Does Palo Alto need a library commission?

Publication Date: Wednesday Jul 23, 1997

CITY SERVICES: Does Palo Alto need a library commission?

Friends of the Library are frustrated by delays, decision process

by Sara Selis

Some Palo Alto residents who have spent years pushing for creation of a city library commission contend they--and the library system's needs--are being ignored. City officials acknowledge that library supporters have had their ideas put on hold while the city deals with concerns such as Sand Hill Road and the Comprehensive Plan.

At the same time some officials aren't convinced the city needs another advisory body such as a library commission.

On and off since 1994, the Friends of the Palo Alto Library have been asking the city to create a library commission as a public-input tool to guide the library through changes they say are badly needed. They contend that the six-library system, which last year had a $3.6 million budget and 810,000 visitors, hasn't gotten the attention and resources it needs. They cite stagnant or barely increasing budgets at a time when library materials are getting more high-tech and more expensive. And they're concerned about talk of possibly closing the downtown and Terman libraries.

"We need to know where are our libraries going to be in five, 10 years. Who's going to make the important decisions about using technology and facilities?" said Mary Jean Place, president of Friends of the Palo Alto Library.

Members of the nonprofit organization point out that all but a handful of library districts in the state are governed by library commissions. They envision a five-member commission that would be appointed by, and make recommendations to, the City Council. Last month a dozen or so supporters wrote letters to council members urging such a move.

The issue was to have been taken up by the council's Policy and Services Committee last fall, but because of scheduling problems and more pressing concerns, the issue has been delayed several times. The item was again bumped from the committee's June 10 agenda last month and rescheduled for Aug. 6.

"It gives you reason to think this is a delaying tactic," Place said. "Our patience is running sort of thin."

Place and others say the library system needs an advisory body to address the library's unmet needs after receiving and analyzing public input. They cite library focus-group surveys done in the fall, which revealed concerns about run-down facilities, out-of-date books, a shortage of shelf space for new materials, and not enough staff to help library-goers.

"We've always had a good reputation, but I think we've been resting on our laurels for some time now," said Karen Chang, a Friends of the Library member.

Chang said some of her friends who used to go to the Palo Alto library frequently now use Menlo Park's libraries. "Half the time they couldn't find what they needed, they couldn't get help or the books were outdated," Chang said.

The Friends' request for a library commission three years ago has become part of an overall discussion within the city about how many advisory bodies Palo Alto needs and when and how new ones should be created.

According to a report compiled in fall, the city already has 28 commissions and boards, and some believe the number should be cut back. Advisory commissions require work from city staff, who must attend the meetings, post their agendas and compile minutes. According to the city's calculations, the city's six council-appointed advisory commissions cost the city $330,000 last year.

"Anytime you've got a commission, there's an investment involved. It's an extensive amount of staff time," said Paul Thiltgen, the city's director of community services. "From a management standpoint, I'm not convinced we need (a library commission)."

Thiltgen says many of the issues Friends of the Library have raised are being addressed in the city's Library Master Plan, which has been two years in the making. The master plan, a blueprint for specific changes and plans at the library, will be presented to the council in the fall, he said.

"It's unfortunate that the library has to go through this," said Emily Harrison, assistant city manager. "But we have to be prudent about adding additional responsibilities to our staff."

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