries, too. Because they seem to use fines to encourage people to return the books, rather than to collect revenue, I end up using the library far more and haven't paid a fine in a long time. And at the end of the year, I'm happy to fork over a generous donation to the Friends of the Los Altos library. Didn't that library get some kind of huge seven figure donation from someone who died recently? That kind of thing starts with generating goodwill in the community.

Palo Alto seems to get revenue for the general fund from fines, the fines don't go to the libraries. Thus, no one in city hall or the library administration seem willing to take a second look at how fines are structured and collected. While I don't think it's the whole picture, I do think the resulting loss in patronage and goodwill definitely hurts our libraries. It could be one factor in the loss of bond measures in close voting.

Our libraries are shabby, unfriendly in so many ways. We need to renovate at least one of two of them, or even build whole new buildings. If that means closing Downtown or College Terrace, I'm all for it. But what do I care? The things that would make me personally return to the Palo Alto libraries have more to do with lending policies and how staff deal with the community. If those things were more welcoming, I'd also probably feel more generous toward our libraries at the end of the year and on voting day.


Posted by In favor of branch libraries, a resident of Meadow Park
on Sep 13, 2007 at 9:18 am

I am in favor of our branch library system. As Sharon Erickson pointed out, there has been no line item in the budget for library upkeep. Because no money has been available for upkeep, the result is the poor condition of our libraries. Palo Altans want walkable neighborhoods, libraries for all and no further degradation of neighborhoods. We should be supporting small developments with little traffic impact and litte water usage and we should keep the libraries we have.


Posted by Planned Obsolescence, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 13, 2007 at 9:43 am

The so called deterioration of the libraries has not been accidental. When you don't do routine maintenance things get to look worn. Then looking at the neighbors makes you feel deprived. The planned obsolescence has done its job.
The libraries should have improved lighting long ago. Reupholstering the cushions on the soft chairs would have brightened up the rooms. Maybe new carpeting every 15 years or so. This isn't rocket science. Every home owner knows this.
Previous library directors have not done their jobs, proper maintenance of the physical plant over time would not be costing us 30 + million dollars now.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2007 at 9:47 am

One of the criticisms that is often used about our libraries is how busy they are, particularly after school, with people using the libraries for internet/computer use.

One of the things that Palo Alto does not have is an internet cafe. It would be a great idea to have a couple of these around town. I would like to see an internet cafe, where I can pay for an hour's use, (or however long) and I am sure that I am not the only one. I recently lost my internet use for a couple of days and found the library to be a very poor substitute. I had to sign in and wait if I needed longer than 15 minutes, and the position of the computer I was using was particularly uncomfortable. I was only checking email, reading the news, and a couple of other things, so 15 minutes was fine, but there was no space to put my bag, write down information I needed and I am not sure about printing facilities.

I am sure that a couple of good internet cafes where those of us who don't mind paying a reasonable amount for good facilities would really help the library problem. I know that this is not something the libraries themselves should be involved in starting, but an enterprising business could definitely find a way of establishing a solution to a need. The libraries are only open certain hours, an internet cafe could be open 7 - 11, 7 days a week and provide a really good service.

Just a thought.


Posted by Palo alto mom, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 13, 2007 at 11:11 am

I don't know if the obsolescence was actually planned or there are just more "physical plants" than can be maintained give the budget. We spend more on staffing because we are staffing 5 buildings, not one or two as most of our neighboring towns. If you have 5 kids, you spend less on each kid then if you only have one.


Posted by Planned Obsolescence, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 13, 2007 at 5:09 pm

I DO know it was planned because several things happened before the survey was taken that could not be accidental. The most obvious was moving huge bookcases along the path toward the DVD racks in Mitchell Park--they loomed over you, and then a public meeting was called for exactly that crowded spot, of all the other possible locations for a meeting.
Installing extra outlets for computer users, (or extension wires) a simple easy repair. Took a large number of requests and reminders from computer users before it was done.
The removal of those little golf pencils and cut-up scratch paper from almost all the carels and computers. Hardly any cost, but a comfort to the user who needs to take down a note, were removed.
Removing seats and tables from Downtown and Mitchell Park.
Not installing high wattage energy-efficient bulbs in lamps. So the lighting continues to be dimmer than necessary.
Not painting some dark areas.
There are other examples, but you get the idea. These things cost trivial amounts money but not doing them creates a feeling of deprivation and poverty. You bet it is intentional.


Posted by Carly, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 13, 2007 at 6:24 pm

Planned O is right. Anyone who was around for the last Library Bond election no doubt has fond memories of story after story in the local papers (with pictures) showing us the frayed extension cords, leaking roofs and crowded shelves. Get ready for more.

And then ask why a city that spends almost twice as much per resident as Mountain View has to have higher taxes for libraries when Mt. View built a brand new state of the art library without extra taxes or bonds.


Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 13, 2007 at 7:01 pm

Ah good - our crumbling infrastructure (streets, sewers, library, police station) is just a ingenious long-thought-out secret plot to get us to invest more in new stuff! And I thought our city couldn't execute - why, they are brilliant!

If you think moving a bookshelf or two and a new coat of paint is all we need to get modern libraries, you should get out more.

Or could it be that we are simply bloated, inefficient, and under-managed, with city officials who'd rather talk big and do "policy" while ignoring the day-to-day ditch digging work of running a small city?



Posted by Palo alto mom, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 13, 2007 at 8:27 pm

From what I understand, Mountain View sold off some extra land and used the money for the library. And there IS ONLY ONE, NOT FIVE!!


Posted by Against Bonds, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2007 at 7:46 am

Financing our proposed library improvements including a new Mitchell Park Library need not be financed with a bond measure. The City should pick a piece of surplus land and ask the voters for approval to sell it, the proceeds could then be used to finance library improvements.

Mountain View build a brand new library by selling surplus land near Shoreline, why can't we?


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