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What do we want our libraries to DO?

Original post made by Valerie Hunt Stinger, Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Aug 8, 2006

Much has been written in local papers about the recommendations for the libraries and about the constituent groups. Community groups and individuals have been vocal and have written to the City Council and the Library Advisory Commission (LAC).
But I, as a relatively new LAC member, find it frustrating that we haven't focused on the important issues. It feels as if we've been setting the table before planning the menu.
We haven't honestly considered what Palo Alto's libraries can do or should do -- we're hung up on how many doors and windows without consideration for the soul of the program. Branches are important to this community. Accordingly, the City Council has protected branches and the LAC's Library Service Model Analysis and Recommendations (LSMAR) commits to branches. We have decided on the heirloom crystal and china.
Now we need to consider what are we going to serve: Where's the meat?
When I look at my neighbor's plate, I admit to some sadness and envy. Daniel Alarcon, author of "War by Candlelight," appeared at the East Palo Alto Library this year just prior to Cinco de Mayo. Mountain View has a program, Senior Mornings, when the library opens early for seniors.
Transportation is coordinated with senior centers and users have "personal shopping" attention. Los Altos hosts World Affairs Council programs as part of the library's lecture series. Redwood City Library partners with Montalvo to sponsor a poetry competition at the Fox Theater. Santa Clara, Mountain View and Redwood City have bilingual story hours. Mountain View provides small group study/research spaces.
Many of these communities have invested in facility upgrades to achieve their vision.
While our librarians do an excellent job, Palo Alto City Libraries can do so much more for language learners and to be more forward-thinking in our planning for seniors and others. We can help young persons better navigate this bewildering world of choices and encourage critical thinking.
Public libraries are more than caretakers of printed material and media. Community libraries can be well designed to house rich collections and, at the same time, to be flexible spaces providing community enrichment through innovative access to literature and reference resources, literacy programs, lifelong learning and cultural awareness programs.
The picture is not all bleak. Palo Alto library staff is creative and truly cares about outreach. Maya Spector, coordinator of library programs, has organized a special program for October: "Palo Alto Reads ... 'Funny in Farsi.'" It has every promise of being a dynamic literary event and a cultural exchange that engages diverse segments of our community. Maya says the program came together because the temporary closing of the Children's' Library provided a bit of wiggle room in her schedule. But it may be not be a sustainable model given the normal staff workload.
The need to increase our collection is also recognized in the Library Service Model and by the council. In July, the council directed staff to come back with a plan to use technology to enhance resource sharing, including inter-library loan services such as Link Plus. There are issues such as software compatibility, implementation and maintenance costs, and loans to other library systems. But these are expected to be outweighed by the advantages of an inter-library loan service, which could clearly provide an important boost to city library collections.
Nonetheless, it doesn't address all the issues of our core collection. Projections, based on Mountain View's experience, are that a Link Plus type system would account for less than one percent of check-outs.
Palo Alto has been characterized as a city of civic responsibility and vibrant community services. I hope we can continue in that vein and build a sustainable library model, based on current strengths and adapting to new challenges. This requires a focus on needs and the best design for collections, programs and services. It entails hard work to optimize our infrastructure to deliver the best libraries for the future.
Exciting opportunities exist to tap into productive conversations such as: "Libraries in the Digital Age," "Libraries as a Third Space," "Libraries for Seniors," and "Libraries Evolving with Demands on Students." These opportunities challenge us to commit ourselves to library collections, programs and services in our community and add a sense of urgency to the LAC and city staff as they complete their work by their end-of-year deadline.
We, the LAC and community members, have four months, a willing council, an incredibly dedicated and resilient staff, and a "Top 3" priority status this year. Now is the time to deliver on this opportunity.
LAC has a full agenda for the fall. Everyone can and is encouraged to participate in this public discussion. A schedule of fall LAC meetings and topics is at, under the Library Advisory Commission's Long Range Plan.-

Comments (3)

Posted by Noah
a resident of University South
on Aug 12, 2006 at 8:16 am

I have two simple requests, and neither are urgent. My family pretty much loves the libraries just as they are. We are regular visitors of the downtown branch, and occasionally visit the main branch when the downtown is closed on Sundays. I also spent many long Sundays at the main branch studying for an evening Masters program and can say it was a great location well balanced with staff, services, and visitors of all ages.

1. Better hours at the downtown branch. It doesn't have to be much - say a few new hours on a weeknight and/or Sunday. This library is great, but for working adults is almost off-limits with it's very part-time hours.

2. Join the Link-Plus inter-library loan/catalog system. I don't know all of the details here, but from what I've read it's a very easy way to vastly expand our collection and share reciprocally with other local libraries. As long as there are no large or unreasonable costs, this seems like a no-brainer.

Posted by Michael Reynolds
a resident of Southgate
on Aug 12, 2006 at 12:11 pm

I have FOUR requests:

1. Look for reasonable ways to generate revenue from library FEES.
e.g., Stop operating libraries as a free alternative to Blockbuster Video, and do as other libraries do and charge a modest $1 FEE to check out an Audi-Visual item. At the same time, do as other libraries do and charge a modest $0.75 FEE for each HOLD request on library materials. Finally, do as other libraries do and charge non-residents a modest annual or per-item FEE for access to Palo Alto libraries. (Total annual fee revenue est. $400,000+ at current circulation/usage patterns.)

2. During this year that the Children's Library is being remodeled, SAVE all of the money that's been budgeted for new children's materials (est. $100,000+). For just this year when space is tight for children's materials, let our children rely on our already excellent children's collection.

3. INVEST this year's $500,000 revenue/savings and invest each subsequent year's $400,000 revenue/savings in labor-saving Library Technology.

4. Rely on labor-saving new technology to REDUCE costly library headcount (est. $100,000+/year, fully burdened, for each position.)

Posted by K
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 10, 2006 at 6:41 pm

I am a professional librarian and my main issue with the Palo Alto library system and the endless multi-library branch vs. budget reality argument is that we (the city, the residents, the library system) ought to learn from neighbouring cities that have moved ahead with library expansions, or facility or program changes....there are so many excellent examples around us, like Santa Clara...why don't we ever look at best practices in this region?

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