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December 08, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Guest Opinion: Another approach to Palo Alto library reorganization Guest Opinion: Another approach to Palo Alto library reorganization (December 08, 2004)

by Doug Moran

The report by Palo Alto's new library director, Paula Simpson, on the state of the libraries (www.cityofpaloalto.org/library/pdf/CouncilReport.pdf) provides a useful overview of the issues and problems she confronts.

But I was immediately struck by the absence of quantitative information, the narrow set of options offered and the vagueness about their impacts on services and usage.

I was surprised not to see a discussion of the impact of technology on how the collections are managed. Anecdotal evidence (friends and neighbors) indicates a massive shift in how people check-out books: Many check for availability online from home.

And since they haven't made a physical trip to the library, it often doesn't matter if there is a one- or two-day delay before a book can be picked up. For those of us who like to scan a couple of passages before getting a book, Amazon.com is working on providing just that capability.

This change could allow more extensive use of inter-library loans, and addresses the problem that our libraries have run out of shelf space to expand the collection.

The continued existence of the "neighborhood libraries" -- College Terrace and Downtown -- is a high-profile element of this debate. We should refer to them with a different name, such as "satellite facilities," to free them from the pretense that they are supposed to be small-scale versions of the larger "resource libraries."

To start thinking about how they might be different, consider that in 2003-2004 they accounted for 10 percent of circulation and 16 percent of the visits -- but on only roughly 6 percent of the Library budget. The explanation is that they don't provide the most expensive services -- primarily reference librarians. They also have the potential to make broader use of volunteers.

The argument for closing the satellite facilities fails to consider the effect of redirecting their current users to the resource libraries -- facilities that are already over-stretched (according to the report). And there would be increased parking requirements. Most of the "costly duplications" cited are between the resource libraries, so it is a non-sequitur to use them to argue for closing the satellite facilities.

Instead there should be a finer-grained examination of which services are provided where, not just to minimize duplication, but better to balance the load across the library system. For example, the small permanent collection at College Terrace is little used and is regarded as a waste of money and space by many, perhaps most, library users. And the Downtown branch will be impacted by a greatly expanded "customer base" from the new high-density housing on the former campus of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

The option recommended by Simpson is to build a new Main Library. This would be years, if not decades, away because it would require a bond measure to finance it and because the location is controversial. Yet the discussion of this option does not address how the many existing difficulties would be handled in the interim.

The intensity of support for the satellite facilities reflects the range of people who would have their usage of the library severely curtailed by loss of these facilities. They are not just minor conveniences.

The alternatives for the future of the library system are presented as if the various buildings are the basic units of services to be cut or retained. Instead, we should first examine and prioritize the actual services, and then decide how to make best use of the available buildings. We need to avoid creating false savings by reducing usage by making services inconvenient.

A creative rethinking of how services are delivered might find that the satellite facilities are not just a convenience for their users but provide an economical means for reducing the pressures on the resource libraries, thereby benefiting the whole community.

Douglas B. Moran is a computer scientist and 19-year resident of Palo Alto. He is president of the Barron Park Association and has been a member of various city advisory groups and committees. He writes this as an individual. He can be e-mailed at libraries-guestop@dougmoran.com.


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