AADL Retreat: Prep for Next Strategic Plan

Wide-ranging discussion among Ann Arbor District Library trustees, staff covered tech & industry trends, expanded services, homelessness

Ann Arbor District Library board retreat (Feb. 3, 2014): For more than three hours, AADL trustees heard staff updates on industry trends, were briefed on challenges that the library faces – as well as opportunities – and discussed the kind of information and data that’s needed to prepare for AADL’s next strategic plan for 2015-2020.

Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

A skeleton – wearing an Ann Arbor District Library T-shirt – was part of the non-traditional collections on display at the Feb. 3, 2014 AADL board retreat. (Photos by the writer.)

Discussion during the retreat, held at AADL’s downtown location on South Fifth Avenue, often touched on issues specific to that area. Dealing with the chronically homeless is one of the biggest challenges there, AADL director Josie Parker told the board, because during the hours that it’s open, the library is the shelter of last resort for many people.

“We are not a social service agency, yet we act as a de facto one,” Parker said. “We have a lot to contribute to this conversation because of our experience over the last 15 years.” The board discussed the need to define the library’s advocacy role in general for issues that trustees think are important, though Parker noted that the first responsibility for both the AADL administration and the board is to advocate for the library.

Other challenges faced by AADL include urban development, changes in the education system, issues related to providing Internet access, and “blurred lines” – instances where AADL is providing services to people who don’t live within the district’s boundaries. Also related to work outside the library’s boundaries, Parker reported that she’s talking with other directors of district libraries in Washtenaw County about the possibility of doing a study on the economic development impact of libraries.

The retreat began with a review of AADL’s non-traditional collections, and items from those collections were on display in the meeting room. The library has circulated art prints for more than 30 years, but has been expanding into other areas more recently, including science kits, musical instruments, home tools and craft equipment.

Parker told the board that the public library’s mission – to distribute materials that support the reading, education and even entertainment of the public – isn’t limited to bound volumes. The items for AADL’s non-traditional collections aren’t generally available to rent elsewhere, and are usually expensive to buy, she noted. “What are the limits of sharing? That’s what we’re pushing on.”

The final portion of the retreat was facilitated by local consultant Sandra Greenstone, who has played a similar role at previous retreats. Trustees generated a list of questions that they’d like to answer to help inform their work on the next strategic plan. Many of the issues related to the downtown library, but there was no discussion about putting another ballot proposal before voters. In November 2012, voters defeated a bond proposal that would have funded a new downtown library.

How all of this fits into the next strategic plan is a work in progress. The board will be handling the next steps at the committee level, with an update expected at the board’s Feb. 17 meeting.

Setting the Stage

Prue Rosenthal, the board’s president, began the retreat by saying that oftentimes people are asked for feedback at retreats like this. Although the board was going to get information from staff about what the library is doing and plans to do, Rosenthal hoped that the board would also focus “on what might be.” As an example, she cited the possibility of having games that the adult community could be invited to play – she mentioned Luminosity as the kind of game she had in mind. “What I’m hoping we’ll do is think forward,” she said.

Mariah Cherem, Jan Barney Newman, Rebecca Head, Margaret Leary, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Librarian Mariah Cherem, far left, with AADL trustees Jan Barney Newman, Rebecca Head and Margaret Leary.

AADL director Josie Parker told the board that the staff had set up items around the room that are currently in circulation, as well as things that the library plans to circulate soon. Staff were on hand to talk with board members about these items.

Eli Neiburger, AADL’s associate director of IT and production, gave an overview of the different collections on display, including “Book Clubs To Go” for adults, thematically-related kids books in “Stories To Go” kits, and “Science Tools” that range from dinosaur kits to telescopes and light meters. About three years ago, the AADL added a “Music Tools” collection, which has proven popular, he said. “Science To Go” kits were created with science tools, and “Home Tools” is a collection that started with energy meters, as part of a program in partnership with the city of Ann Arbor. Other items are now being added.

“Art Tools” is another collection that’s relatively new, and includes items like a drum card – a device used to take fleece off a sheep and start turning it into yarn. “We now have pretty close to the full set of tools you’d need to go straight from sheep to sweater,” Neiburger said.

These non-traditional collections have grown over the years. In 2011, excluding art prints, there were 18 non-traditional items in circulation, mostly energy meters. Those items were checked out 149 times. In 2012-2013, AADL made a major investment in these collections, increasing the number of items to 236 by the end of fiscal 2013. AADL projects there will be about 300 items and about 3,800 checkouts by the end of this fiscal year – on June 30, 2014. That’s over 10 checkouts per item over the year, Neiburger noted, calling it a very high number for any kind of collection. “Clearly we’ve found something that really is connecting with an audience.”

The library has about 600,000 items all of its collections, including books. So the non-traditional collections are relatively small by comparison, Neiburger said. But they are high-value, active use collections.

Not all of the items in the boardroom that night are in active circulation yet, Neiburger noted, and some are just in beta circulation to get input from a small number of users. One such device reads the codes off of cars – for example, when your “check engine” light comes on, you can hook the tool to your car, find out the diagnostic code, and look up what you need online to fix the problem.

In addition to items that can be reserved, AADL also has a category called “Up For Grabs” – items that can’t be put on hold, and are available on the shelf for walk-ins.

Parker told the board that the public library’s mission – to distribute materials that support the reading, education and entertainment of the public – isn’t limited to bound volumes. The items for AADL’s non-traditional collections are chosen carefully so that they don’t compete with local businesses. The items aren’t generally available to rent, and are usually expensive to buy, she noted. “What are the limits of sharing? That’s what we’re pushing on.”

Margaret Leary wondered whether there’s any evidence that expanding what the library lends attracts different people to the library. The telescopes have brought in a new audience, Parker said, including young males – a group that typically loses interest in the library. But Parker also noted that this kind of lending isn’t new: AADL has been lending framed artwork for over 30 years.

Board members spent about 30 minutes talking with staff about these collections.

Public Library Trends

When the group reconvened, Josie Parker told the board the she and Eli Neiburger would be following up on information they’d presented at a Sept. 30, 2009 board retreat held at the law firm Dykema. Discussions at that retreat were used to help develop the 2010-2015 strategic plan. [All but one of the current board members – Nancy Kaplan – also served on the board at that time.]

To put things in perspective, Neiburger noted that when he gave his presentation in 2009, “I speculated that Apple would be releasing a tablet called the iPad in the next year.”

Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

AADL staff and trustees at the Feb. 3 board retreat.

It’s a very challenging time for the “content industry,” Neiburger said. From the first quarter of 2012 through the first quarter of 2013, sales of eBooks declined by 5%. Although adult eBook sales actually grew during that period, it was offset by a sharp decline in eBook sales for kids and teens. He noted that “Hunger Games” was released in 2012, adding that when the financial health of an entire format is influenced by the release of a single title or series, that doesn’t bode well for the long-term survivability of that format.

On the print side, all book sales were also down about 5%, and paperback books sales were down about 11%. Hardcover sales, however, were up 12%. That trend counters the notion that everything is moving to digital, Neiburger said. “So the story’s not quite what it sometimes seems to be, especially for people who are avid book readers.”

In terms of a long-term trend, Neiburger said the sales trend for eBooks don’t look like an adoption curve. That is, the trend doesn’t indicate that everyone is switching to the eBook format. Sales of tablets like the iPad are growing, he noted, but those devices are being used more for streaming services – like movies – than for eBooks. He pointed out that Netflix “is off like a shot,” with a business model that charges a fixed monthly price for unlimited usage. Cable TV is still popular, but there’s a “big bomb” awaiting that service, Neiburger said: unbundling. “If people are ever able to actually choose what channels they want to subscribe to, the cable industry is going to be in a lot of trouble very quickly,” he said.

The most telling things about these trends are the popularity of the fixed price/unlimited usage model, he said, and how cable TV does extremely poorly with younger consumers.

Neiburger described another streaming service – Spotify, which provides online music – and noted that paid subscribers hear music without ads. But Spotify has more unpaid subscribers than paid ones, and those unpaid subscribers have to listen to ads. “What this shows is how much more willing people are to consume a free service, even if it’s got ads on it,” he said. The thought of reading an ad-sponsored book “is kind of a horrifying idea,” he added. But that’s the dominant method by which most content is monetized, including radio, newspapers/magazines, and cable TV.

Neiburger noted that the birth of impartiality for newspapers occurred when newspaper owners decided to drop the price to a penny and started selling their readership to advertisers. At that point, there couldn’t be one newspaper for each point of view, he said. It resulted in newspapers trying to encompass a range of views, and reach a larger market.

The fixed price/unlimited usage model is now coming to eBooks in the form of a new service called Oyster, which launched in the fall of 2013. For $9.95 a month, people can read an unlimited amount of books. It doesn’t include all books, Neiburger said, but several major publishers are participating.

Neiburger said AADL is seeing an impact from this kind of model, specifically from services like Netflix and Spotify. An opportunity for the library is to have items that are harder to find, and that won’t be part of the services offered by these larger companies, he said.

Neiburger also reported results from a survey recently released by the Pew Research Center, which showed that a growing number of Americans are reading eBooks. But only 4% said that they only read eBooks – it’s a niche, not a transition, he said.

Regarding data about AADL usage, Neiburger showed that the library system’s door counts have grown from about 1.2 million in 2004, compared to the current door count of between 1.6 million to 1.7 million annually. During that period, the library opened three new branches – Malletts Creek in 2004, Pittsfield in 2006, and Traverwood in 2008. Each of those openings lifted the door count for the entire system, Neiburger noted. Another lifting force was the “recession bump” between 2008-2010, he said. That’s now beginning to flatten, but the door count is still higher now than it was in 2008.

For checkouts and renewals, there were 2.5 million in 2004 compared to about 9 million in 2013 – although it’s been basically flat since 2011. The library received more than 112,000 reference questions in 2004, which dropped to about 62,000 questions in 2013. There’s been a slight uptick recently driven by Old News requests – primarily for obituaries. Event attendance has almost doubled over the past 10 years, from about 45,000 in 2004 to 86,000 in 2013.

The library launched its current website in 2005, starting at about 5 million page views per year and growing to about 85 million page views in 2013.

External Pressures/Opportunities

Josie Parker then presented an overview of some of the outside pressures and challenges that the AADL faces, and Eli Neiburger outlined how those challenges might provide opportunities for AADL.

External Pressures/Opportunities: Education

Parker noted that school libraries haven’t been funded well or consistently for many years. As a public library, “we are now filling gaps in ways that we might not have expected to,” she said. If there isn’t a media center at their school, children will go elsewhere – like the public library. But while the public library is providing uses that it didn’t before, that’s not being followed by additional funding, she noted.

Ed Surovell, Josie Parker, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Trustee Ed Surovell talks with AADL director Josie Parker.

There are many opportunities to continue developing programs and services for schools, Neiburger said. For example, AADL has a new kids page – called Jump! – that links to homework help, event listings, and other resources.

Non-traditional collections are another example. A music teacher had checked out two musical tools for her class, which meant that her students had to share. So AADL created a kit with 30 of the devices, Neiburger said, so that each student in a classroom would have one to use. The kits can also be used by a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop, or any other group.

Another example is the model that AADL uses for digital downloads, which allows users – including teachers – to keep the item after it’s downloaded. For now, this mostly applies to the music collection, but AADL is in the middle of major negotiations for other collections, he said.

The AADL has put infrastructure in place to deliver a variety of content, Neiburger noted, and the library is establishing licensing agreements directly with the rightsholders – not with vendors and publishers.

The AADL will continue to reach out in developing new services, Neiburger said. One challenge related to K-12 efforts, he added, is that it’s hard for teachers to find time to partner with the library, “because it’s hard to show how it connects to test scores.”

Parker noted that it’s not clear to AADL how any of this will evolve. However, she’s sure that AADL wants no part of some of the services that are being sold to libraries now, like Freegal. Such services charge tens of thousands of dollars in set-up costs, as well as a click-per-use fee. Those services also put a limit on what users can access, Parker noted. AADL is taking a different approach, she said, even though the outcome is uncertain. [Some of these issues were covered in more detail at previous board meetings. For example, see Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Library Signs Digital Music Deal" and "AADL Board Briefed on Public Library Trends."]

Regarding classes offered by AADL for adults, Neiburger reported that demand is way down, and in many cases, the same people were taking classes over and over. People don’t necessarily want to be trained to use new software or learn how to apply for a job, he noted – they’re just trying to complete a task. So there’s an opportunity for AADL staff to offer one-on-one help, he said, and to develop a service around that approach.

AADL also is looking for opportunities for classes that have a unique topic. As an example, All Hands Active held a 3-D printing workshop at AADL. They were teaching something that required you to be in the presence of the device that you were learning about, Neiburger said, and “that’s a big opportunity.” There’s also a need for places to do “noisy group work,” he said, and there aren’t many spots in the community that provide that kind of space. AADL needs to think about reconfiguring its space to accommodate these kinds of things, he said, without disturbing other patrons. “A 3-D printer has a distinct odor to it. 3-D printing geeks also have a distinct odor to them,” he joked.

Neiburger also noted that the library is taking its collections outside of its own facilities. AADL held a stargazing party at Leslie Science & Nature Center to launch its telescope collection, for example. AADL also participates in the Neutral Zone’s Washington Street Fair, the Mini Maker Faire, FoolMoon, Top of the Park and other events. It’s an opportunity to reach new audiences who don’t necessarily know what the library offers, he said.

External Pressures: Internet Access

Parker reported that increasingly, other public institutions are moving services online, then telling citizens to access that service or information by using computers at the public library. That includes information about taxes, health care, Secretary of State services, and unemployment services. “In many cases in this country, the public library is the last access point for most folks,” she said.

Rebecca Head, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

AADL trustee Rebecca Head.

The Ann Arbor community is a bit different, she noted, but it’s still happening. Parker also pointed out that when these other institutions direct citizens to the public library, “please don’t think that they talked to us about that first. Most of the time, they did not.” She noted that some of these public institutions have shifted services online because they don’t have the staff to support public access, so “they’re taking the path of least resistance.”

Rebecca Head noted that it’s difficult for the downtown library to install more computers, given the building’s infrastructure. Parker clarified that it’s possible to put in more computers at the downtown library. “It’s just a very high cost to do that,” she said.

Parker noted that computing is a common need that runs through all types of services that the library provides, from K-12 education to job searching to tax preparation.

There’s an equity issue here, Head observed. “Libraries have always stood for providing access to people who might not otherwise have access.” It puts an extra burden on the library, she added.

Prue Rosenthal wondered what percentage of people in AADL’s district don’t have access to computers and the Internet. Parker didn’t have that information at hand, but noted that the percentage went up during the recession. That’s why the library’s “recession bump” occurred, as people turned to AADL for that service.

Neiburger noted that even if someone does have a computer and Internet access at home, they can’t always use it for everything if the equipment and software aren’t up to date.

As another example, Parker reported that the library has held classes on PowerSchool, the homework-tracking software used by Ann Arbor Public Schools, because some parents need help in using it.

Parker also raised another issue associated with ubiquitous public access to computers. Sometimes, people will use the computer for purposes that aren’t allowed, she said. Although the library has rules of behavior and monitors computer usage, she said, the staff can’t completely guarantee that a patron won’t look at something online that offends someone else. She cited precautions that are in place. Computers designated for adults have a filter option, she noted, and in the youth department, no one over the age of 14 can be online unless they’re with a child. There is no Internet access in children’s areas at the branches. So the library has done many things to mitigate risk, she said, but “it’s impossible to totally eliminate the possibility.”

The fear that someone will inappropriately use a public library computer for pornography is not enough to offset the positive benefits of providing Internet access for job searches, research and other purposes, Parker told the board.

External Pressures: Urban Development

Parker showed the board an aerial view of the downtown library at the northeast corner of Fifth and William. She pointed out the surrounding properties – including the adjacent city-owned underground parking structure known as Library Lane, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s Blake Transit Center across the street, and the surface lot at the opposite corner of Fifth and William that’s being bought from the city by hotelier Dennis Dahlmann.

Parker cited several questions that relate to AADL’s downtown building: What will surround the downtown library and who supports it? What’s happening that the library can’t control? Where does AADL have a voice? These are questions that she doesn’t have answers to, Parker said, noting that urban development is a big pressure.

External Pressures: Chronically Homeless

This community has seen a change since Parker started working at AADL, she said. A decade or more ago, the staff could identify about 20 homeless people who regularly came to the library, compared to hundreds of homeless today. For the chronically homeless, the library is their last resort, Parker said. “People who have other options, take them. The ones who don’t, come here.”

Channel 7 Action News, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Screenshot from a Jan. 24, 2014 Channel 7 news report, interviewing a homeless man in front of the downtown Ann Arbor library.

She pointed to a Jan. 24 Channel 7 News report, which included an interview with a homeless man standing in front of the downtown library. The library was a backdrop for the report, she noted, and the homeless man discussed the library as a place where he could be warm.

“We are not part of the community conversation about the solution [to homelessness],” Parker told the board. “We are not a social service agency, yet we act as a de facto one. My point here is that while we aren’t a social service agency, we have a lot to contribute to this conversation because of our experience over the last 15 years. Yet we’re not in that conversation.”

Prue Rosenthal asked how Parker would ideally want to participate in that community conversation. Parker replied that the library staff has tried to insert themselves where they thought it was appropriate. She said she admired all the people who work with the homeless, because the chronically homeless are dealing with a range of other issues too.

But because the library isn’t a social service agency, she added, “we are not seen as equals in this conversation. So we’re a backdrop.” If the library is the last resort for shelter, then the community needs to consider what that means to ask its public library to provide that shelter. “This isn’t a hit on anyone,” Parker added. “But this is real. It costs a lot of money in security and safety and training.”

“It’s something that we just have to start being more vocal about,” she said.

Parker noted that it’s not about the fact that a person is homeless. The library will always be a refuge, Parker said. It’s about people who can’t behave, and who have needs that the library can’t meet.

“This one is our biggest challenge,” she concluded.

External Pressures: Blurred Lines/Clarity of Mission

Parker pointed out that the library provides support for other community organizations by providing a computer server that’s outside of AADL’s firewall. Examples include ArborWiki, Huron Valley Community Network, Washtenaw Literacy and the Ann Arbor Book Festival. That’s a form of blurring lines, she said, because many people involved in these groups or who use the services and programs of these groups don’t live in the AADL district.

Prue Rosenthal, Rebecca Head, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Trustees Prue Rosenthal and Rebecca Head look at some of the non-traditional items in the AADL’s collections.

Another example is the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled, which the AADL manages. Anyone who lives in Washtenaw County and who is eligible for the National Library Service can receive an AADL card, even if they live outside of AADL’s district.

Barbara Murphy noted that anybody anywhere can use the AADL website too – they don’t have to live within the AADL district to gain access to it.

For K-12 education, school librarians can place a link on the school’s media center computers to access AADL databases. That service is provided because schools generally can’t afford those databases, Parker said. A couple of companies have objected to expanding the use of their databases in that way, she noted. When that happens, AADL removes those databases from being accessed via the school computers.

Based on her conversations over the past few months with the new dean of libraries at the University of Michigan, James Hilton, and the new Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent, Jeanice Kerr Swift, Parker said she expects AADL will be looking at more instances of blurring lines in the future.

Responding to a query from Nancy Kaplan, Parker said that talking with Swift had been a big uplift as a library director, because Swift understands the value of having a media center at a school.

Parker also noted that the board is being asked to vote on a policy change – likely at its Feb. 17 meeting – to allow the library to issue cards to students who go to school within the AADL district, but who don’t live here. “That’s the next step for us in blurring those lines – carefully but deliberately,” Parker said.

Margaret Leary wondered if Parker saw any future collaboration happening with the UM library. “I do,” Parker replied. “But I don’t know exactly what it will look like.”

Historically, libraries have resisted these types of ventures for fear of being overwhelmed, Parker said, “and it rarely happens.” For example, when Parker became AADL director, she wanted to eliminate the limits on renewals and holds. There was a lot of fear among staff that this would cause the shelves to be emptied, she said. The limits were lifted and although some adjustments had to be made, it wasn’t a big deal.

Parker noted that unlike many larger cities, AADL isn’t a city library – it’s not part of the city government. So the tax revenues are tied directly to what the library collects from district property owners. That makes it more difficult in some ways, Parker said. She gave the example of Nashville, which has a major problem with illiteracy and high school graduation rates. The school system and library system are departments of the city government, so the city manager can direct those departments to work together, and can provide more funding “because the money is all in the same pot,” Parker explained.

She wasn’t advocating not to be a district library, noting that if AADL hadn’t been independent, it would be a shadow of its current operation. AADL is strong and recognizable in the community, Parker said, and other institutions are looking at how the library can step in to help. That’s a good thing, she added, but “it’s not an automatic easy step to take.”

Murphy suggested that as AADL increases its communications with residents, they should make it clear that the library is separate from city government and other organizations, and doesn’t receive funding from the city government. Parker agreed, noting that it’s a message that has to be made repeatedly.

Parker also reported that she’s talking with other directors of district libraries in Washtenaw County about how to start a process to do an economic development impact study of libraries. It will take collaboration and a pooling of resources to do, she said.

Strategic Plan

Josie Parker reminded trustees that at their Aug. 19, 2013 meeting, they had received an update on activities related to goals in the five-year strategic plan, from 2010-2015. [.pdf of strategic plan, with updates highlighted in yellow] The five-year plan was initially adopted at the board’s March 15, 2010 meeting. It includes goals and objectives for the library in the categories of services, products, finances, communications, organizational development and facilities.

Parker asked if the board had any questions about the current strategic plan.

Responding to a query from Nancy Kaplan, Parker noted that the AADL doesn’t do traditional donor development, nor does it have a foundation. Donor development hasn’t been a priority, but it’s something that the board could discuss if they choose to, she said. One issue is that AADL has a stable source of revenue from the millage it levies, while “many of our nonprofit colleagues in town do not,” Parker noted. So the library is sensitive to that.

However, when someone approaches the library and wants to donate, Parker added, of course she meets with them. For example, a family is donating about $18,000 to the library for an endowment fund in honor of a family member who recently died, and the library staff is working with the family to make that happen.

The library’s legal and financial advisors have indicated that $15,000 is the minimum amount that AADL should accept for an endowment, Parker said.

Kaplan posed the hypothetical scenario of someone donating a half-million dollars in exchange for AADL naming a room after that person. Would that be possible? That would be a board decision, Parker replied. She noted that the fireplace area at the Malletts Creek branch is named after a donor. The tree bases inside the Traverwood branch also are named in honor of people whose families donated money.

Ed Surovell reported that when one of the branches was being designed, a potential donor had indicated interest in contributing about $1 million in order to have naming rights to the building. There was disagreement on the board’s part as to whether that was enough money to name a building, he said. It became a moot point because the donation didn’t materialize, Surovell noted, but it’s a legitimate question.

Next Steps: Information Gathering

The final portion of the retreat was facilitated by local consultant Sandra Greenstone, who has played a similar role at previous retreats. She reminded the board that a decade ago, the discussion had centered on a lack of community space in Ann Arbor. Staff concerns had included the fear of losing print books completely, and questions about why the library had added videos to its collection.

Sandra Greenstone, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Sandra Greenstone, a local consultant who acted as facilitator at the AADL’s Feb. 3, 2014 retreat.

She reviewed information that had been gathered to support decision-making of the strategic plan 10 years ago, including demographics, technology trends, and what was happening in the political and financial spheres. Staff teams had worked to develop reports in each area, which were presented to the board. The library administration also talked with community stakeholders, surveyed patrons, and held large meetings with staff to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of the AADL. There was also a large community-wide meeting to help the board move forward with the strategic plan.

Five years ago, the focus in strategic planning had included technology trends as well as what might happen to the downtown library. [The board ultimately put a bond proposal on the November 2012 ballot to pay for a new downtown library, but that effort was defeated at the polls.]

Now, Greenstone asked how the board wanted to structure its discussion about the future of AADL. She recommended starting with trustees identifying the questions that they had, and the information they needed to gather in order to shape their next strategic plan. What process did they want to use to move forward?

She reviewed AADL’s mission statement, and asked whether it still applied:

The existence of the Ann Arbor District Library assures public ownership of print collections, digital resources, and gathering spaces for the citizens of the library district. We are committed to sustaining the value of public library services for the greater Ann Arbor community through the use of traditional and innovative technologies.

Some new information is already being collected. At its Jan. 20, 2014 meeting, the library board authorized adjusting its budget to include $25,000 for a satisfaction survey of 500-600 library district residents, to be conducted by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA. Last year, the library also commissioned a communications audit by Allerton-Hill Consulting. [.pdf of Allerton-Hill report]  The board has also been receiving statistical information at board meetings over the past few months about library operations, and library managers have been making presentations to the board about various strategic initiatives. Parker said these efforts will help inform development of the next strategic plan, which will begin on July 1, 2015.

Greenstone asked trustees to generate questions regarding what they need to know in order to develop the next strategic plan. Here’s a summary of their responses:

  • Who is the library not serving or able to serve – in terms of demographics, or of materials that aren’t available now at the library?
  • What kind of context will the library be operating in within the next five years – regarding the broader context of Washtenaw County and southeast Michigan?
  • Demographics, including a breakdown of age, education levels, economics, family size, housing. What’s the profile of the library’s users?
  • How are the schools changing – in terms of demographics and funding – and how does that impact AADL?
  • Does AADL need to do some kind of strategic planning focused on its resources – not collections, but finances, staff and facilities?
  • What kind of continuing education does the board need to help inform its decisions? Are there different, better ways that the staff can use the board as a resource?
  • Does AADL need more branches, in the context of the overall system and the growing population in townships served by AADL? What’s the role and location of branches? Specifically, Nancy Kaplan noted that the branch in Westgate Plaza doesn’t offer programs, because it’s so small. What kinds of programs and services do people want at the branches, as opposed to downtown?
  • How will AADL help address the homeless problem in Ann Arbor, and how it impacts the library?
  • What’s the role of the library within the community? How does the library board and administration advocate for what it wants in the community? “We still want to be that ‘third place’ – we still want to be that community center,” Prue Rosenthal said. “We didn’t get the new building to do that, but we still want to be that.” There seemed to be consensus among trustees that the downtown library should be some sort of community “commons.”
  • What do the downtown businesses, residents and others who use downtown want from the library? Margaret Leary noted that the type of library building might matter to these groups, for example. “It’s part of the fabric of the downtown,” she said. “An entity that brings 600,000 or 700,000 people downtown matters to people who have businesses downtown. If that entity brought 1.2 million people instead of 600,000, that would matter too.”
  • Who uses the downtown library, and how do they use it differently than the branches are used?
  • How will the downtown library be affected by dramatic changes around it? The former Y lot across from the library is being purchased from the city by Dennis Dahlmann, though it’s not clear what his plans are for that site. A new Blake Transit Center is being built nearby, and in the future there might be something built on top of the city-owned underground parking structure that’s adjacent to the library. Does the library board and administration have a role in giving input for those sites?

Regarding changes around the downtown library and whether AADL has a role in influencing what happens, Greenstone recalled a previous discussion she had with some of the board members, during which Ed Surovell had said, “We should lead the way.”

At the retreat, Surovell noted that there’s a “very fluid set of players” who are making decisions that impact the downtown, including the city council, DDA board, AAATA, Dahlmann and others. Regarding the sale of the former Y site, Surovell said, “I would have hoped that council would have been more proscriptive” about how that site should be developed.

In general, the city can do whatever it wants, Surovell said. “It may be extremely important for the library to voice its opinions, but we have virtually no muscle. We are not an arm of the city. And we have at times been in conflict with the city – not because we don’t like them, but because our goals are different.” There are people who hope the library would go in a different direction, he added, which “is not surprising – it’s a democracy.”

But as a bottom line, “I think the truth is you don’t know anything right now,” Surovell said, “and whatever might be known to others is not known to you. … Should we speak up? I’d be delighted to say yes. But how?”

Rosenthal said she didn’t think this was something they needed to discuss that night, but it’s something the board needs to explore.

Parker told the board that she felt her responsibility and the board’s responsibility is to advocate for the public library first. “Whatever falls out after that, fine. But that’s the first thing.”

Next Steps: Committee Work

Board members indicated they’d be interested in having more discussions like this, as preparation for developing the strategic plan. Parker noted that as board president, it’s up to Rosenthal to set the agenda for regular meetings or working sessions.

When Greenstone asked about whether there might be a public working session, Parker replied that all board meetings or working sessions are public. Greenstone expressed some confusion about an earlier meeting, and Parker clarified that the meeting Greenstone was referring to had been a committee meeting, and therefore wasn’t open to the public. [AADL board committees consist of no more than three trustees. Because that does not constitute a quorum of the seven-member board, the committee meetings are not subject to the state's Open Meetings Act.]

Greenstone then stated that perhaps at some point the board could consider forming a new committee that would work on developing some of these ideas.

Margaret Leary noted that the information gathering they’d identified falls into two categories. Some of it is simply data that can be researched, like demographic information. Some of it involves asking other people for input and opinions.

Trustees reached consensus that a subset of the board – possibly the existing executive committee or communications committee – should meet to figure out what the process should be, and propose recommendations to the board.

Rosenthal said she’d talk with Parker and the board’s vice president, Barbara Murphy, to figure out what the next steps should be. The board is expected to get an update at its next meeting on Feb. 17.

Present: Rebecca Head, Nancy Kaplan, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, Prue Rosenthal, Ed Surovell. Also AADL director Josie Parker.

Next regular meeting: Monday, Feb. 17, 2014 at 7 p.m. in the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor. [Check Chronicle event listing to confirm date]

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  1. By Curious
    February 11, 2014 at 12:18 pm | permalink

    It seems odd the hiring/work of the image consultant they hired shortly after the recent tear-down/rebuild millage was defeated is not even mentioned.

    I also wonder how much this facilitating consultant is needed. This group of people, after this long, is so ineffectual that an outside consultant is required to facilitate? Is every Commission/Board similarly handled?

  2. By Alan Goldsmith
    February 11, 2014 at 3:12 pm | permalink

    “•Does AADL need more branches, in the context of the overall system and the growing population in townships served by AADL? What’s the role and location of branches? Specifically, Nancy Kaplan noted that the branch in Westgate Plaza doesn’t offer programs, because it’s so small. What kinds of programs and services do people want at the branches, as opposed to downtown?”

    Which brings to mind AADL director Josie Parker’s statement that the Westgate branch couldn’t be replaced because land prices were way too expensive on the westside of Ann Arbor. At the same time she was championing the failed Library millage to build a new $50 Million downtown branch replacement.

  3. By a2person
    February 12, 2014 at 7:33 pm | permalink

    Thank you for this detailed report. I cannot even imagine Ann Arbor without our fabulous library. I am a heavy user of the library, in many ways — print books of all sorts, travel guides, kids books, DVDs, science kits, telescope, music, books on CD, website including reference sections, the fabulous maps to study map-reading with my kid, weird music things, AAPS BOE meeting attendence, library events, I could go on and on. I am astounded at the breadth and quality of what is offered by our library, and I thank the Library Board for being excellent stewards of our investment.

    The most amusing quote in the article was by Neiburger, noting that K-12 collaboration is less than it could be due to lack of direct link to improved standardized test scores. How utterly depressing.

    To the board and AADL employees: Thanks.