Library tilts away from books

03/20/2014

At a community forum early this month, the director of the Marin County Free Library asked a few dozen attendees to step up and mark a line between two ideals of how a library should function: one end represented the library as an information repository; the other, the library as a community center. 

Decades of tenuous budgets and a pervasive shortage of space have put the two ideals at odds, dividing the future into a choice between alternatives rather than a two-pronged approach. From early responses, it appears the new director, Sara Jones, will likely lean—and already has steered—toward the latter: the library is no longer a place only for volumes of books.

Recent months have seen weeding of the library’s collection, including a purge of the magazine archives at the Civic Center last summer and the discharge of 7,400 books from circulation in January and 4,000 last month. The remodels of the four larger, regional libraries have focused on redesigning lobbies to market bestsellers rather than expanding shelving space for a wider selection.

It’s another continuum Ms. Jones could have drawn on the board at the community meeting this month: between bestsellers and classics, between popular fiction and obscure treasures. It’s not a choice a librarian should have to make, but a lack of space has forced circulation managers to make those decisions.

As a new course is charted, the library is conducting a needs assessment to guide its strategic planning through 2017 and is asking voters to renew a parcel tax for the next nine years to fund its sustained operation.

 

A parade of consultants

These moves come only a few years after the board of supervisors approved $365,000 in November 2006 for two firms to develop a facilities plan that would assess the library’s needs through 2030. Over 10 months of study, those firms held 27 community meetings, nine focus groups and a workshop; interviewed library staff and managers; assessed the buildings; completed mapping; and conducted a planning survey to draft a 64-page plan that detailed possibilities for renovating, expanding or relocating every facility.

The plan called for a significant expansion of the library’s collections and more shelving space to avoid overcrowding. 

“In an attempt to meet demand for new services, the library has reduced the number of seats, crowded the shelves beyond capacity, squeezed in as many computers as possible, provided as many new materials like CDs and DVDs as possible, and generally made library spaces non-people friendly,” former Director Carol Starr wrote to the board of supervisors in 2007. 

That June, the board doled out another $35,000 to Godbe Research to conduct a poll about the feasibility of voters approving a general obligation bond to fund a massive overhaul of the system. Another $90,000 was approved for a publicist from TBW&B Public Finance Strategies, LLC, partially underwritten by the Marin County Library Foundation, in September 2007 to communicate plans to the community. In February 2008 the supervisors approved another $29,000 to “reconfirm the result of prior polling.” 

In May 2008, the library director, Gail Haar, requested guidance from supervisors over how to continue. With the weakening economy, voters had responded to the latest poll more coolly than before, though approval for a diminished $82 million bond still seemed likely. However, county counsel also informed her that a bond measure might not have been a legally tenable option. Ms. Haar requested $183,000 more from the board for another tracking poll and “specialized financial and legal assistance,” but at the last minute, she requested the item be removed from the agenda to have more time to look into alternatives. 

The library sought to place the measure on the November 2008 ballot, but later decided not to move forward with the request for an unknown reason, said deputy county counsel Sheila Shah Lichtblau. The issue was not discussed before the supervisors again.

Yet after half a million dollars worth in contracts with consultants over the last decade, the county has entered another consulting contract for another needs assessment, this time for $87,000 with OrangeBoy, Inc., a firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio and the only bidder of five firms contacted. So far, they have conducted a survey that drew 8,105 responses, which will inform how people primarily use the library and identify any gaps in that service, Ms. Jones said. Another 97 responses have come to a more detailed stakeholder survey, she added.

“I think that was a great building program, but times are very different in 2014 than in 2007,” said Ms. Jones, who assumed the director’s post last year. “I’m of the mind to find out what people want, need and expect. The building program should come after that. What’s the right mix of information repository and community center? We need to answer that before we start planning square footage.” 

A scathing civil grand jury report last year found “insufficient long-range facility and services planning,” but the board of supervisors disagreed with the finding. In their response, signed last July, they wrote, “While parts of the 2007 Vision Plan are out of date, the specified programmatic and space needs have not been met and continue to be needed.”

 

Taking stock

The Marin County Free Library system has the second-lowest number of books per person among the seven library facilities in the county. At the high end are Sausalito, Mill Valley and Belvedere-Tiburon, which offer 9.72, 8.92 and 7.24 items per capita, according to the most recent state records. The countywide library offers 3.36 items per capita, a number that places it at the higher-end of systems in the Bay Area, third behind Santa Clara and San Francisco. 

“Shelving is at capacity at every County Library facility,” the 2007 Vision Plan said. “Staff is forced to withdraw titles that still have value to make room for new, incoming materials. Needed collections cannot grow simply because there is not enough shelving space… In several communities, many residents have stopped browsing the in-house collection and instead simply request new titles to be borrowed from other facilities. Essentially, several community libraries no longer offer viable collections.”

Without adequate changes, the plan predicted systematic weeding would necessarily result. “Over time, the Library’s collections are losing integrity and depth,” the needs assessment continued. “Staff cannot respond effectively to emerging community needs, adding new, and high-interest collections targeted toward at-risk groups, such as teens, Spanish speakers or other populations with special needs, simply because there is no space.”

The county is attempting to restore some of the feel of open space to the library system by removing books and creating more accessible lobbies where popular items can be prominently displayed away from crowded shelves.

The remodels are “a bit of a marketplace model, where materials are readily available, so a person can get them easily, get them checked out and get on their way,” Ms. Jones said.

When asked if additional space would be created by the remodels at the Civic Center next month, Branch Manager Eva Patterson said, “A little bit. We’re not actually adding more shelving, we are sort of rearranging what we have. It will be help be more easily browsable, so it won’t all be stuck together.” Roughly 1,700 items were removed from the branch last July, said Donna Mettier, the technical services manager.

The $2.5 million for these capital projects, which also included combining space with West Marin Literacy Services in Point Reyes to include a new kitchen and bathroom space and installing handicap accessibility in Inverness, is derived from Measure A funding, totaling roughly one year’s worth of the five-year parcel tax. Ms. Jones has said the library is within its budget, but they have far exceeded initial 2012 expectations of $1 million. 

Last November, Doman Hill, a library services manager, told the Library Commission that the lobby remodel project at the Novato facility, which began a year ago, would cost a total of $249,615. The cost has since ballooned to $440,000, according to figures Ms. Jones provided this week.

Ms. Jones said many of the decisions that led to surging expenditures were made by Ms. Haar, the former director. One of them was a decision to revise the remodel plans midway through, which cost $82,000 for consultants to make required changes; another was the purchase of a service desk that did not fit with current needs and had to be replaced. Ms. Jones added that the pace of renovations has since slowed to prevent future overspending.

“Ironing out the kinks” is how Liz Paris, a human resources consultant whose $170,000 salary is paid through Measure A, and Janet Doerge, the Novato branch manager, described the problems to the Library Commission in September. “Initially there were some growing pains—change is hard for everyone—but after the first couple of months, those less-than positive comments have died down completely,” the meeting minutes report.

 

‘What they want’

Space issues, on the other hand, have not. 

“In every library there’s not much room for new materials and not much room for new technology. We’re trying to balance to the best of our ability by not too aggressively depleting the collection to gain space,” Ms. Jones said. “From the smallest to the largest, what best serves the community is having what they want—for the most part—when they want it.”

Customers apparently want new releases, bestsellers and the latest DVDs, and the library is purchasing the materials to accommodate them. 

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt is currently the most requested and most prevalent book in the county library system. The 773-page novel has spent the last 20 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. It has been praised as a “glorious, Dickensian novel” and panned as “bombastic, overwritten, [and] marred by baffling turns of phrase.” 

The online catalog MARINet, which combines the collections for the Marin County Free Libraries and the six other city libraries, lists 126 copies, more than county’s system has for all of the works of Charles Dickens combined.

The top complaint the library receives is that there are not enough copies of a particular title, which means “library customers have to wait weeks to get a copy,” said Ms. Mettier. Some get so frustrated by the waiting list that they purchase a copy and donate it to the library. 

As an agreement for sharing books on MARINet, the county library tries to maintain a 5:1 ratio of holds. For “The Goldfinch,” the entire system has 337 people on the wait list, and the county has 49 copies, two of which were donated. Technically the county is short copies to meet the agreed ratio. 

“The trick for the buyers is to watch the copies-to-holds ratio, be a little intuitive about whether demand is rising or falling, and be mindful about the balance between that point when we’re getting constant requests to purchase more versus it looks like we’re meeting demand,” Ms. Mettier said.

What happens when a bestseller is no longer popular? At a certain point, likely two years in the future, there could be about 75 copies of “The Goldfinch” on the shelves. An average of one in seven is lost or damaged beyond repair, “dropped in the bathtub, puppy shredded it,” for example, Ms. Mettier said. Another three in 10 are handled and damaged as non-repairable because of torn pages, broken bindings, highlighter marks. About half of the remaining copies are donated to the Friends of the Library for used book sales. So in this case, there will only be about 20 copies left on the shelf, or discarded at the staff’s discretion, Ms. Mettier said.

“This process is somewhat like managing a clothes closet,” she continued. “There’s only so much space… as you buy new clothes (or get gifts) you need to pick a few items you no longer wear to send off to charity. Marin’s libraries are undersized as it is, so space on our shelves is at a premium.”

So how does it look in practice? Let’s take the “Inferno,” Dante Alighieri’s famous descent through nine circles of Hell. You’ll find more than five times as many copies—65 owned just by the Marin library—of last year’s mystery thriller with the same name by Dan Brown, the blockbuster author of “The Da Vinci Code.” How about “Paradise Lost,” John Milton’s poem retelling Adam and Eve’s temptation, considered to be the greatest epic of the English language? Five copies throughout the system, and you’ll be directed to nearly as many copies of the mystery thriller “Paradise Lost” by J.A. Jance and one copy of the young adult novel “Paradise Lost’ by Kate Brian. 

Try “Anna Karenina”? Four times as many DVDs—25 copies of the 2012 film in the system—as the vast, heartbreaking realist novel by Leo Tolstoy the film was adapted from.

There’s only 11 copies of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, sufficient for one at each location; only eight books from which to read the tragedy of “Antigone” by the ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles; and not a single complete collection of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” 

“A policy that throws away books based solely on popularity is one that disregards the basic role of the library, which is to provide wide choice, not just for those requesting popular books, but also those of us out there who are looking for harder to find, more unique books,” said Peter Orner, a Bolinas resident who has written four novels and teaches at San Francisco State. 

Mr. Orner said “this whole controversy” is reminiscent of a famous scene in “Don Quixote,” where a priest invades the library of the man of La Mancha, whose tales of chivalry have driven him to near-insanity in the belief that he is a knight. The priest sets out to purge the evil influence with a book burning, but as he examines each copy, he recognizes exquisite poetry, historical importance, even suspense as he anticipates a sequel by a friend of his named Cervantes, and he pockets away some of the books for posterity. 

By the end, the priest is weary of the review and orders the rest to be chucked into the flames. His companion holds one more up. “I would have shed tears myself had I ordered that book to be burned, for its author was one of the most famous in the world,” the priest says. Choosing which to burn and which to save becomes arbitrary: someone once bought it, once read it for a reason.

“There’s an obvious solution here. Let local librarians at the branches decide how best to balance the competing needs,” Mr. Orner said. “But we had better act fast. Every day great and important books are being tossed. … Just the other day I picked up a copy of a book on bridges published by the Oxford University Press. Retails for about $30. Our tax dollars. I picked it up in Bolinas for a quarter.”