Let's start with the most important changes or needs and work out from there.
According to the recent survey of Palo Altans' feelings about the library, one need stands out: Enlarging the collections.
That also the biggest near-term opportunity. There is a statewide system of public and university libraries that provides easy access to 18 million books contained in the member libraries. Some technical issues that have blocked our joining this system, known as Link+, have recently been resolved in another city.
Joining Link+ will have two big consequences. First, it will dramatically change how the libraries manage their collections. For example, the library can more easily decide to discard books that are rarely used locally but are adequately stocked in the overall system. This frees up valuable shelf space for books more likely to be used.
The second consequence is that it will change how people get books from the library. With the vast majority of the available collection in libraries outside of Palo Alto, people will not expect to drop into a library, find a book or other item and check it out. Rather they will use the online card catalog to find and request books and later go to the library to pick them up. Usage statistics for the card catalog suggest that this is already common.
The next big change is one that is overdue. It is weird to use "marketing" in conjunction with libraries, but Palo Alto needs to take a marketing-style evaluation of library services.
First, it needs to examine the services it provides. Some services are core elements of the library's role, but others have been attached as add-ons to libraries at various times and places.
Should the libraries also serve as homework centers, for instance? This question was raised during the unsuccessful campaign to replace the Mitchell Park Library.
The recent library survey asked about providing adult-literacy programs. Why? Adult education is an existing and more natural provider. The library should avoid areas where it has no competitive advantage to better focus its resources.
Second, the library needs to re-evaluate how it promotes (advertises) its services. Anecdotal evidence is that many residents are unaware of offerings in which they would be interested.
Third, the library needs to examine whether some of its "hidden services" can and should be outsourced. One example is selection of new books, currently done by the library staff. Are there services to recommend books based upon the community and circulation profile — similar to what booksellers, such as Amazon.com, do for individual buyers?
Students are a significant portion of the library users, and better coordination with the school district's libraries might produce both better service and cost-savings. There are multiple levels of cooperation below actual sharing of facilities. For example, the City Library could treat the schools as branches for the purposes of the Link+ virtual library.
By making the abysmally underfunded school libraries more useful to students, the city libraries would benefit from reduced crowding.
Shelf space is at a premium in our libraries. Better coordination between city and school libraries would allow more efficient use and distribution of the collection. Remember, the taxpayers for the City and the School District are essentially the same people.
In essence, school libraries could become limited (restricted) branches of a joint Palo Alto system.
I was surprised by the recent survey results that showed little dissatisfaction with the physical state of the libraries. My assessment is that the libraries do need a variety of focused upgrades to their interiors and furnishings — driven not by individual aesthetic tastes but by knowledge about where and how good design improves usability.
The discussion of the future of our libraries needs to be structured around the constraints — budget, floor space, shelf space — and the coming opportunities and trends that can be expected to reshape dramatically how the library is used and hence how it needs to be staffed and managed.
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