The Ann Arbor District Library board is reconsidering plans to rebuild its downtown building – a move they had tabled in late 2008 because of economic conditions.
At a Feb. 18 working session to discuss AADL’s strategic plan, board member Ed Surovell pushed the board to act. “We are not in charge of our budget or our reserves or our fate because the building is falling apart,” he said. “On any given day of the week, it could be closed for an extended period of time because something deadly goes wrong with it.”
If they move ahead, the project would likely include asking voters to approve a millage that would fund construction.
Concerns over the library’s main building, located at Fifth and William, were part of a wide-ranging discussion as the board and key staff members worked through the draft of a strategic plan for July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2015. Other topics included phasing out the Dewey Decimal System as the primary way to classify materials, marketing to those who don’t use the library, and adapting products and services to reflect changing technology.
Downtown Building: The Elephant in the Room
The big issue at the meeting – which was referred to as the “elephant” – was the renovation or rebuilding of the downtown library. Board members and administrators agreed that the building sorely needs to be rebuilt. However, the current economic climate had them wavering between simply maintaining the current building or taking steps toward completely renovating it. The strategic plan draft included the initiative to “develop and maintain clean, safe physical facilities that creatively meet the needs of the community and staff with an emphasis on sustainability, accessibility and flexibility.”
AADL board president Rebecca Head began the discussion by noting that the board voted last year to lower its millage rate. “There’s a real recognition of what our economic situation is,” she said. “Renovating is even a strong word. When the time is right, we’ll know in terms of replacing the library, and the time is not right now. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s where we are right now.”
Other board members pointed out a complicating factor: They cannot anticipate how much it will cost to keep the current building functioning. They don’t know what will break, or when. [The same issue arose at the board's October 2009 retreat. Over the past year, the building required two major capital expenditures: $300,000 to replace two air-handling units, and $113,000 for a freight elevator.]
“The board has to decide how much you spend when things break,” said Carola Stearns. “How much money do you put into a building that we know needs significant renovation?”
Trustee Ed Surovell said the issue of renovating or rebuilding should be taken out of the strategic plan altogether. The building isn’t on the same level as the other initiatives, he said, and the board should address it using a separate process.
Surovell went on to say that the building no longer represents what it should on a utilitarian level, due to its failing structural elements.
“We are not in charge of our budget or our reserves or our fate because the building is falling apart,” Surovell said. “On any given day of the week, it could be closed for an extended period of time because something deadly goes wrong with it.”
Surovell proposed that the board move forward with the task of rebuilding the downtown library. He said they should hire specialists and start a public relations program to get community support for a millage to fund the project.
“We can’t get away from it,” Surovell said. “The building’s falling apart. It’s time to do something.”
Board treasurer Prue Rosenthal agreed with Surovell, although she said the working session wasn’t the time to address the issue. She suggested arranging a retreat specifically to discuss the building.
“It’s not something we can do in this format,” Rosenthal said. “I think Ed’s absolutely right, but I don’t think we can start now to talk about whether we should build a new library.”
AADL director Josie Parker said she also feels the board needs to act now on the issue of rebuilding the library. She said that in spite of the current economic situation, they should not simply aim to maintain the current building at this time.
“If we table it and mothball it, so to speak, we won’t pull it back out,” Parker said of the decision to rebuild. “We will be guilty of letting the building fall down around us, and it will cost a lot more. Prices will be higher. I don’t think it’s a question about renovate or replace. You made that decision. Replace.”
Parker went on to say that they need to first gain the public’s confidence and to explain why they need to pursue this project. She said this would involve conducting a survey to see if people would vote to fund rebuilding the library. Based on the results from that survey, the library board and administration could then decide whether or not to move forward. In the meantime, Parker agreed that the facilities issue should be removed from the strategic plan to be dealt with on its own.
“I would like to take the facilities piece away from the normal things and pull it away and deal with it differently,” Parker said.
Unlike previous discussions of the downtown building, board members did not talk about the impact of development on the city-owned Library Lot site – other than an offhand remark by Surovell calling the process a “circus.” The city is reviewing responses to its request for proposals, which called for development on top of an underground parking structure being built there. The lot is located between Fifth and Division, just north of the downtown library. In the past, board members have expressed concerns about how that development might affect the library’s future. [See Chronicle coverage "New Downtown Library? If, When and Where" and "Visions for the Library Lot"]
Ultimately, the board decided to arrange a later meeting to further discuss the issue of the downtown building.
Services: Where’s Dewey Decimal?
In addition to facilities, the strategic plan covers several other areas: library services, products, finances, communications, and organizational development.
The AADL service initiative includes the goal to “increase independent access to collections by utilizing patron-oriented classification schemes.” Translation? Eli Neiburger, associate director of IT and product development, said that means looking at where the Dewey Decimal System works and where it should be phased out.
Library staff already organizes their CD collection and DVDs according to genre instead of the Dewey Decimal System, he said. “You can walk into a Barnes & Noble and find what you want like that. Why shouldn’t we have that here?”
Another goal in the services category: “Ensure access to a balanced collection of materials, information resources and services for our community’s rapidly growing and culturally diverse populations.” Part of this would involve a focus on world languages, said Celeste Choate, AADL associate director of services, collections and access. The library would examine the community’s demographics and decide, based on those figures, whether to provide books on CD in Arabic, Spanish or any other language spoken in the area.
The services initiative also includes plans to “increase opportunities for fine and fee payment and forgiveness.” An example of this, Choate said, would be holding a teen poetry reading event and giving those who recite their poems onstage a coupon to eliminate $5 of their library fines. She said this allows people whose cards were previously invalid because of accumulated fines to start using the library again.
“That’s very rewarding for us and for them,” Choate said. “Kids say, ‘Wow, I can use my library card again.’”
Products: A Digital Future
The bottom line of the strategic plan’s product initiative? The library needs to adapt to changing information-sharing tactics as distribution becomes more digital.
“Our place in the distribution of material up to this point has always been something that we could buy a physical item and put in on the shelf,” Eli Neiburger said. “If the new way that people consume content is a licensing model instead of a purchasing model, how does a library find a place in that economy?”
One idea is to enhance the library patron’s experience by borrowing ideas from Amazon.com’s selling techniques, such as the feature that recommends other books to shoppers based on one purchase.
“Amazon.com has kind of trumped the library industry in that they’re providing better bibliographic data in many cases,” Neiburger said.
Neiburger also mentioned the online community LibraryThing as a source of inspiration. The site not only recommends books that its users might like; it also informs them of which books they would likely hate.
Another goal: “Create a repository and distribution models for locally created and produced content.”
“This is something that we’ve started in the form of pictureAnnArbor, where people can submit their own photographs,” Neiburger said.
The strategic plan also calls for developing “products that will customize library borrowing to fit individual needs and require less time and management by patrons.” Currently, Neiburger said, the system doesn’t deliver things to people the way they want. Someone might put themselves on the waiting list for six books and end up getting all of those books the day before they leave on vacation.
Neiburger suggested improving this system through software that would allow patrons to specify the number and delivery date of the items they request.
“There are models out there – Netflix is the most prominent one – that let people say, ‘Here are the things that I want, but I don’t want more than two of them at a time,’” Neiburger said.
Additionally, print-on-demand technology could be explored. Neiburger explained this could allow library users to print individual copies of works in the public domain or to print versions of their own original work. “The library could play a role in taking the stuff the public creates and bringing it to wider audience,” he said. “This is going to change a lot over the 5-year term of this plan. You could conceivably see a device that’s not that much bigger than a current laser printer.”
Finally, the strategic plan calls for designing “digital products that establish new distribution relationships with content producers, push the boundaries of current copyright law and ensure public ownership of and access to content.” As an example of what this might involve, Neiburger brought up Netflix again, specifically the service that allows customers to watch streaming videos online instead of renting a physical DVD.
“It’s clear that Netflix sees an exit point from the physical delivery of items,” Neiburger said.
Finances: Sustainable Funding
In the strategic plan, AADL’s goal for finances is to “develop a multi-year financial process that assures adequate, sustainable funding for the next 20 years.”
AADL director Josie Parker said that although library staff already engage in informal conversations about multi-year financial strategies, the process has not been formalized and put down in writing. Additionally, Parker said there are too many economic variables at this time to establish a concrete plan for the coming decades.
“The reason we haven’t talked about a multi-year financial process now is that we don’t know,” Parker said. “It’s still a goal. It’s still something we should try to do.”
Communications: Widening AADL’s Reach
One of the library’s main communications goals is to reach people who don’t use the library. Associate director Eli Neiburger said the question is how can they reach as many individuals in the community as possible. Over the past year, 52,000 borrowers have transacted business – meaning they checked something out. However, there are others in the community who avoid the library for any number of reasons.
“Because our core audience is so fervent about using the library, it makes it easy to forget people who never use the library,” Neiburger said.
In order to reach those who aren’t already perusing the shelves, the library needs to determine what message they want to send out to show the surrounding community that the library is a valuable resource. Neiburger said this shouldn’t be “elevator talk,” or something along the lines of “Hey, summer reading is great.”
“How is that a compelling value proposition to the people we are most trying to reach?” he said.
Who exactly are those people? As board member Prue Rosenthal put it, they are “people who are scared to come in here, for whatever reason.”
AADL director Josie Parker elaborated, saying that potential patrons might pass up the library because they don’t read, can’t read, don’t speak English, or are intimidated by the Dewey Decimal System, among other reasons. And “there are people who don’t think they need us,” she said, describing them as having an “If I want a book, I’ll just buy it” attitude.
Neiburger added that the library has to fight against bad experiences people might have had 30 years ago with their elementary school library. Overall, libraries and the people who work in them don’t have the most exciting reputation.
“You see it in the newspaper,” Neiburger said. “What does a librarian look like in the newspaper comics?”
AADL hopes to combat those mental images of sour-faced shushing librarians by informing the community about all it has to offer besides books. Associate director Celeste Choate said points of emphasis might include computer classes or the facility’s Internet stations.
Another emphasis: the events that the library regularly hosts. Recently, they had a visit from Ben Huh, founder of the popular online “Cheezburger Network,” where people post captioned pictures of cats (known as “lolcats“).
Parker agreed that AADL gets a lot of big names, like famous presidential correspondent Helen Thomas, who was in town last November. That’s partly because the library staff will “knock themselves out” to accommodate their guests, she said. Another factor is the audience.
“They know Ann Arbor will turn out,” Parker said.
Another aspect of the library’s communications and marketing goals is developing stronger partnerships within the University of Michigan. Doing so will help library staff know, for example, the right bulletin board to pin a notice on about an event to reach their target audience, Neiburger said.
“It’s such an enormous organization,” he said, “and it’s challenging to reach pockets within it.”
According to the strategic plan draft, AADL seeks to “develop sustainable, adaptive organizational practices that allow the Library to thrive internally and externally.” Board member Barbara Murphy objected to this phrasing, saying that it was too general and could apply to any organization.
“I would somehow like to know what that means,” Murphy said. “What is there about the library thriving? How would we know if it’s thriving?”
Associate director Eli Neiburger responded that the statement was intentionally broad to take into account future shifts or changes in what would make the library successful. “A thriving library in 2015 might be different from a thriving library in 2010,” he said.
AADL director Josie Parker said she felt the beginning of the statement was more important than the section about thriving. “Not everyone is going to develop sustainable, adaptive organizational practices,” Parker said.
Ultimately, several board members proposed ending the statement after “practices.”
The library’s specific organizational development goals are to “improve and strengthen collaboration with other organizations to achieve mutual goals.” This could involve creating partnerships with other libraries. Neiburger said these types of collaborations “enhance and expand the bounds of library services” and show leadership on the part of AADL.
The library’s strategic plan also calls for improving its internal marketing to “increase staff opportunity to maximize the marketing value of casual patron interactions.”
Neiburger said this might mean that if someone is checking out Spanish language books, the staff member helping them could suggest a story time or event related to those books. In general, staff members would casually promote the library’s events to patrons.
Draft Language: Seeking Clarity
The draft’s language was a recurring topic of discussion throughout the working session. It began with the first bullet point under services: “Increase independent access to collections by utilizing patron-oriented classification schemes.” Several board members said the statement was too confusing, and the public would not be able to understand it.
“It’s one of the first things people will see on the strategic plan, so I’d like it to be a little clearer,” board president Rebecca Head said of the statement.
Murphy agreed that they should clarify the language – otherwise, she said the public would accuse AADL of using “gobbledygook.” Associate director Eli Neiburger defended the existing language, explaining that using general statements allowed the library to cover more activities with its initiatives.
“I think the equivalent is a blueprint,” Neiburger said. “Not everyone can read a blueprint. It’s what comes from them that you’re able to make sense of.”
Board members seemed to agree that adding examples to the plan would make it easier to understand. Head said she liked the idea of adding accomplishments to the draft to clarify the language.
“As we populate it with projects, it does become clear,” AADL director Josie Parker said in agreement. “If we can use this as it is and populate it with projects that explain it, then we’ll be OK.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, the board agreed to consider holding more frequent retreats in order to keep up to speed with changing technology and its impact on the library.
The board expects to vote on the strategic plan in March, after another working session.
Present: AADL board members Rebecca Head, Jan Barney Newman, Prue Rosenthal, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Carola Stearns and Edward Surovell. Staff members Josie Parker, director; Ken Nieman, associate director of finance, human resources and operations; Eli Neiburger, associate director of IT and product development; and Celeste Choate, associate director of services, collections and access.
The next regular AADL board meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 15, 2010 at 7 p.m. in the board room on the 4th floor of the downtown library, 343 S. Fifth Ave.