Changes to county library system make enemies within

David Briggs
Gail Haar, the departing director of the Marin County Free Library, has overseen a contentious reorganization. Some library staff disagree with choices over how temporary parcel tax funding is being used, including the hiring of staff without professional degrees.
03/21/2013

Voters overwhelming approved a temporary $49-a-parcel property tax increase in 2010 to stanch the county libraries’ dwindling revenues and state-government support. Halfway through the voter-authorized, five-year period, the Marin County Free Library is struggling not just to remain solvent in a high-tech world with new expectations of libraries but also to maintain the allegiance of wary employees.

Library director and nearly 23-year library veteran Gail Haar announced her unexpected decision to retire last year, and she is leaving at the end of this month without a successor named to take her place.
Ms. Haar steered the 10-branch library system through financial difficulties—including a loss of about $1 million in state funds since the recession—and toward a reorganization and remodeling plan that includes the renovation of the Novato library this month.

But Ms. Haar’s contentious five-year term also left many in her employ second-guessing both her choices about how to spend the Measure A proceeds and what some staff described as her imperious decisions to make those changes without adequately consulting them.

In addition to planning major Measure A-financed renovations, the library is executing changes in service of a vision of the future that alarms longtime staff, who say they are taxed by increasing workloads and anxious that their community-service function could be compromised.

“My primary concern is that the money is not being spent the way it’s intended to be spent—it concerns me as a citizen and as a professional in the field,” said one person with direct knowledge of library workings, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly. “The money could be spent on materials, more open hours for the library. It could be spent on what it’s intended to be spent.”

The Marin County Civil Grand Jury is currently looking into the library’s operations and the panel is expected to issue a report on its findings in June, according to people who were interviewed by investigators. The full scope of the Grand Jury’s first inquiry into county libraries since 2002 is unclear, but investigators have been asking Ms. Haar and her staff wide-ranging questions, including about employee morale and Measure A spending.

Under Ms. Haar’s direction the library is moving to a new model of service in which customers are served at one desk, rather than at separate reference and circulation desks, to save patrons time and confusion when they have general questions.

At the same time the library, which in a controversial move three years ago discarded 13,700 books, centralized the process of ordering books and now floats materials between the branches to more efficiently serve local needs for particular books and movies. And the libraries will increasingly rely on “paraprofessionals,” rather than credentialed librarians, to provide client services to give librarians more of an opportunity to be in the community and deal with higher-level queries.

In West Marin, the library is also making disabled-accessibility upgrades and providing a new desk in its Inverness branch. In Point Reyes Station, after a breakup with the nonprofit Marin Literacy Program, the library is combining its space for literacy programming with the rest of the branch.

And while a branch in the San Geronimo Valley was shut in 2009, the library received matching funds from nonprofit groups in 2011 to extend their opening hours in Stinson Beach and Bolinas.
Ms. Haar said in an interview last week the changes were triggered by a need to be more efficient during the financial troubles the library faced when Measure A was adopted. “We stepped back, and we took a look, and we said, ‘We have to do things more efficiently,’” Ms. Haar said. “We don’t want to close our doors.”

But the consolidated desk is requiring staff to become cross-trained in a variety of functions while dealing with an increasing number of patrons, and library staff said that the centralized ordering of books—formerly a function of individual branches—has led to a more superficial collection with several copies of trendy media with short shelf-lives.

On Tuesday the library had 47 copies of the 2011 Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy ensemble comedy Tower Heist, for instance, including 11 available for rent at the Fairfax branch, according to their online catalog.
Staff fear the changes leading the library to become more depersonalized, and the use of paraprofessionals, could undermine the value of degreed librarians.

“The vision of the future is that these people who have high-school degrees will be doing the work of reference librarians, and that’s frightening,” said a Marin county librarian who declined to be named because she said she feared retribution, noting that people will notice a decline in service when employees are not able to answer their questions. “We are betraying—as far as we’re concerned—our voters, our people.”

Staff said the decisions were made without consultation, and the library’s unionized employees negotiated with administration to adopt the changes as a pilot in Novato before expanding to other libraries.

“The library employees believe that Measure A passed because the residents of Marin County were told we will keep services consistent with what they are now, and some of the library employees feel that is not what’s going to be happening,” Barbara Kob, a labor representative at the Marin Association of Public Employees, said. “When all these changes occurred last fall no one had actually sat down with the library employees and said this is what’s going on—we only hear about it through innuendo.”

A county-commissioned survey of employees found that nearly half of employees lacked confidence “in senior management’s leadership,” and only 31 percent responded favorably.
The library’s own vision plan, released last year, described “declining” morale as one of the department’s “weaknesses.”

A staff committee looked at internal issues, and library administration said last year they implemented some of that group’s recommendations on how communications could be improved.

The adjustments, which have seen a mixed reception from staff, included administration communicating policy changes earlier, using an internal intranet to communicate and choosing a point person within work units who is responsible for communicating administration, according to Deputy Library Director Scott Bauer, an administrator tasked with addressing the issues raised by the employee survey.

“There’s a certain amount of distrust—that’s probably too strong a word—in terms of what the library administration is putting out for them to do, versus what they would like to have library administration work with them on doing,” Mr. Bauer said, explaining that the problem is true of other county departments as well. “They hope that there will be more communication both ways.”

The Marin County Board of Supervisors last year approved the library’s use of $170,000 in Measure A funds to hire a veteran county human resources administrator, Liz Paris, to help deal with employee’s concerns and “change management” until 2015, according to Ms. Haar.

“Change, I have learned, is not something you bring a consultant in and they say, ‘This is how you’re going to do it,’” Ms. Haar said. “It’s a lot of hand-holding. It’s a lot of reassuring. It’s a lot of letting people get their concerns out, and a lot of communications, and it’s a full-time job, so she has taken that on.”

Measure A is responsible for about $2.5 million in revenue for the library annually, which is projected to spend $16 million this fiscal year, which ends in June. The library expects that they will have to ask voters to extend the parcel tax again in 2015, while cutting 10 percent of their expenses, in order to become solvent. The library’s expenses currently exceeded revenues by about $2.4 million, in part because of one-time construction costs.

The text of Measure A, which is pinned to a wall in Ms. Haar’s Civic Center office, endorses only “the specific purpose of bringing libraries up-to-date, preventing library closures, maintaining library hours, preserving educational and job-seeking resources for low-income residents and preventing staff lay-offs, maintaining collections of books, CDs, DVDs, materials and services; providing ADA accessibility; and ensuring local funding that can’t be taken by the State.”

Ms. Haar said the steps she has taken—including the money she has directed toward remodeling and reorganization—have been essential to updating the library. “If we haven’t made the efficiency changes by [2015, when Measure A expires], then we’re going to be right back where we started,” she said.

But the efficiency measures Ms. Haar implemented will not impact the bottom-line deficit. “In dollars we expect it to be just about an even trade,” she said.

The library has nonetheless restored its book and technology budgets, increased children’s programming and is managing its budget in the face of unrelenting expenses, such as pricey ebook fees and deferred maintenance on the library’s aging buildings, according to Ms. Haar.

The library director’s staunchest supporters include Supervisor Steve Kinsey, whose board manages the department, and the chair of a citizens’ commission that oversees the library.

Alison Howard, the Library Commission chair, said that she was surprised and concerned to learn about the low morale among library rank-and-file, but she remained confident in the library’s leadership and approach.

“Immediately when I stepped on I was very impressed with Gail and I think she’s done a tremendous amount over the last few years to bring Measure A forward,” Ms. Howard said. “Measure A has truly saved the library.”

The ballot measure, which was approved by a three-to-one margin, required an independent citizen oversight committee to be impaneled, and supervisors supported a proposal by Ms. Haar to have the existing commission serve as the oversight committee for Measure A expenditures.

“All of the commissioners are able to separate their role as a commissioner and their role as an oversight committee,” Ms. Howard said.

Library administrators said that the library is dealing with more patrons and demands—for faster service, deeper research and more digital technology—and Ms. Haar said she hoped the Grand Jury’s report will reflect their attempts at meeting those needs.

“I hope they’re going to say that we’re moving the library into the 21st century and we’re going to be able to run efficiently and give people what they want,” Ms. Haar said, adding that morale will improve as the library evolves. “We’ve had some staff changes. We’ve had people take the early-separation plan, which has allowed us to hire people with different expectations, and I guess I’m uncomfortable calling it a morale issue. It’s an uncomfortable-with-change issue, and boy, I get that. I’m struggling with—I just bought a Mac for the first time.”