Balancing the books in Palo Alto's libraries

Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 17, 1998

Balancing the books in Palo Alto's libraries

Faced with space needs and a lagging collection, the unwieldy branch library system has come to a crossroads

by Elisabeth Traugott

Mary Jo Levy, Palo Alto's director of libraries, is puzzled. On her desk sits a new book, the cataloging of which has mystified her and her staff.

The book is about ballroom dancing. It's filled with photographic illustrations of fancily-clad feet in different stages of dance. On its face, it would be easy to describe as an instructional book, or a book about the arts or dance.

But the identity crisis comes when readers flip to the back inside cover, where they will find a compact disc of music to practice to. To make matters worse, the book also comes with cutouts of footprints for beginners to stand on as they practice their moves.

It seems, according to Levy, that the book is not really a book at all, but a piece of "media."

"All of these things have different shelving requirements," she said. And its multidimensionality represents a challenge to public libraries everywhere: technology is changing the way that libraries do business."

Levy's shelving dilemma may be just a minor annoyance in the daily routine of a librarian. But it represents a larger struggle--one that has surfaced recently in the most heated tones. At its core, the issue is about change: Should Palo Alto's unwieldy library system--antiquated yet beloved--remain in place, or should it be transformed into a 21st century model that could boast efficiency but not nearly as much community feel?

"The environment in which libraries find themselves now is drastically changing," Levy said, although she emphasized that the mission--to provide a neutral place to learn about the world--is staying very much the same.

Sparking the debate was a draft master plan released earlier this year suggesting, as one option, that the city close three of its six libraries. To consolidate resources, expand into new media and deepen its existing collection, College Terrace, Downtown and Terman Park would be shuttered.

But the plan has met fierce resistance from those who hold branch libraries dear--their neighbors. A newly appointed library commission is expected to begin assessing the merits of the plan in January 1999. Until then, one thing is certain: The city will continue to hear from a vocal community that the branch libraries must stay put.

According to City Manager June Fleming, her staff will be listening. "This is not our final recommendation," Fleming said. "This is just a beginning discussion place."

Fleming made light of the plan's draft nature because it has met with such vehement opposition from many sides. Since its release, she came out in support of a library commission, as opposed to the more administratively simple advisory body that she had originally advocated.

Until the new commission has a chance to meet--Fleming expects that to happen at the beginning of 1999--the draft plan will remain on the back burner.

"It just seems realistic to me that we not proceed with it any further," Fleming said. "When we get this advisory commission put in place, we will bring that plan out and involve them in the process of going to the community, finding out from the community what kind of library service they want."

But behind the passion surrounding the debate lie stark facts that don't bode well for the libraries if they continue to operate at their current staffing and funding levels.

Together, the three libraries targeted for closure--College Terrace, Terman Park and Downtown--attract a mere 14 percent of usage systemwide, based on total visits.

Together, the Main, Mitchell Park and Children's libraries--those that would remain open and would expanded under the draft plan--account for 86 percent of total library visits. The report notes that they are seriously understaffed.

According to the report, Children's Library usage has increased by 236 percent in the past ten years but no additional staff have been hired to deal with the surge in usage. Levy said the Children's Library is only able to offer one toddler story hour a week, for example, while demand has grown enough for three.

Perhaps more seriously, the six-branch system spreads library resources too thinly, the report suggests. Because certain key materials must be duplicated in each branch--each library, for example, must have an encyclopedia, subscriptions to popular magazines and basic reference materials--fewer resources are devoted to bringing depth to the library's holdings.

In addition, funding is currently needed to staff six circulation desks, and a complex interlibrary delivery system must be maintained to circulate returned and requested materials between the branches.

But on top of the pressure on resources and staff, the Palo Alto libraries continue to be some of the most heavily used in the state.

Currently, the Beverly Hills library is the only California library that exceeds Palo Alto's 17.5 circulation-per-capita rate (Translation: Every Palo Altan checks out more than 17 items per year from the library, on average). This figure takes on more significance when one considers that materials funding in Palo Alto is 29 percent below the state average and is extended across six libraries, according to the report.

The branch system also detracts from the variety of books the libraries can offer. There are currently 270,025 items in the Palo Alto library collection, yet because of the need for duplication, there are only 158,662 individual titles--11 percent lower than the average collection depth.

How did Palo Alto's libraries come to be designed in such an inefficient way? The answer is: completely by accident. The branch system is a patchwork representing different eras of the city's history. Never was there an overarching plan to design such a library structure.

In 1904, the first main library opened at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Bryant Street in the Carnegie building, which has since been demolished and replaced by City Hall.

The first branch library is now known as the College Terrace library, although at the time it was founded in 1936, it was called the Mayfield Library because of its proximity to the settlement of the same name located around California Avenue.

The Children's library was given to the city by Palo Alto benefactor Lucie Stern in honor of her daughter Ruth, and was finished in 1940. It was designed by local architect Birge Clark.

In 1958, two additional libraries were added to the system--the expansive new Main Library and the library at Mitchell Park. When the Carnegie building was demolished in 1968, the Downtown library was established to replace it. Finally, in 1985, the Terman Park library was opened in southwest Palo Alto to fill a need in that area of the city.

While the library system is diverse in both the location and the size of its branches, according to the draft master plan, its layout was never designed according to a grand scheme.

"If it were, the design would, most likely, be very different," the report reads. If the three proposed branch closures went into effect, under the draft master plan, the remaining three branches would be significantly enlarged. Preliminary plans call for 56 percent more room at Children's Library and a 45 percent expansion at Mitchell Park. The Main Library would more than double in size, expanding by 30,000 square feet, sprawling onto the existing organic garden.

Consolidating the system into three larger branches would also help address staffing issues. The number of library employees in Palo Alto's six libraries--widely praised for their professionalism and courtesy--total 54, only two more than the 52 employed in Mountain View's single branch. Palo Alto's staffing problem is compounded by the fact that its branch system has more than three times the total open hours of Mountain View, meaning that there are fewer staff on hand at all times.

So why is a community that thirsts for knowledge and high-tech methods of delivery dragging its heels at the prospect of bringing the same level of efficiency to its libraries? Why is a community that is at the forefront of residential Internet access--witness the city's attempts to hook homes up to its super-modern fiber optic loop--so eager to institutionalize the past?

According to Mary Jean Place, president of the board of Friends of the Palo Alto Libraries, the proposal to close branches overlooks one significant fact--residents see their local libraries as a place to gather, to form community bonds, and to keep in touch with their neighbors.

"Libraries serve another function than just the transfer of data," Place said. "People feel the need for community identification. They don't identify with City Hall. What they do identify as a gathering place is the library in their neighborhood."

It's a sentiment that has been expressed over and over in the pages of letters and cards that have been sent to the City Council since the closure proposal came out in March.

"College Terrace library--an institution recognized by all as the heartbeat of the terrace. A place for the young and the old, rich and the poor, educated and uneducated," wrote the Jones family. "... It is a cultural institution, a gathering place for children, and is one of the reasons we bought into the terrace."

Wrote Karen and Dick Damian, also of College Terrace: "I cherish the small, local and personal feel of our library; I believe such neighborhood community places allow residents to feel connected and less alienated in this fast-paced city. Our library is a designated 'safe place' for children."

Yet, "arguably one of the city's most well-used services," as the draft plan describes the library system, its budget is only 4 percent of the city's general fund or about $3.5 million per year. In addition, the libraries receive $50,000 to $75,000 per year in grants and gifts. For the 1996/1997 fiscal year, the Friends of the Palo Alto Public Library (FOL) gave $50,000.

This year, the library budget is expected to increase only slightly, by about $31,000. Despite a cautiously projected surplus, City Manager Fleming said throwing more money at the libraries at this juncture may not be the wisest decision.

"If someone magically said, 'Here's a huge pile of money, give it all to the library,' the issue is, could they handle it?" Fleming said. With its lack of space and staff shortage, how could better technology and more materials be incorporated at this point, she wondered?

"I do believe, and it was the staff who said, we need to stop at this juncture and take a serious look at our libraries," Fleming said. "Once that decision is made, you'll see some massive changes, and the policy issue will be what type of system do you want, and then a commitment will have to be made."

To date, it seems the political winds are blowing in the direction of keeping the branches open, or at least figuring out a way to retool them so they remain community focal points.

"You could probably be far more efficient and provide far more... if you move everything to one location," said Council member Gary Fazzino, "but that's not the only need that people in the community have when it comes to their expectations of the library system."

Fazzino said the College Terrace library in particular, has become "a de facto community center." He said he favors a joint city/school library at Gunn High School to replace the ailing Terman Park library, and possibly relocating the downtown library onto the site the Palo Alto Medical Foundation will vacate when it moves to its new location on El Camino Real just north of Town & Country.

Council member Liz Kniss, who pledged in her 1989 campaign to not shorten library hours, also favors keeping the branches open.

"I still think that the libraries in Palo Alto are the most inherent part of the fabric of the community," she said. "While we think the schools are a big attraction, only one in four or five families will have kids in the schools, whereas everyone uses the libraries."

Kniss said she already knows what she will say when the issue of branch closures comes before the council. "My request to the staff would be, 'Find another way. There has to be something in the middle.'"

Staff is already prepared for that approach. "We've got to figure out some sort of compromise," said Levy, the city's director of libraries.

It will have to be a compromise that upgrades facilities and streamlines operational costs while incorporating new technology all while guaranteeing a neighborhood community feel--and there will have to be money to fund it.

If that sounds like a daunting prospect, think of the community that is demanding it. Palo Alto's population of close to 60,000 is extremely well-educated--65 percent of Palo Altans have college degrees, according to the February 1993 Comprehensive Plan Update.

Usage figures round out the picture of library demand. According to the Master Plan, annual visits to the libraries total 15 times the population. It goes on to say that Palo Alto is among the top five most heavily used library systems in the state, based on per capita circulation.

Few question that to satisfy neighborhoods and the demands of high-technology and to repair infrastructure, train staff and improve collections, more money is needed--and a lot of it.

It could come from a variety of sources. Community members who participated in focus groups said they favored establishing a library foundation, asking the city for more money, and developing partnerships with businesses or other outside groups for capital grants.

A bond measure is also a possibility, although it could only be used for infrastructure improvements, according to California state law. Fleming said that a bond issue is feasible, and surely a good gauge of community support. "If by some chance they vote it down, we'll know, right?"

But Place, president of the Friends of the Libraries, said the new library commission, while it can lend its backing to a foundation or a bond, needs to address some philosophical questions about the future of the libraries, first.

Some members of the community would like more options, above and beyond the staff proposal to close the branches. "I think that we're not really looking at creative options, and I do think that we should be innovators," said Karen Kang, a Friends of the Palo Alto Libraries Board member and mother of three. "Palo Alto has a reputation to uphold."

Kang said she was disappointed that different options weren't included in the plan, with financial figures to support their infeasibility. "If you just tell people it's going to cost too much but don't give them any statistics on it, how can you make an intelligent decision?" she asked.

Residents can be sure that the Palo Alto political process--slow, methodical fact-finding and lots of community input--will show itself until the issue is resolved. "We do have to let the community be involved in the process because we are here to give them the service that they want," Fleming said, adding that input will be sought some time next year after the commission has been assembled.

Until then, the draft master plan continues to sit on Levy's desk--much like the ballroom dancing book that awaits its place on the shelf. 

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