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System Director’s Report:

July 2005

The State Budget

This morning the Governor signed the 2005-2007 biennial budget. It contains very good news for public library systems. After years of freezes and cuts, we will receive a 5% increase during the first year of the biennium, and a 4% increase the second. This falls short of meeting the full cost of service demands that are, especially in the case of our delivery service, rising by 12-15% annually, but it is nevertheless a solid step in the right direction.

Many more steps are needed. Although Badgerlink received a slight increase for inflation, the state level contracts are still frozen at 2003 levels. Additionally, various tax freeze efforts, coupled with new legislation attempting to end maintenance of effort requirements for system membership, may make it very difficult for local libraries to stay even, much less cope effectively with constantly increasing service demands.

Nevertheless, it is time for us to thank a great many people. First is the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who proposed system aids at the full 13% statutory level in her budget. Next is the Governor, who included the increases we ultimately received in his budget. Third is the Joint Finance Committee, who supported the Governor’s proposal on a nearly unanimous bipartisan basis. And last but not least is the full Legislature, who retained the Governor’s library proposal as submitted it in the final version of the budget which they passed and he signed.

Please join with me in extending our heartfelt gratitude to all the folks who paid attention to the library community and to the people we serve at this critical time in our history.

Something to Think About

Last week I spent a couple of days at WiLSWorld. This is a great little conference, in part because it is both inexpensive and local, but even more because it blends technology and philosophy together in ways that really address the current problems that face us in the library world.

The keynote speaker raised an issue that we should carefully consider. He pointed out that 50 years ago, no one could afford to purchase many books. Therefore, paying a small sum in taxes for the public library gave the citizen access to all kinds of material that he or she simply couldn’t afford otherwise.

His second point was that although the “buying club” concept is still an important reason for public libraries to exist, it is becoming less important every year with cheap online information ever more readily available.

He was not too worried about the immediate future of public libraries, but what about 50 years from now? In fact, with the constant flood of new and improved technologies and products everywhere you look, how about 10 years from today? How about 5?

Twenty four years ago, this problem was very real for South Central. At that time, a resolution was under consideration by the Dane County Board of Supervisors to dissolve the system unless we could somehow prove to them that we were necessary to their well being and that they were receiving their fair share of the pie. My first task as Director was to participate in the processes required to address those questions.

The ultimate answer to this particular challenge, and to our quest to become both relevant and indispensable to our member libraries and counties, came in several parts. First we realized that system funding, inadequate even then, could never purchase all of what was required. In response, we began to set up cooperative funding models for key services, a system which has worked well enough to have persisted to this day. Then we identified four key service areas upon which to focus our dollars and our efforts. First were library resources. We had to provide the members with access to goods (first resource contracts and later databases) that none of them could afford to purchase alone. Next came automation, which vastly reduced the clerical labor required for inventory management, cataloging, and interlibrary loan. Third was delivery, because sharing of resources depends upon getting them from where they are to where the demand for them exists in an effective and efficient manner. Fourth came expertise. In an ever more complex world, and faced with ever increasing service demands, local libraries simply don’t have either the time or the resources to become experts on everything from library law to new technologies, nor can they provide the training and support required by the ever growing list of new products and services demanded by the public at large.

These were our answers to the question of whether or not we were really necessary. In choosing them, we were able to return to our members not just the dollars their own taxpayers put into the mix, but also goods and services worth many times that investment. Consider a village with a population of 750. That is one tenth of one percent of our total system population. If we just split up our 2005 system aids, they would receive, as their fair share, a check for $1,945.89. Instead they and their citizens have ready access to over three million books and other library materials, a rapid and regular delivery system to bring them everything they request, a wide selection of online databases, and on site expertise for everything from new buildings to help when a computer goes down for reasons best known only to Microsoft. Try buying all that for just over $1,945.89.

With regard to our public libraries, the answer to the question of indispensability are somewhat similar. Even though the concept of the local “book buying club” may begin to fade away as the years go by, the fact remains that information is a valuable commodity and those who own it want very much to turn a profit. We are already seeing that more and more of that “free” information on the Internet isn’t free any longer, and that fees and subscriptions are often required for access to the most useful content. It seems logical, therefore to speculate that the “buying club” concept of public libraries will survive. In the future we may buy electrons instead of paper, but we will still provide far more to our customers than they could ever afford alone.

Furthermore, public libraries are increasingly involved in local, state, and even international (remember OCLC?) networks of all kinds, which literally link their customers to the informational resources of the whole planet. Who could possibly do that on their own without their public library?

A third important consideration is convenience. We can all read cookbooks. Why haven’t all the restaurants gone out of business? The answer is that we are all very busy people, especially in a society that seeks ever higher levels of production in order to compete effectively. A lot of folks either simply don’t have time to cook, want to spend the time they do have on something else, or just enjoy the change. I suspect that as long as people are busy they will treat information seeking in the same way. Why search for hours when we can simply call the library?

And last but not least, there is the question of expertise and reliability. Marilyn vos Savant (familiar to those who read the Parade Magazine in the Sunday paper) notes that the Internet contains a wealth of information, but that much of this is also misinformation or even disinformation. How is the average citizen to know what is true and what is not – and even more importantly, what is safe and what is lethal? Using the internet has been likened to drinking from a fire hose. It is too much to handle. We used to think that our customers wanted the most information on a topic. Now we know that they want only the best information, and in easily digestible doses.

So there you have it. Price, access, convenience, and expertise. Four reasons why I think that public libraries will continue to be indispensable to the people we serve in the years and the decades to come. But I also think that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Studying our present and planning our future will take many more minds than mine and yield many creative ideas that I haven’t even dreamed of. That’s why we have an Emerging Issues Committee and a strategic planning process. Watch this space! Our future will be anything but dull.

See you on August 8th.