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Reinventing the Library

Tight budgets, technology and community propel libraries forward

Mar. 17, 2010
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In the age of Google, iPhones and Kindle, are brick-and-mortar libraries necessary?

Absolutely. Now more than ever.

In fact, libraries are enjoying a surge in attendance, despite the pervasiveness of instant-gratification multimedia options. Nationally, library use is up; according to a 2008 survey conducted by the American Library Association (ALA), 76% of Americans visited a library during 2008, up from 65% the prior year. Locally, the Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) reported 2,466,608 visitors in 2008, reversing declines during the 2000s.

That may be due to the downturn in the nation’s economy.

“The importance of libraries in American life continued to grow in 2008—and accelerated dramatically as the national economy sank and people looked for sources of free, effective help in a time of crisis,” concluded the ALA in their April 2009 report.

But libraries are also wisely updating their services to fit the needs of 21st-century browsers. While libraries still offer traditional materials and services—such as story time for kids and classic books and reference materials—libraries have also wisely invested in new technologies to increase efficiency and stay relevant.

“They’re evolving, and I don’t think it’s going to stop,” said James Gingery, director of the Milwaukee County Federated Library System. “There’s more Internet usage and computer labs and job resource centers. They’re very service-oriented to make things comfortable for the patron. But on top of that, I think books still have a great appeal. People are still reading books, whether it’s in Kindle form or something else we don’t know yet. And libraries will continue to adapt to new technologies and will try to hopefully be on the edge of those changes and anticipate them.”

Community and Cutbacks

But that’s not all libraries provide. After all, anyone with an Internet connection can download an eBook, investigate perplexing questions or watch movies or TV shows. Public libraries, however, offer much, much more. They provide a shared space for everyone. As Mike Koszalka, the director of the West Allis Public Library, put it: “We’re here to serve all.”

That public spirit is at the heart of the library’s core mission to educate and enlighten.

David Riemer, president of the MPL Board of Trustees, said that the public library system is “one of the greatest things Milwaukee does for its residents, and for visitors. Nothing stops anyone from going into a library and taking a book off a shelf and reading it.”

“I can’t imagine any city not having a public library system,” said Paula Kiely, director of the Milwaukee Public Library. “Public libraries are a great equalizer. We are a great educational institution that requires no tuition. There’s no test to get into it, and no one questions what you’re interested in or why you want to know something.”

That may be why cardholders were shocked early this year to find that MPL was cutting back its operating hours because of the city’s tough financial situation and flat-lined shared revenue from the state.

As a result, MPL’s budget has been cut from $23 million in 2008 to $20 million in 2010; libraries will be closed during the city’s four mandated furlough days (the next one is scheduled for Monday, April 5).

Now, most MPL neighborhood libraries are open five days a week for 35 hours, while suburban libraries are still operating six to seven days a week.

Although libraries have shut down around the country due to a lack of funding, Kiely said that closing down a Milwaukee library altogether was not an option. Instead, MPL has paired neighboring libraries so that residents can access a nearby library at least five days a week; the Central Library, Zablocki Library and Capitol Library are open on Sundays during the school year.

“I think people are disappointed that the library is not open longer, but I think that they all, without exception, appreciate that the libraries are open,” Kiely said.

Tradition Transformed

The Milwaukee Public Library’s roots are as old as the state. Its precursor, the Young Men’s Association, a members-only lending library, was established in 1847, one year before the founding of the state of Wisconsin. It became the Milwaukee Public Library with state authorization in 1878, and the Ferry & Clas-designed Central Library, one of the state’s architectural gems, opened on West Wisconsin Avenue in 1898, when civic leaders poured resources into public institutions. MPL also operates 12 neighborhood libraries throughout the city; the Milwaukee County Federated Library System boasts a membership of 15 libraries—MPL and 14 suburban libraries.

It’s difficult to put a dollar amount on the value of the public libraries, but NorthStar Economics Inc. did just that in a 2009 study. It found that the total economic contribution of Wisconsin Public Libraries to the state’s economy is $753,699,545, or a return on investment of $4.06 for each dollar of taxpayer investment.

That investment starts paying off early. Kiely said MPL, like all public libraries, focuses a lot of attention on young readers, even those who are too young to read by themselves. Getting kids hooked on books involves the entire family, so the library offers programs for parents and kids—the popular Books2Go/Libros Para Llevar program for kids through age 5—as well as Ready to Read, for day care providers and children, run in conjunction with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association.

The library’s adult services go well beyond help with research or book recommendations. The key, it seems, is the heavy investment in computers throughout county libraries—MPL alone has 880—providing Internet access and basic software to anyone with a library card. MPL’s Kiely marvels that the library’s basic computer-skills classes are still popular after all these years. Libraries cater to job-seekers as well, with drop-in job labs for those who need help updating their résumé or searching for employment online.

“I don’t think there’s been a more exciting time to be a librarian,” Riemer said. “But with the budget crunch, it’s exciting in another way. It’s a challenge.”

The Library of the Future

In addition to the library’s traditional assets and services, the system is undergoing a technological revolution that will ensure its relevancy in the coming century. Currently, users are researching the online catalog, placing books on hold online, and even downloading eBooks and multimedia materials directly onto their own computers or iPods via the OverDrive program, without setting foot in a neighborhood library.

Mike Koszalka said that the West Allis Public Library’s investment in radio-frequency identification (RFID) scanners has helped it to become more efficient and stave off the budget problems, layoffs and furloughs that MPL is facing. The scanners—installed thanks to a $1.3 million donation from late West Allis resident Irv Terchak—allows users to pick up materials they’ve put on hold, check out their own items and pay fines “within a minute,” Koszalka said. Now, 72% of library patrons use the self-service checkouts. MPL is in the process of installing RFID in all of its libraries.

MPL is also changing physically to use its resources wisely. The Central Library’s annex will soon be the site of a 30,000-square-foot green roof, an addition that will help to reduce the amount of energy used in the building. Also in the works is the new Villard Avenue Library, to be housed in a mixed-use building being developed by Gorman & Co. Technically, the new library will be a condo unit on the first floor of a building that includes residential condos. The arrangement will lower operating costs for the library, since they’ll be shared with other tenants, and further integrate the library into the community. Kiely said that the city’s Redevelopment Authority will purchase the unit and the library will lease it from the agency for seven years. That will make the development eligible for new market tax credits, “and bring some funding to the project and save the city some money,” Kiely said.

That said, the public libraries always need the support of the community. While municipal budgets provide operating revenue, the programs, classes and many materials typically come from private foundations and “friends” groups. Kiely said the support of the Milwaukee Public Library Foundation and the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library has been incredibly generous and has allowed the library to continue providing a high level of service even during budget cutbacks. She urged residents to join the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library—a $40 annual membership fee that supports the library’s collection. The suburban libraries also have friends groups that provide vital private support to their public systems.

“I think people often forget or don’t even think about what communities would be like without public libraries,” Kiely said.


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