What’s the Future Role for Libraries?

Conference recap leads to Ann Arbor library board discussion

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (Feb. 20, 2012): A senior staff report on a conference in Australia prompted some discussion at the library board’s February meeting,

Eli Neiburger

Eli Neiburger, AADL associate director of IT and product development.

Eli Neiburger, AADL’s associate director of IT and product development, gave the closing plenary talk at an international conference earlier this month in Melbourne. It was hosted by VALA, an independent nonprofit that conducts tech education and support conferences. Neiburger is considered a leader in the field – he was named by Library Journal as one of its 2011 Movers & Shakers. His talk – “Access, schmaccess: libraries in the Age of Information Ubiquity” – looked at the role of libraries in an era when most digital content is free.

In that context, he said, the library’s role in the future involves offering unique content, experiences and events. He indicated that the AADL, with its robust programming, is well-positioned for these changes.

In its main action item of the evening, board members unanimously approved a website terms-of-use policy that had been discussed at their Jan. 18, 2012 meeting. The five-page document covers a range of topics, including guidelines for AADL and user-generated content, and how copyright complaints will be handled.

The board also approved its annual committee assignments, which are unchanged from last year. Board president Margaret Leary indicated that continuity would be important for the coming year. That was an allusion to major decisions that the board is expected to make regarding its downtown building on South Fifth Avenue. In November 2011, the board voted to provide $45,000 in funding for consultants to help resume the process of possibly redeveloping that downtown building, which is located south of the city’s new underground parking structure.

Website Terms-of-Use Policy

On the agenda was a resolution to approve a terms-of-use policy for the AADL website.

Jan Barney Newman

Jan Barney Newman, chair of the library board's policy committee.

Board president Margaret Leary noted that board members had received a presentation about the proposed policy at their Jan. 18, 2012 meeting. At that meeting, Eli Neiburger – AADL’s associate director of IT and product development – described the policy as a fairly standard attribute of corporate websites. It defines the legal relationship between the website’s users and its owner, and is put in place in case there is any problem with the website’s use or content. [.pdf of draft terms-of-use policy]

The five-page document includes guidelines for AADL and user-generated content; how copyright complaints will be handled; the policy for website registration, accounts and passwords; issues related to points awarded by the library for its summer reading game and other activities; spamming; external site links; termination of use; disclaimers; and indemnity.

The policy had been recommended for approval by the board’s policy committee, chaired by Jan Barney Newman. AADL director Josie Parker told the board that the library staff had received no questions in any form from the public regarding this policy recommendation.

Outcome: Without discussion, the board unanimously approved a terms-of-use policy for the AADL website.

Committee Assignments

In presenting the agenda item on committee assignments, board president Margaret Leary noted that the assignments are unchanged from the previous year. She said she had asked each board member individually to see if they wanted to change, but everyone wanted to keep their existing committee assignments. It was a good idea to keep continuity in the coming year, Leary said.

Leary has previously indicated that continuity is important in board leadership as the library assesses its options for the downtown building on South Fifth Avenue. By way of background, in November 2011, the board voted to provide $45,000 in funding for consultants to help resume the process of possibly redeveloping that downtown building, which is located south of the city’s new underground parking structure. In late 2008 the board had voted to suspend redevelopment, citing the shaky economy. [See Chronicle coverage: "Citing Economy, Board Halts Library Project." The issue has been addressed at subsequent AADL board meetings as well: "New Downtown Library? If, When and Where," and "Board Renews Library Building Discussion"]

The 2012 committees are:

  • Budget & Finance: Barbara Murphy (chair), Nancy Kaplan, Ed Surovell
  • Director’s Evaluation: Margaret Leary (chair), Jan Barney Newman, Prue Rosenthal
  • Policy: Jan Barney Newman (chair), Rebecca Head, Nancy Kaplan
  • Strategic Planning Steering: Margaret Leary (chair), Rebecca Head, Prue Rosenthal

In addition, the board’s executive committee consists of the president (Leary) and any two other board elected officers “chosen at a time it needs to meet,” according to the board resolution. Other elected officers of the board are Rosenthal (vice president), Murphy (treasurer) and Newman (secretary).

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve committee assignments.

Financial Report

In his monthly financial briefing to the board, Ken Nieman – AADL associate director of finance, HR and operations – described January 2012 as a typical month. [.pdf of January 2012 financials] He highlighted three items that are currently over budget, but said they are expected to come back in line with the budget by the close of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2012. Those line items are communications, software licenses and circulation supplies.

Nieman noted that the library has a $12.1 million unrestricted cash balance, and had received almost 97% of its tax receipts for the year, as of Jan. 31.

Board members had no questions about the report.

Director’s Report

In her director’s report, Josie Parker congratulated Tim Grimes, AADL’s community relations and marketing manager. Grimes has been asked to serve as an advisor for a research planning proposal being submitted by the American Library Association Public Programs Office to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). If awarded, the grant would fund a two-year process to assess effective programming at public libraries nationwide.

It’s another compliment to Grimes for his experience, Parker said, and for what AADL has accomplished in public programming over the years. Board president Margaret Leary added that the board is proud of him and of what this represents for the library.

Report from Down Under

Much of the Feb. 20 meeting centered on a presentation by Eli Neiburger, AADL’s associate director of IT and product development, who briefed the board on his recent experiences at conferences in Australia.

Earlier in the month, Neiburger gave the closing speech at VALA, a group originally known as the Victorian Association for Library Automation, which is now an independent nonprofit that conducts tech education and support conferences. He summarized talks by some of the other speakers at plenary sessions, including Jason Griffey of the University of Tennessee, who talked about libraries in the post-PC era; Eibhlin Roche of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, who brought a corporate perspective to the issue of archiving and access; and Xiaolin Zhang of the National Science Library, Chinese Academy of Sciences, who described challenges and strategies in providing access to information for Chinese researchers.

Neiburger’s own talk – “Access, schmaccess: libraries in the Age of Information Ubiquity” – was the closing plenary session. Increasingly, he said, people are giving content away, then monetizing their audience by selling other things, like T-shirts, mugs and other items, or access to events like conventions or concerts. Though digital content is still being sold, Neiburger noted that right now the market is witnessing an artificial scarcity, which is driving up prices far in excess of what the digital bits are worth. That’s resulting in a pricing bubble, he said, but that won’t last.

So what happens to the role of libraries if most commercial content is given away for free, and that becomes the dominant business model? What’s left for libraries are events and experiences, he said. Neiburger cited the AADL’s own offerings of lectures, exhibits, performances and contests – like last year’s appearance of the Top Chef’s fourth season winner, Stephanie Izard. The library’s role will be less about having a copy of a popular book to borrow, and more about having unique content and experiences – that will be a big part of a library’s future value, he said. [View a webcast of Neiburger's talk here.]

He gave the same talk at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, and also visited Hobart, the capital of Australia’s island state of Tasmania. Neiburger described Australia as similar to the Midwest: Everyone’s very nice, and for the most part there’s a lot of room.

Neiburger also reported on some recommendations made in the State Library of New South Wales’ newly updated publication “People Places.” One recommendation suggested that a new library should devote no more than 30% of its building for its collections, he noted. AADL director Josie Parker observed that such a configuration would result in the library becoming more of a community center.

The funding mechanisms for libraries are also different in Australia, Neiburger said – for example, most libraries are part of municipalities, not independent entities. And there are a lot of new libraries being built in areas that didn’t previously have them, he said.

Report from Down Under: Board Discussion

Ed Surovell wondered if the funding model and the fact that it was an immature market in some areas was resulting in a disparity of library service – are there “haves and have nots”? Neiburger said that aside from Tansmania, he’d mostly visited urban areas, but that it seemed to him Australia had a more even distribution of resources than the U.S. That might be because of support from the state – he noted that he paid $7.50 for a gallon of gas there, a higher amount because of taxes.

Ed Surovell, Rebecca Head

AADL board members Ed Surovell and Rebecca Head.

Margaret Leary recalled visiting Australia several years ago, where she had observed that the income disparity wasn’t nearly as great as it is here. Rebecca Head asked if the county has experienced the same kind of economic downturn that Americans have seen. It didn’t seem to be as hard-hit, Neiburger said. He also pointed out that he’d seen advertisements for banks that were offering 5-6% interest on deposit accounts, which is unheard of in the U.S.

Leary asked Neiburger to elaborate on his comments regarding businesses that are monetizing their audiences. Neiburger noted that newspapers and TV are an example of businesses that have done this historically – they monetize their readers or audiences by selling ads to companies that want to reach those particular groups. A more recent example of that approach is a web comic called Penny Arcade. New comics are posted three times each week online, and money is made by selling ads on the site and products to the fan base, or tickets to Penny Arcade conventions.

There’s a lot of change coming, Neiburger said, and AADL is fortunate in bringing a diversified value to this community.

Nancy Kaplan asked about the “People Places” report that had recommended only having one-third of a library’s square footage devoted to collections. Neiburger said it reflected a recognition that the value of a library’s stacks is decreasing.

Kaplan wondered what would happen to a library’s archives? Neiburger noted that the AADL houses its archives – primarily a collection from the former Ann Arbor News – in only about 3,000 square feet of space. [The AADL leases space for the archives at a Green Road office complex.] That material is being digitized and put online, but isn’t circulated.

As for circulated materials, 20 years ago the percentage devoted to space for collections might have been 70%, he said, but that’s been changing. He noted that a library also expects 30-40% of its collection to be in circulation at any given time – you don’t expect all material to be on the shelves.

Parker added that a library’s hope is to always have more materials loaned out than on the shelves. You shouldn’t build a library expecting that it would hold everything in its collection, she said.

Surovell recalled the opening of the Pittsfield branch in 2006, and how astonishing it was to see the entire library with its shelves filled and squared off with books. That lasted just one night, Parker observed.

Changes in technology are also contributing to a diminished need for shelf space, Neiburger said. Internet connectivity is becoming more ubiquitous, with smart phones and tablets like the iPad starting to dominate sales of laptops and desktop computers.

Several board members expressed interest in hearing Neiburger’s talk in its entirety. Parker said she hoped he would give it during the AADL’s staff training day, which is typically held in the fall.

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

Next meeting: Monday, March 19, 2012 at 7 p.m. in the library’s fourth floor meeting room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]

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  1. By Rex Roof
    February 27, 2012 at 11:40 am | permalink

    A recording of Eli’s talk can be watched here: [link]

  2. February 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm | permalink

    “he said, the library’s role in the future involves offering unique content, experiences and events.”

    I disagree with this in parts. The library’s primary role will remain as a connection to content for area residents. How the library is able to adapt to changing technologies and user interests will determine the effectiveness in meeting the needs of the community.

  3. February 28, 2012 at 7:41 am | permalink

    Too bad about the web site terms of use but I suppose it was inevitable.

  4. By A2person
    February 28, 2012 at 8:47 am | permalink

    Well, my primary interface with the AADL is for it’s “stacks,” for sure. Between my kids and myself, I’d say we check out 20-30 items per month, mostly books, for reading, reference, research. I can’t imagine how I’d get equivalent information online, for free? Wikipedia does not satisfy when you want to look into a historical period, for example. I would be deeply saddened if the stacks were diminished. I love the fact that we can find books about just about anything at AADL.

  5. By Joe S.
    February 28, 2012 at 4:56 pm | permalink

    We haven’t the foggiest what libraries will be in the future.

    But trust us. You need this new building now.

  6. By Eric
    February 28, 2012 at 5:39 pm | permalink

    From the downtown library the future seems to be a hangout place for bums, crazies and loud teenagers. The only busy areas are the terminal banks. Why not just shut it down?

  7. By A2person
    February 28, 2012 at 6:38 pm | permalink

    Thanks Eric, helpful comment. Are you aware that the AADL has the highest circulation per capita of all public libraries in the whole country? By quite a margin, too: [link]

    I spend a fair amount of time at the downtown branch. I assure you, I am gainfully employed and housed, not crazy, and not loud. Nor am I a teenager. And I see a nicely diverse group when I’m there, representing many nationalities, ages and economic situations.

  8. By Eric
    March 1, 2012 at 8:06 am | permalink

    Library systems are like the post office, their main activity is being eaten by the internet. The collection and distribution of information on printed paper in brick buildings is so passe. It is only a matter of time before Apple or Amazon will have a “book” lending program for ereaders that will wipe out 90% of the circulation activity. You will have to pay a few dollars for a copy that will evaporate after a few weeks but it will be easier, faster and cheaper than driving to library, $10 for gas, $5 to park, risk of $500 tow and fine if you fail to notice a parking regulation change not to mention no panhandlers and no “service” from slobs with tattoes and nose rings. I say close the library, demolish the building and use the site for apartments or fast food.

  9. By Andy
    March 1, 2012 at 9:43 am | permalink

    “it will be easier, faster and cheaper than driving to library, $10 for gas, $5 to park, risk of $500 tow and fine if you fail to notice a parking regulation change not to mention no panhandlers and no “service” from slobs with tattoes and nose rings.”
    I am hoping this comment — to the effect that if it is inconvenient for drivers, we should shut it down — is satire. Tear down the library and replace it with free parking, right?

    In case it isn’t, let me point out there is free parking at some of the branch libraries for those who must drive. The library is also a 30-second walk from the Blake Transit Center. There’s also the option to do it the old-fashioned way — biking or walking.