Seeking to accommodate the digital age, Palo Alto officials are revising design plans for new city libraries to enable more laptops and electronic books.
But not everyone is happy about the new approach, with some calling it a violation of promises from the 2008 library-bond election.
City officials and project architects from the Group 4 Architecture firm discussed the looming changes at a Tuesday night public meeting at Main Library. Main is the third and final library slated for major renovations under a $76 million bond measure residents approved in 2008.
Construction is underway at the Downtown Library and the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center. Work is slated to start at Main in 2012, shortly after the new Mitchell Park branch reopens.
When it reopens, the Main Library will have a new wing with a program room, along with new bathrooms and four group-study rooms.
But under recently revised plans, the book collection would remain the same or possibly even be reduced. That's because library officials are banking on electronic books becoming more popular in coming years and they want local libraries to be prepared for the digital era.
Though electronic books make up less than a percentage of the city's current collection, they are becoming more popular among local patrons. Ned Himmel, the city's interim library director, said the use of e-books within the library has gone up by more than 30 percent over the past year, based on .6 percent of circulation. The library has about 14,000 e-book titles, about 7 percent of its overall collection.
At Tuesday's meeting, Himmel predicted that "this year is the key year for use of e-books" and noted that Amazon is now selling more books for its Kindle than real books, in terms of new bestsellers.
"The trend is really toward electronic resources and the library has to reflect that use in the community," Himmel told an audience of about 20 residents.
"In the future, it's going to be even greater."
Not everyone, however, is happy about the shift. Several residents, most of them affiliated with the group Friends of the Palo Alto Library (FOPAL), urged staff and Group 4 officials to keep collection levels steady at the Main Library.
Jim Schmidt, president of the FOPAL board of directors, pointed to a poll that was taken before the 2008 vote in which 80 percent of the responders chose collection size as the most important factor for them in the library project.
FOPAL had voiced similar opposition last year, when library officials were planning to curtail the collection of traditional books at the Downtown Library. Staff ultimately agreed to add shelving to accommodate a larger collection at the small but central branch.
"I don't think the conversations about collections, in downtown or here, have been what I'd characterize as clean," Schmidt said. "And I wouldn't characterize where the Downtown Library came out and where the Main Library seems to be headed as consistent with the results of the poll."
Longtime FOPAL member Ellen Wyman also argued against reducing the book collection at Main and said city officials had promised before the 2008 vote to expand the collection.
"A great many people, me included, will see it as simply dishonest (for the city) to say that and then, at one of the two largest libraries in town, to reduce the size of collection," Wyman said.
"If they want to pass another bond measure in the next eon, they better not do it."
Group 4 and the Library Advisory Commission have wrestled with the question of collection size in recent months and concluded that the best way to plan for the future is to make the design at Main as flexible as possible.
Last month, the commission agreed to add seating to the Main Library and to make slight reductions in shelving. But members specified that the new design should make it easy to install new shelves should the need arise.
"We want flexibility of space -- flexibility in terms of how people use it today and how they might use it in the future," Commission Vice Chair Valerie Stinger said. "We need room for changes. We need room for what will happen 10 to 15 years forward."
Commissioner Bob Moss said the Main Library's design was prompted by recent trends in library usage, with fewer people coming into libraries exclusively to check out books and more sticking around to use their laptops or to hold activities.
"They come to be in a location where they can interact with each other," Moss said. "Part of the change is putting a meeting room in and designing it so people cam come to meeting rooms and interact."
The program room, which will be located in a newly constructed wing, aims to provide this meeting space. Dawn Merkes, an architect with Group 4, pointed to the overcrowded conditions at the library's periodical room, where the Tuesday meeting was taking place, as a good illustration for why the new room is needed.
"This is the perfect example for why we need program space," Merkes said. "We had to kick people out of this room and stop them from using newspapers and magazines because there was no space to hold this meeting other than in this part of the library.
"Currently, this library is having a huge challenge in finding program space because there is a demand in the community for additional program rooms."