Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Library building: where it's at

Many folks are asking about the status of a potential library building project, as the City Council is close to adopting the budget for next year. In brief (with thanks to Library Board President Liz Witek for supplying some of these ideas & words):
  • Some people seem to frame the question as one of space, and the most affordable space. From our point of view, the discussion is not about space – it’s about how to provide efficient 21st library service: well-designed space for current and future needs is one aspect of that.
  • We'll need to meet rising demands without planning to significantly increase staff, and we recognize that the design concepts of the current building are not ideally suited to current and future concerns. We know that operating costs for the life of any building are substantially more than construction costs, and we need to give the most service at the lowest cost.
  • Remodeling the current building is still a viable option, though perhaps less than ideal for long-term operational efficiency. From a structural engineering viewpoint, we can only add about 12,000 sq ft to our existing footprint – no third floor; the building footings would not support it.
  • The Council's Administrative Services Committee has moved Site Selection money set out in the Mayor’s budget from 2010 to 2011.
  • We know it's frustrating for library supporters to be on hold after three years of Library Board discussion, a lot of public involvement, two years of Council-approved studies assessing citizens’ library needs and library facility concerns, and getting two nearly identical recommendations…
  • but we recognize the need to be extra cautious in these difficult financial times,
  • ...and we can use the extra time as a really good opportunity to
    • help the Council and the people of Appleton to assess how and why two separate studies recommended what they did, and to
    • see how library needs fit into the as-yet unpublished Facilities Master Plan for Appleton
    • so we can all reach the best long-term decision for the City.
  • We often hear that potential donors will need a firm commitment from the City before we can mount an effective capital campaign for private funds to supplement public dollars.
  • We're often asked how much donors will contribute, and we don't know. Other communities have funded 25% of capital costs from donors, but we may want to do a feasibility study.
If that's "in brief", anyone still reading is probably glad I didn't discuss it at length, but comments are always welcome!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

APL Book Brigade in competition

At yesterday's statewide book-cart drill team competition, APL's Bookcart Brigade scored an Honorable Mention. Some of us thought they deserved better for their excellent performance, but we might possibly be biased. Nevertheless, they collected a lot of cheers, won a gift certificate from sponsor Demco, and had some fun. We're very proud!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

By the numbers

We're doing our annual patron survey, both in-house and online. I always look forward to the results -- not because I believe that individual numbers have terrific significance, but because I want to see the trends, and read the comments.

We look at all the numbers and comments, but we are aware this is not a scientific survey. Participation by people picking up a survey form in the library, as well as those clicking a link on the website is voluntary. Participants are thus self-selected, and those who take the time probably have a mixture of motivations: some enjoy the opportunity to share their perceptions and participate in a public process, some want to help the library, and some have an ax to grind. Some years ago, we use volunteers to give a survey to every fifteenth person walking in the door. It was hard to find enough volunteers, and harder to dissuade the volunteers from using their good judgment to decide just who should receive the survey, so even then we were not truly random. When we gave up this practice and let survey participants self-select, we noticed little difference in the responses. We were still surveying library users as a subset of the population.

It's worth noting that library users make up a large subset, with about 2/3 of Appleton residents having library cards. We measure some things for inclusion in the City budget, which contains some output measures. But more important to us is watching changes in customer satisfaction with collections and services, measuring the number of people doing other things downtown when they use the library, seeing what they do at the library, and reading the comments. In addition to measuring attitudes, this is a regular annually organized effort to garner suggestions, and we take them seriously.

Web users enter their data directly via SurveyMonkey, and Kathy, our Data Assistant, hand enters the information into another SurveyMonkey from the in-house pages. SurveyMonkey automatically compiles the data and helps with analysis tools -- and it's interesting to see the differences between online and in-person patrons. Online patrons tend to have a lower opinion of the library neighborhood, somewhat unsurprisingly.

We hope we get a lot of responses. If you're a library user, let us know what you think -- we need to hear from you!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Social Media Revolution

We decided this week to put a bit more work into the library Facebook page. I hadn't seen this yet, but this explains why pretty well...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mayor discusses library future

Today's Post-Crescent published an extensive interview with the Mayor: "Q&A: Mayor Tim Hanna talks about future for Appleton Public Library", including such topics as:
  • including the site selection money in the budget
  • whether the site selection money means a project is any more likely to happen
  • if the city eventually is going to need a bigger library or a new library
  • if he has an idea of what the public-private funding split would be
  • figuring out a cost estimate
  • which has to come first, the public funding or the private funding
  • whether the library should remain downtown
  • if the decision could eventually go to a referendum
He included some noteworthy points about the wisdom of having the discussion at this time. A number of people in the newspaper's online forums are denigrating the whole discussion. But I accept that construction is years away and agree with the Mayor's statements:
In fact, in an economy like this, now's the time to do the planning.

It's not the capital costs. It's the operating costs. You can plan for the capital costs.

We've got state levy limits. We've got local levy limits. We've got fund balance requirements. We have built a long list of requirements. So should it go to referendum as long as we stay within the framework that we built and we're not busting the bank and we're not asking to raise taxes significantly?
Some of the main opposing arguments seem to be:
  • libraries are no longer relevant
  • this will require a significant tax increase
  • the priority is to save construction dollars, whether by remodeling or setting up branches
I disagree. Libraries have become increasingly relevant in the Internet age and are important as community learning centers offering equal opportunities for everyone. And Appleton is very restrictive in spending as the Mayor notes: taxes can only go up within strict constraints, whether or not a library is built.

It might be that remodeling would be a better option -- the jury is out. But we absolutely need to keep operating costs in mind, and design not only an attractive facility but one that creates maximum efficiency and lowest possible operating costs for growing service demands. Neither can we just move into [insert vacant building name here], because it's not about space, it's about library service.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Building dialog, some Q&A

Responding to questions asked by Ed Thomas in the online forums of the Post-Crescent:
Doesn't the Library Board have a clue to what's going on, and what the public apparently feels about their grandiose desires? Didn't they get the message?
The Library Board gets messages from online forums (including the Post-Crescent), from their phone calls and emails, from their friends and neighbors, from our elected officials, from library staff, from usage data, from community surveys, from focus groups, public meetings, and cost studies -- among other sources.
Have they taken a realistic look at the economy and state of employment in the Valley?
I think they are very well-acquainted and realistic, partly because of the impact of the economy on library use, and mostly because they are a connected and aware group of citizens. The first question is what's needed, and the second is how to afford it. I think everybody involved accepts the fact that we should not expect some significant tax increase to pay for this. But the fact is that cities build buildings, and pay for them using their debt service. Any amount added to the debt service for the library would have to be affordable within the constraints of state and local rules -- and Appleton is conservative about debt spending and tax increases. Beyond that, private dollars would be needed.
Why not, when it can be afforded, add to the existing building? Oh, it just doesn't fit our needs and programs. Then restrict your needs, and cut programs.
We’re not talking about the library’s needs for the library. We’re talking about the public’s needs for learning opportunities, for information, for meeting places, for cultural opportunities. We’re talking about family-oriented community learning, which this community seems to want and need more of. We’re talking about how to provide that service in the most cost-effective manner.
Why not add to the existing building?
We've always said that this is a viable option. But the preferred option would be a new building for two reasons: operational cost-savings and the opportunity to make a more positive developmental impact. There would be some savings in remodeling, but those would likely not be a long-term savings as a remodeled and expanded structure would be less efficient
You want a new building?
Not necessarily, but as stated above, it is likely advisable as more upfront investment could result in long-term savings, and have a better impact on the downtown and the whole community.
What do you plan to do with the existing one?
The City would have a couple of options. The present building would be a better City Hall than a library, and would address both space needs and citizen access concerns for the City. If located adjacent, a library and City Hall could more readily share some resources. Contrariwise, they could sell it as office space and return it to the tax rolls.
You need more space?
Library concerns are partly about space, and partly about good design for security and efficiency in providing 21st century services.
There are a lot of vacant store fronts around the City to set up neighborhood centers. Have you even considered that as an option?
You bet! It was my preferred option. I love branch libraries – for the community center, neighborly atmosphere they have. But the cold reality is that they are more expensive. The cost to maintain and sustain additional structures, as well as the cost to duplicate equipment, collections and staff functions, will quickly outweigh any savings in construction cost. A single facility, designed for efficiency will be best.
Obviously they would take private, taxpaying, property over for a new building. That is a hidden addition to our taxes.
Not necessarily nor obviously – it could be done on publicly owned land; there are a couple of options. And if privately owned land is taken off the tax rolls, that cost should be considered; no-one proposes hiding it. But now you’re talking about a site selection process, which we’re saying deserves considered open public debate.
Do you remember the School referendum? It lost.
I've been around awhile. I remember numerous referenda that have lost and numerous that have passed. This isn't a school issue.