E-books spark outcry at Palo Alto libraries
As city plans to reduce print collection in favor of e-books, some see move as 'betrayal' of city's earlier promise
Palo Alto City Councilman Greg Scharff announced earlier this month that he has given up on "real books."
It's not that he doesn't read. He just finds print books too unwieldy and prefers to do his reading on his Kindle or his iPad.
"I don't like holding hard-cover books in my hand anymore — they're too heavy," Scharff said at a Nov. 1 meeting between the council and the Library Advisory Commission.
Scharff, who said he reads three to four books a month, said his three children have also made the switch, to varying degrees. His 18-year-old still reads paper books, while his 15-year-old has largely made the switch to digital. His youngest, who is 13, gets all his information from digital media.
Scharff called the e-book phenomenon "amazing" and predicted that books will "become anachronistic." He had even fiercer words for print periodicals.
"I think they'll just go away, and we'll end up purely with electronic periodicals," Scharff said, while Councilwoman Gail Price displayed her disagreement with a jocular you-just-stuck-a-knife-into-my-heart gesture.
The tension between print and e-books has particular resonance in Palo Alto these days. Library officials and council members acknowledge (most to a lesser extent that Scharff) that the publishing world is quickly transforming. Mayor Pat Burt told the library commission that the "only constant you'll see is change" and predicted, "Right now we may be at the tipping point for electronic books."
This nationwide transformation is looming large in the minds of local library officials because it happens to coincide with Palo Alto's own physical transformation of its aged library facilities. Now, the city must decide where its library's future will lie: in print or in digital volumes.
When city officials asked residents in 2008 to approve a $76 million bond (which voters did), they touted a larger collection as one of the major benefits of the project. But library officials and project architects are increasingly arguing that the "collection" does not necessarily mean print volumes.
The heated conversation about electronic books began in earnest in March and hit a fever pitch in the past month, as city officials began to finalize the new design of the Main Library — the last of the three libraries slated for renovations. Members of the group Friends of the Palo Alto Library (FOPAL), which sells books (the traditional kind) to raise money for local libraries, have come out swinging against a new proposal by the library staff and consulting architects to reduce shelving and increase seating at the Main Library — a setup that would lead to fewer print volumes at the library.
The group led a similar revolt last year, when staff proposed reducing the book collection at the Downtown branch. Staff ultimately agreed to add books to the small and central library.
The design work for the new and improved Main Library was largely completed in 2007, when e-books were just a speck on the horizon. In March of this year, Kathy Page, the city's space consultant for libraries, warned the Library Advisory Commission that this trend wasn't considered at the time officials were putting the designs together.
In a memo to former Library Director Diane Jennings and the city's architect, Group 4 Architecture, Page said that two library projects she has recently worked on estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the future collection would be electronic only. She recommended that 5 to 10 percent of the collection in the new Mitchell Park library be solely in electronic format. She also predicted the growth of e-readers, MP3 players, smart phones and personal computers would "continue to push public demand for digital content."
"As we plan facilities designed to serve the next generations of library users, factoring out a portion of shelving is not only valid but the responsible thing to do," Page wrote.
In April and again at the Oct. 28 meeting, when the library commission held a long and thorough discussion on design modification at Mitchell Park and Main libraries, Page emphasized the changing desires of libraries.
"There's a growing interest in electronic material with Kindles, iBooks and all these things," Page said at the October meeting. "We're moving into a direction where it's commonplace for long-term planning in the library to assume that a certain fraction of the collection would be digital."
Group 4 Architecture, which is designing all three bond-funded libraries, proposed a series of revisions to accommodate the new trend — namely, more seating, less shelving and fewer bound volumes. The goal for the city collection remains at 338,000 books and materials. But at Mitchell Park, the adult nonfiction print collection would increase from 17,080 volumes to 30,960 volumes rather than the originally planned 37,872. The adult fiction print collection would go from 8,000 volumes to 16,128 volumes rather than 17,856. The rest would be e-books.
At the Main Library, the changes would be more dramatic and hence more controversial. The adult collections, under the revisions, would actually shrink from the current 72,528 volumes to about 60,000. The branch would, however, pick up more seats, larger shelves and wider aisles than under the previous design.
This week, the plan ran into a wave of opposition from FOPAL members, who characterized the proposal to reduce shelves as a betrayal of the city's promise to its residents to expand the collection. Jim Schmidt, president of the FOPAL board, noted at Tuesday's community meeting at the Main Library that about 80 percent of the surveyed residents said before the 2008 vote that they view an expanded collection as the most important aspect of the colossal library project.
Tom Wyman, a member of FOPAL, warned city officials and architects that the changes could be interpreted as a "bait and switch" by residents who supported the bond because they wanted more volumes.
"We're all looking at it as potential for creating ill will," Wyman said, referring to the proposed revisions to the Main Library design. "Right now, there's a lot of people here who see this as a retrograde step — cutting the collection at this library."
His wife, Ellen, who is also on the FOPAL board, said she and many other people would see the cutback at the Main Library as a "simply dishonest" act by the city.
"If they want to pass another bond measure in the next eon, they better not do it," she said.
Jeff Levinsky, former president of FOPAL, also downplayed the rise of the e-books, noting that these books still make up only 0.6 percent of the library system's total circulation. Levinsky, who said he reads e-books, also characterized the decrease of print books as a "broken promise."
"Growth (in e-books) may seem large, but it's still a tiny, tiny share," Levinsky said Tuesday.
Others reject FOPAL's perspective, however. Valerie Stinger, vice chair of the commission, recalled a recent technology forum during which a woman from Channing House, a senior facility, approached her to inquire when books will become available for the iPad. The woman said the iPad makes it easier for her to see the reading material.
Leif Schaumann went a step further and said at Tuesday's meeting that the entire premise of the city's library-renovation project is misguided. He suggested the city consult with tech giants such as Google and Yahoo to figure out what the future will bring.
"I'd propose that five to 10 years from now, there will be no need for libraries or for staffing," Schaumann said, prompting another audience member to remind him that he was stating an opinion rather than fact. "All that you're seeing here is an extension of the past."
To honor its promise to the voters, yet also accept burgeoning digital preferences, the Library Advisory Commission has chosen to take the middle path and make "flexibility" the defining feature of the new designs. Last month, the commission unanimously adopted the plans recommended by Group 4 for the city libraries, but specified that the design should make it easy for the city to add shelving should the need arise.
Commissioner Bob Moss acknowledged the commission doesn't know how prominent e-books will be in the next few years, when the new and renovated libraries are finished.
"We made some assumptions, one of which is that we'll have an increase in e-books and a decrease in paper books over the next three or four years, which means you can put more things physically into a small space," Moss said. "We also said, 'We could be wrong.'
"The layout was designed so if we need more book spaces, they could be put back in."
Library officials and project architects also stress that the new libraries will provide the city with more than just bookshelves. They will also feature more seating space, better lighting, an outlet for a laptop at every table and new community and program rooms — places where residents can hold meetings and socialize.
Local libraries remain hugely popular, despite the changing trends in users' behavior, architect Dawn Merkes of Group 4 said at the Oct. 28 meeting of the library commission. Renovated libraries in cities such as Milpitas and Mountain View have been bringing in crowds, she said, and so will Palo Alto's.
"My understanding of the community that this library will serve is that every seat will be taken no matter how many seats you will have," Merkes said of the new Mitchell Park Library. "You can use every seat you can get and there will still be a teen sitting outside on the patio — just like now."
TALK ABOUT IT
What do you think the future of the Palo Alto Library should be? Do you read print or e-books? Share your opinion on Town Square, the community discussion forum, on Palo Alto Online.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at email@example.com.