For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
July 24, 2008 - second round of Q and A about proposed ballot question
Herein is my 2nd column trying to address questions the public has asked about a proposed mill levy increase question for library funding (approximately $30 a year on a $300,000 home).
Q: Why is the library asking for money for the arts?
A: It isn't. It never did. It is asking for money to build and operate libraries. The proposed land for two of the library projects (Lone Tree and Parker) is adjacent to proposed performing arts centers in those communities. But the library isn't paying for them. They are local projects. Together, libraries and performing arts centers add up to a significant draw for economic development. But the funding for them is completely separate.
There is an independent library foundation, a 501 (c)(3) organization that uses private donations for the purchase of art in our libraries and in partnerships with other community agencies. But no taxpayer dollars are used for the purchase of art.
Q: Who needs libraries in the age of the Internet?
A: In 2007, the Douglas County Libraries checked out more children's materials (over 3.3 million items) – primarily books – than any other library in the state of Colorado. This investment in literacy is one of the key contributions of the public library.
There is additional research about the importance of the public library in the Internet age. First, technology has increased, not decreased, library use. The Internet is wonderful as a way to get quick facts. But the library is about far more than quick answers. It's about reading. It's about browsing the magazines. It's about programs for children, or teens, or adults. It's about meeting rooms and study spaces. It's about seeing and being seen. It's about building community. Second, the library is also a place that provides high speed access to the Internet – of increasing importance when more and more of our life is managed through it. Third, the library subscribes to high quality commercial databases that are “invisible” to Google; and our trained staff are highly skilled researchers – staff add value to the Internet, rather than being replaced by it.
Q: Why should the people who aren't getting new libraries pay for libraries in other communities?
A: There are three answers. First, because all Douglas County Libraries are inter-related. What is requested by a patron at one library, may be delivered from another library. The more strain that is placed on smaller libraries, the more they will transfer resources from the larger ones. Second, because the people in those other communities paid for your library. This issue is one of fairness. Third, even in communities that have libraries (Castle Rock, Highlands Ranch, Roxborough), we'll make modest improvements: an expansion of the children's room in Castle Rock, the conversion of a storage space or outdoor deck at Highlands Ranch into a meeting room, computer lab, or stacks space), and eventual expansion of the Roxborough space as the population grows.
But the first answer is the best: libraries are a cooperative purchasing agreement. By spreading the costs around the whole county, we keep the costs low.
Q: What has the library done to control costs?
A: Long before the library considered coming to the voters, we tightened our belt. Our business -- the number of items checked out -- climbed from 3.4 million items in 2003 to 6.4 million items in 2007. That's an increase of 89%. We did this while holding our staff virtually flat. How was this possible? For many years, the cost center of the library has been the people who ran library checkout and checkin processes. With a one-time investment in capital (self-check and automated return systems), the library reduced the staffing needs for those processes by almost two-thirds. It retrained and repurposed those staff to provide more direct public service -- in the stacks, building displays, answering questions. In the process, the removal of large circulation desks gave the library more space. Library materials used to be backlogged, sometimes taking 5 days to check in. Now, most materials make it back to the shelves the day they're returned. All of those changes have saved money, and have allowed the library to keep up with unprecedented growth in demand.
The Library Board has been a good steward of taxpayer dollars, and has established reserves for capital improvements – but those reserves are not sufficient to build or operate any new libraries.