Accomplishments of the Ann Arbor District Library – and challenges the system faces in the coming years – were among the topics discussed at an informational session on Wednesday evening for library board candidates who’ll be on the ballot in November.
Four of the seven candidates attended: incumbents Ed Surovell and Jan Barney Newman, as well as former Washtenaw County commissioner Vivienne Armentrout and Nancy Kaplan, who hosts a local talk show on community issues called Other Perspectives.
Kaplan, Lyn Powrie Davidge and incumbent Carola Stearns are running for one two-year term. Armentrout and incumbents Surovell, Newman and Barbara Murphy are vying for three four-year terms.
Terms for the three other current board members – Rebecca Head, Margaret Leary and Prue Rosenthal – expire in 2012.
The session on Wednesday was informal, following the format of a similar meeting held on July 27 for people interested in running. Head, the current board president, and AADL director Josie Parker were on hand to answer questions, as were associate directors Celeste Choate, Eli Neiburger and Ken Nieman.
Parker gave an overview of the library system, which has an annual budget of just over $12 million and operates out of five locations, including the main downtown building on South Fifth Avenue, where Wednesday’s meeting was held. AADL employs 250 people, including 100 full-time benefited workers, she said. Of those full-time workers, 52 are represented by unions.
Over the past year or so, the system handled two major projects, Parker said. In early 2009, AADL took on responsibility for the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled, when the county decided that they could no longer support it. [See January 2009 Chronicle coverage: "Library for the Blind to Open Feb. 2 at AADL"]
And in January of 2010, the library took possession of the archives of The Ann Arbor News, which closed in July 2009. [See Chronicle coverage: "Library Nears Deal on Newspaper Archives"] AADL staff is processing the more than one million items in that collection, now stored in an office park on Green Road. In some ways the archives were in good shape, Parker said, but in other ways the materials were very disorganized. It will be several months before the archives are available to the public, she said.
In response to a question from Kaplan, Parker gave more details about the physical changes that the library made to accommodate the Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled. An adaptive/assistive technology lab, with equipment such as a braille embosser, was set up on the second floor west wall, in the former location of the local history room. The local history collection was moved to an alcove north of the second floor reference desk. Hydraulic tables were added so that they could adjust to user’s needs, and special software was installed on every library computer in the system so that patrons don’t have to come to the downtown building for that access.
Board president Rebecca Head pointed out that since patrons can use any branch in the system, they have access to materials at more locations and there are longer hours of service than when the Library for the Blind was managed by the county.
Parker noted that much of the service is provided via mail, and the collection of materials is located in the basement of the downtown building.
Head spoke about the library system more generally, saying that she’s proud of being on the board because AADL is run so well by its director, associate directors and staff – both in terms of services and fiscal responsibility. She noted that the board had been able to lower the millage rate that the library levies, while not cutting services. [See Chronicle coverage: "Library Plans to Lower Millage"]
Armentrout observed that she couldn’t remember any other entity that had reduced taxes, and Surovell said the board was very proud of that. Fiscal discipline is important, he said. Ann Arbor is highly taxed, and they wanted to treat the taxpaying public fairly.
Parker said it was also important to remember the challenges ahead, and that because of the economy, the local tax base is decreasing, which in turn lowers revenues for AADL. The board was able to lower the millage rate, but that’s going to be an ongoing question.
The library has the ability to levy 2 mills in perpetuity – though that amount has been rolled back to a maximum of 1.92 mills because of the Headlee Amendment. [The effect of the Headlee Amendment is to limit property tax revenues so that they do not outpace the rate of inflation. Tax revenues might outpace inflation in a market where property values are increasing rapidly. The Headlee mechanism for limiting tax revenues is to discount the millage rate appropriately.]
Right now, the AADL rate levied is 1.55 mills.
Parker also explained that before AADL lowered the millage rate, it had been able to fund construction of its three branches – Mallets Creek, Pittsfield and Traverwood – entirely from millage proceeds, incurring no debt. Their branch plan had called for an additional branch to be constructed, and they had intended to replace the downtown building as well. Those plans were called off because of the economy, she said. [See Chronicle coverage: "Citing Economy, Board Halts Library Project."]
Surovell noted that the downtown building was close to 60 years old – older than the Carnegie Library building was when the Ann Arbor Public School decided they needed a new library building, and constructed the downtown branch in 1958. [The library was formerly part of the AAPS system. It split into an independent entity in the mid-1990s. The Carnegie Library building was located at the site of the University of Michigan's new North Quad residential hall, at the corner of Huron and State.]
The age of the downtown building is an issue, Surovell said, and the board has had to authorize several hundred thousand dollars of expenses to repair its infrastructure over the past two years.
The discussion also touched on how the community uses the library system. Parker pointed out that when they constructed new branches, critics said the buildings wouldn’t be needed because services could be accessed online. The numbers don’t support that, she said, noting that the system receives over 1.7 million visits annually. Circulation is roughly 9 million for a population base of 165,000 people – a per-capita circulation that’s “over the top” compared to other communities, Parker said.
She noted that for the past two years, AADL has received the Library Journal’s highest rating – five stars. The rating is based on objective measures: circulation transactions per capita, including checkouts and renewals; visits to library buildings per capita; computer sessions per capita; and program attendance per capita. AADL was the only system in Michigan to achieve a five-star rating, and only one of two libraries in the state to be rated at all. “I’m expecting something similar this year,” she said.
Head noted that adding new branches hadn’t cannibalized attendance at other locations – in fact, visitor numbers at all locations had increased. More teens were also using the library, which isn’t typical for most systems, she observed.
Parker shared some thoughts about the library’s future, referring back to a retreat that the board and senior staff held in late September of 2009. At that time, staff gave a presentation about issues that libraries would face in the coming years. “If we did (the presentation) this month, it’d be different,” Parker said. “In 10 months, things have changed.”
Imminent failures of major bookstore chains, the closing of video stores and emergence of services like Netflix, issues related to the copyright of digital materials – all of these things “will change public libraries forever,” Parker said, and how AADL responds “will mark our future.”
It’s a time that offers wonderful opportunities along with great uncertainty, she said. The copyright issue in particular is a big question mark.
Armentrout asked whether Parker planned to continue writing her director’s blog. “When I have something to say!” Parker replied.
Kaplan went back to Head’s comment about adolescents coming to the library. What draws them in?
Eli Neiburger, AADL’s associate director of IT and product development, fielded that question. Teens don’t need the library to gain access to content, so the library becomes more about shared experiences for sharing content, he said. He likened it to the concept of story time that was introduced a century ago, which created a social experience for kids.
AADL’s programs for teens have covered a broad range of topics, including rock music, gaming, graffiti, and making prom dresses out of duct tape. Another example is the library’s popular LEGO contest, held on Aug. 5 at Weber’s for all age groups – this year, there were 173 entries.
Neiburger said the value of the library may be as much about the creations of its patrons as it is about consuming material by best-selling authors – though for kids who love to read, the library has a great collection for that, he noted. And by getting teens into the library for whatever reason, it allows them to see what other resources the library has to offer, and helps break the perception of the library as an artifact of the 20th century.
Armentrout asked what kinds of interactions the library has with local schools. Parker and Celeste Choate – associate director of services, collections and access – described several connections. Every second grader in the Ann Arbor Public Schools system visits the library in the fall, and they are issued a library card if they want one. In May, library staff visit every fifth grade class, trying to keep that connection as they enter middle school – that’s the age “when we lose them,” Parker noted.
Choate said the library also gets involved with AAPS through the library’s summer reading program. This year, library staff visited first- and third-grade students enrolled in the AAPA Summer Learning Institute, to introduce them to the library’s summer reading program. About 300 students completed the reading program, and each received a free book from the library. In addition, library staff introduced the summer reading program to students at Mitchell Elementary, Scarlett Middle School and the AAPS/Community Education Summer Camp, this year held at Dicken Elementary.
Choate also described the Brainfuse online tutoring service that the library offers to its patrons through a third-party company – students can connect with actual tutors to help with math, English, science or other topics. The service is available in English or Spanish.
As the hour-long session wound down, Head told candidates that she and the library staff would be happy to answer any other questions that candidates might have – contact information for all current board members was provided in a packet handed out to candidates, which also included financial statements, the board policy manual, bylaws and other information.
After the meeting, The Chronicle asked Kaplan and Armentrout why they were interested in running for library board positions. Both said that they admired the library, and were interested in finding ways of being involved in public service. Kaplan said she’s familiar with the library in part through her volunteer work with the nonprofit Washtenaw Literacy. She was interested in running for office as a way of contributing to the community, and the fact that the board races are nonpartisan appealed to her.
Noting that her mother was a librarian, Armentrout said she admires the job the current library administration and staff are doing. She said she’d read a Chronicle article about the previous information session for potential candidates, and that it seemed there might be uncontested seats. [At the time, none of the four incumbents had indicated whether they intended to run for re-election. All of them have since filed to be on the Nov. 2 ballot.]
Neither candidate mentioned the issue of the Library Lot development – nor did the topic arise during the meeting’s discussion with staff and board members. The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority is building an underground parking structure on the city-owned lot, which is adjacent to the downtown library.
Last year, the city issued a request for proposals (RFP) to solicit projects for a possible development atop the parking structure. The AADL is not directly involved in that effort, but it’s been a topic of discussion at previous board meetings. Whatever goes on top of the parking structure will have a direct impact on the downtown library building, and any future new building that might be constructed there. In January 2010, city administrator Roger Fraser gave the library board an update on the Library Lot proposals at the board’s monthly meeting.
Two finalists were selected soon after, but since then there’s been little action on the issue. [For additional background, see Chronicle coverage: "Visions for the Library Lot" and "Hotel/Conference Center Ideas Go Forward."] City councilmember Stephen Rapundalo, who chairs the RFP review committee, gave an indication during his communications time at the city council’s July 19, 2010 meeting that there would soon be a bit of action, with the hiring of a consultant to review the two finalist proposals.
In a recent telephone interview, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, Susan Pollay, told The Chronicle that the consultant to review two remaining proposals – for hotel/conference centers – had been hired: Roxbury Group. She held out the possibility that Roxbury Group would potentially be able to provide an assessment of the proposals to the review committee at a mid-September committee meeting. Pollay is a member of that committee.
Both Kaplan and Armentrout, when asked by The Chronicle whether the Library Lot development was a factor in their decision to run, indicated that they’d been motivated by other factors – though they’d be interested in participating in discussions about the project, if elected.
Armentrout said she’s always felt that libraries are a central part of the community. “This one is exceptionally so,” she said.