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Boardwalk over Quicksand

The Challenges Facing an Urban Public Library in the Twenty-first Century

I hate to begin a discussion of the state of urban public libraries by using Mark Twain’s famous dictum “The rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated,” but some media coverage would have you believe that the role of public libraries is going the way of the manual typewriter. The challenges we face are great, but I firmly believe that the public views libraries as an asset worth keeping, even though they may use them differently now than they did twenty or thirty years ago. Urban public libraries are a great value for the people we serve—so much so that we are often taken for granted. I liken our mission to that of building and navigating a boardwalk over an ever-changing body of quicksand. Despite the challenges urban libraries face today—creation of a network of services, our funding predicaments, the changing role of technology, the diverse nature of our customers, and the need for skilled staff—we provide our customers with a stable and defined pathway to the information they need.

A 2002 poll commissioned by the American Library Association found that 91 percent of the people surveyed believe that libraries will continue to be a needed service, despite the fact that the computer has emerged as the centerpiece of the new information age. And 40 percent of the people polled viewed the library as the most important tax-supported public service funded by local government. It is not surprising then that, despite the recent budget problems experienced by the City of Dallas, residents continue to show strong support for libraries, as demonstrated when 81 percent of Dallas voters approved $55 million for four new branch libraries, four replacement branch facilities, and improvement to other library facilities. This kind of support for an urban library is really not unique to Dallas.

During tough budgetary times, financial support for libraries may take a hit when it competes for funding with services like police and fire protection; yet over and over citizens speak out that their libraries are providing a valuable service at a very reasonable cost, and they don’t want to see those services cut. Consequently, not wanting to face the criticism they expect to receive when a branch is closed or operating hours are reduced, budget officials often look for ways to cut library funding that are not obvious to the public. This kind of strategy eventually leads to erosion of the quality of service as staff are asked to do more with less.

Today large urban public libraries play an even more vital role than nonurban public libraries do because their expansive collections and specialized services have made them regional resource centers, drawing customers and providing services for a population that is much larger than the municipality or district that provides their funding base. Obviously, smaller libraries cannot match the breadth and depth of an urban library’s collections, nor can they offer the specialized expertise of their staff. Of course, efforts by the Texas State Library to expand the availability of Internet resources—such as the TexShare databases—give smaller libraries access to resources that they could not afford on their own. However, developing such resources as the Dallas Public Library’s patent depository collection or its highly regarded Genealogy Division are simply not feasible for smaller libraries. So our existence is vital in providing multifaceted resources that smaller libraries cannot afford. One of my staff members was recently vacationing in a small town in East Texas. After telling a shop owner that she worked for the Dallas Public Library, the shopkeeper mentioned that she used her local library’s interlibrary loan services heavily and that almost everything she got on interlibrary loan came from the Dallas Public Library. She said that she didn’t know what she would do without the Dallas Public Library because her small local library simply did not have the variety of materials she needed. Clearly this woman realized the regional role that a major urban public library plays in her small, rural community.

Yet there is a problem with the public’s realization of the large urban library’s role as a resource center and the costs associated with it. Cooperative programs such as the interlibrary loan system and the more recent TexShare reciprocal borrowing card are important because they make a wider range of resources available to Texans who do not have the benefit of an urban library as their home library. These programs, however, do not fully compensate large urban libraries for the expenses incurred in maintaining and servicing large, in-depth collections. While it is an admirable goal to give residents of small communities the capability to use the large urban library for their resource needs, the time has long passed when those larger libraries could afford to absorb the cost of providing such a service. Effective funding strategies to support the sharing of resources from urban libraries are urgently needed.

The question of funding is one of the most difficult issues facing urban public libraries—indeed, all libraries in Texas. A 2001 U.S. Department of Education survey of total operating expenditures per capita for library services ranked Texas 44th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. That isn’t encouraging. Nationwide, the average per capita operating expenditure for library services was $27.64. For the two dozen library systems in the nation that serve a population of more than one million (and Dallas is one of them), the average expenditure was $27.80. In 2002, the operating expenditure figure for the Dallas Public Library was $21.35 per capita. Still, Dallas is better off than Houston and San Antonio, which spent only $18.37 and $14.07 per person on library services respectively.

What this means is that the three major public library systems in Texas spent between $6.00 and $13.00 less, per person, on library services each year than the average major metropolitan library in the United States. That makes it hard for Texas urban libraries to offer a variety of traditional services, much less operate on the cutting edge.

Staff costs make up 73.5 percent of the 2003–2004 annual budget for the Dallas Public Library; materials—books, database subscriptions, and so forth—make up another 15 percent. Together those two items make up over 88 percent of the total library budget, leaving 6.5 percent for general operations, 3.5 percent for information technology, and 1.5 percent
for facilities. This puts the library in a perilous position because there is very little else to cut—any type of budget cut will take resources away from core library services.

It is clearly evident that the frustration for stakeholders of urban libraries is growing as funding for libraries continues to shrink or fails to grow to meet operating demands. The challenge, therefore, is to find methods of library funding that offer a wider base—and hopefully more stability.

Library taxing districts are one possible option now being explored by the Texas Library Association and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Under this concept, an existing library system or a group of libraries could elect to create a taxing district that would generate tax revenue to support their operations. This approach, not unlike a hospital district, removes the libraries from having to compete against other vital services like police and fire. While the creation of library taxing districts is not a simple task, many believe that, in view of the strong public support for libraries, the taxing district is a viable approach to building strong libraries today.

Recently, a leader from a library foundation from another urban library in Texas visited with me. She told me that library supporters in her city were tired of their library getting the short end of the stick when it came to city funding and wanted my advice on how their foundation could strategize to establish a taxing district in their area. Clearly the idea of a taxing districts is a funding strategy that interests many library supporters and urgently deserves our attention and study.

Regardless of the funding strategy used, libraries must continue to provide services to all segments of the community they serve. Some people view public libraries as the “safety net” for the information have nots. That is, the library is the place where people can go who otherwise have no computer access or no money to purchase books and other media. People with limited resources may need library services more than do traditional library users.

The public library should provide this service—indeed must provide this service. To be viable, public libraries must offer a range of services, something to match the wide range of community needs and interests. Library users must come from the full range of the economic and social spectrum.

The changing demographics throughout the country are also challenging our libraries. As new immigrants arrive in our cities, often possessing a first language other then English, libraries struggle to find ways to effectively respond to their information needs.

In Texas the Hispanic population has grown so much—it is now the largest population group and is expected to grow to be the majority group in less than twenty years—that a complex set of staff skills and knowledge is required to serve it. It is imperative for this emerging group to see libraries as a relevant service; otherwise the future of our libraries is at stake. The challenge for our libraries, therefore, lies in our ability to recognize this group’s informational needs and implement appropriate strategies—such as providing outreach, hiring bilingual staff, developing Spanish-language collections, and so forth—to more effectively respond to their information needs.

Technology is a buzzword in today’s public libraries. Ninety percent of libraries offer some level of Internet access and, with that, access to electronic databases. Electronic information resources offer access options not possible with print materials, but they are not a perfect solution to the problem of providing both current and retrospective information. Although on-line resources are a vital part of the information provided by urban public libraries, I firmly believe that large urban public libraries cannot become “virtual libraries.” Our patrons are too diverse, and they expect resources to be available in a variety of formats. I am convinced that the demand for on-line information will run parallel with the demand for traditional library services, not replace it.

Still, technology is very much a part of the library’s future. The Dallas Public Library Master Plan for the years 2000 to 2010 calls for doubling the number of computer workstations in the system within ten years. Our customers both need and expect good computers, but they also need knowledgeable assistance from library staff. Computers are not the end in and of themselves; they are a means to better access information.

The library’s strengths in providing access to on-line information, particularly to commercial databases, are its purchasing power and knowledge. There are many products out there, not all of them worth their price. By selecting the best resources and purchasing access at a lower per-user cost than what is available to an individual, libraries give their customers great value.

Urban libraries typically purchase access to on-line databases—they don’t own a copy of the information in the way that they own a book that sits on the shelf. That is, when a library purchases reference material in print form, those volumes are theirs to keep regardless of any future purchase decisions. When access to an on-line database is purchased, a library that does not continue to pay the fee for access loses all rights to the information—there is no backfile sitting on the shelf, leaving the library with a gap in its holdings. This can become a significant problem in lean times if a library relies only on the on-line database; in losing it, the library left without any information. It is not simply a matter of being unable to purchase the most current hard copy and having to use an older version.

Large urban public libraries frequently have unique collections that are of nationwide or worldwide interest. People the world over are interested in information about local events that have a national impact. Whether it covers Dallas and the Kennedy assassination or New York City and the September 11 disaster, the library in that community is often the main repository for such records. The materials owned by these libraries are often not duplicated in other facilities, and the notion of resource sharing adds pressure on the library to make the special collections of photographs, manuscripts, locally generated databases, and other materials available to a wider audience. Digitizing these resources to facilitate resource sharing is not a viable option. The cost of digitizing and making these collections available via the Internet has significant cost implications over and above the traditional costs of providing library service. Digital collections are expensive to maintain, especially when technology upgrades and format migration are taken into account.

A library’s staff is one of its major assets, and the staff’s role becomes more important in a world of information overload. In some ways, it was easier in the old days. Librarians bought books, and people checked them out. The problem today is not one of too little information but too much data from too many sources. A person who needs information and has computer access can search the Internet, but often winds up frustrated because the task of sorting through hundreds or even thousands of possibly relevant hits is a daunting task in and of itself.

The Internet also makes anyone an “expert,” and the public has a hard time knowing how to evaluate the mountains of information they encounter and how to end up with data they can trust. In the past, librarians tried to be value neutral when offering various information sources to a user, but that is changing. Now librarians help customers make sense of the mountains of electronic data available to them and evaluate the different types of sources so that they can use those that best match their needs.

It also used to be that, right or wrong, the information printed on a page remained the same until a new edition was printed. Now the Internet offers “continuous revision.” Text, data, and images can all be changed instantly and at will. It is one thing for a librarian to purchase a reference book from a trusted publisher and put it on the shelf. It is quite another to look at a Web site that may change frequently and assess whether the information is timely and accurate within the context of the
request and the field of study. Such determinations require librarians to have a more sophisticated knowledge of their subject matter. It is the library staff’s ability to understand the customer’s needs and interests and quickly connect them with the appropriate resources that makes libraries special.

As the role of librarians becomes more complex, and indeed more important, urban libraries are faced with the stark reality that many of today’s library professionals are nearing retirement. When they leave the profession, a great deal of expertise is lost. It is becoming harder for public libraries to attract information professionals with the wider skill set needed to operate in today’s libraries. The best potential employees have a wider variety of employment opportunities in information management settings other than libraries. And libraries, grappling with their own budget woes, have trouble matching the salary levels needed to attract the best candidates. Nonetheless, they must continue to attract the best and the brightest because it is the value-added service offered by informed and skilled professionals that will continue to make library services valuable to customers. Thus, another tremendous challenge faces urban libraries: recruiting experienced professionals with the skills needed to deliver information in a digital age.

In The Enduring Library, Michael Gorman notes that libraries are the only institution that preserves the human record and offers it back to the public—with professional assistance in finding what you need. Nobody else is doing that. I firmly believe that even though libraries may be navigating on a boardwalk over the quicksand of insufficient funding, changing technology, a more diverse constituency, and challenges in staff recruitment and retention, the piers that we have built over the years provide us with a solid foundation. The library’s tradition of customer service, along with our librarians and our collections, enable us to plot a course for the future because our overall goal—responding to the information needs of our public—has withstood the test of time.