Four Seats Open on Ann Arbor Library Board

Info session draws incumbents, possible candidates for 4-year terms

Four of the seven Ann Arbor District Library board seats will be up for election on Nov. 6, and all four incumbents – Prue Rosenthal, Margaret Leary, Nancy Kaplan and Rebecca Head – have filed to run for re-election. The four-year terms begin Jan. 1, 2013. As of Aug. 9, no one else has filed for the positions, which are nonpartisan.

Incumbent Ann Arbor District Library board members

Ann Arbor District Library board members, from left: Prue Rosenthal, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy and Jan Barney Newman. Rosenthal and Leary are running for re-election in November, along with two other incumbents: Nancy Kaplan and Rebecca Head. The four-year terms will begin Jan. 1, 2013. (Photos by the writer.)

Library staff held an hour-long forum for potential candidates on Wednesday evening, attended by three people who are interested, or who represented others that couldn’t make the event. They included Lyn Davidge, who ran in 2010 but wasn’t elected. Also attending was Doug Jewett, who said he felt tremendously pleased with his experiences at the library. “For me, this is the center of Ann Arbor.”

Prospective AADL board candidates have until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 14 to file to be placed on the ballot. To file, candidates must turn in an affidavit of identity to the Washtenaw County clerk’s office, along with a $100 non-refundable filing fee or a minimum of 40 valid signatures. [More details on the filing process are available on the clerk's website.]

The positions are elected by voters in Ann Arbor and portions of seven townships that are covered by the library’s district – Pittsfield, Scio, Ann Arbor, Lodi, Webster, Salem and Superior. Those are the same boundaries served by the Ann Arbor Public Schools, with the exception of Northfield Township, which is partly within the AAPS district but has its own library system.

Josie Parker, AADL’s director, moderated the forum. Four current board members attended: Rosenthal and Leary, whose terms end this year, as well as Barbara Murphy and Jan Barney Newman, whose terms run through 2014. Four other top AADL managers were also present.

The board will be key in making decisions about the future of the downtown library. Last month, trustees voted to place a $65 million, 30-year bond proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot for construction of a new downtown building. If the project is approved by voters, the board will be instrumental in determining the design and other factors.

Though it was mentioned, that project wasn’t the focus of the Aug. 8 discussion. Topics ranged from a summary of the AADL’s history to challenges that the library will face in the future.

Library staff had prepared packets of material for potential candidates, which included the library’s strategic plan from 2010-2015, the downtown building bond proposal, recent district statistics on circulation and other measures, a recent annual report and audit, policy manual and other information.

More details about the board are online. Chronicle coverage of the board’s monthly meetings can be found here.

Perspectives from Current Trustees

The two board members who attended, and whose terms run through 2014, shared their experiences on the board. Barbara Murphy talked about the difference between serving on boards for nonprofits or other groups, compared to being on the board for a public entity. It requires an adjustment to a more formal meeting style, she noted.

Responding to a question from Davidge, Murphy said the board gets along well. In addition to their regular monthly meetings – held on the third Monday of each month at the downtown library’s fourth-floor conference room – the trustees serve on standing and ad hoc committees. Jan Barney Newman noted that the board’s role is to set policy, not micromanage the staff.

Both Newman and Murphy praised the library staff and leadership. Being associated with the institution is rewarding, Murphy said, and she views libraries in general as a foundation for democracy. Newman said the experience has helped her become more aware of the rest of the community, as well as of the importance of the library. Before being elected to the board, she wasn’t as aware of actions by the city council and other local entities to the same degree. “We’re important to the downtown of Ann Arbor, and what happens to Ann Arbor is very important to us,” she said.

Library History, Use

AADL director Josie Parker gave some background about the library. She noted that the library’s finances have been completely in order since 2002. [Parker has been director for 10 years. Under the library’s previous leadership, AADL struggled with financial issues, including a deficit of nearly $1 million in 2000. Later that year, the library’s former financial director, Don Dely, was found guilty of embezzling $119,387 from the library from 1997 to 2000, according to a report in the Ann Arbor News.]

Parker explained that when the library separated from the school system in the mid-1990s, all of the functions that had previously been provided by the school administration had to be recreated at the library. The transition and the “ambiguity of the moment” allowed for the theft to occur, she said. Other issues included union contracts that hadn’t been finalized since the time of the separation from the schools. After discovery of the fraud, Parker said, the AADL organization was completely restructured.

Josie Parker

Josie Parker, AADL director.

Since 2002, library audits have been exceptional, Parker said, and issues raised by auditors have primarily related to changes in the law and accounting rules.

Parker described the building of branches over the past decade: the replacement of the Loving branch on Creek Drive with the Malletts Creek branch on Eisenhower, the building of the Pittsfield and Traverwood branches, and the renovation of the Westgate branch. These projects were built without incurring debt, and were paid for out of the library’s operating millage. Currently, the library levies 1.55 mills – 81% of the 1.92 mills that AADL is authorized to levy. If the bond proposal passes, Parker noted, the library will be able to operate the new building within the amount that AADL is authorized to levy.

AADL employs about 220 people, including roughly 100 full-time staff. The use of the library has exploded over the past few years, Parker said, with an annual door count of around 600,000 visits to the downtown location, and 1.6 million visits system-wide. That’s an amazing number for a community this size, she said.

Transactions – instances when a patron uses their library card either in person or online – have increased from 1 million a decade ago to about 9 million in each of the last couple of years. The library’s collection has about 600,000 items. Parker noted that the AADL has received the Library Journal’s five-star rating for several years, and last year it was the only Michigan library to achieve five stars – the highest possible rating. That rating is based on usage, and AADL has the highest circulation per capita of any other five-star library.

The library’s technology, events and programming reflect the demands of the community, and the board has been an extremely important element of the library’s success, Parker said. The board sets policy, provides fiduciary oversight, and makes decisions on the budget and other issues, including the hiring or firing of the director. Regarding that last responsibility, she noted that for the past 10 years the board has handled her evaluation, which is another important role.

She praised current board members for their engagement, noting that their attendance at events hosted by the library is an affirmation to the staff that the people who govern the AADL budget care enough to use its services.

Upcoming Issues, Challenges

Responding to another question from Lyn Davidge, library staff and board members addressed challenges and other issues that the library will face in the future, aside from the major project of building a new downtown library – assuming that the bond proposal passes.

Eli Neiburger, AADL’s associate director of IT and product development, discussed the ongoing challenge of changes in the publishing industry. As the industry shifts to a digital format, there is no guarantee that libraries will be able to buy digital material – there are certain items that are already unavailable to libraries, he said. “That’s something new to the 21st century.” [Neiburger has previously briefed the board on this issue. See Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Library Frames Tech Issues."]

The question, Neiburger said, is :How does the library diversify its value proposition without becoming dependent on a single industry’s willingness to do business with the library? AADL is in good shape in that regard, he noted, but it’s still a big issue.

Regarding the diversity of AADL’s offerings, Jan Barney Newman pointed to the range of non-book collections that can be checked out, including science-to-go kits, telescopes, artwork, and musical instruments. Celeste Choate – AADL associate director of services, collections and access – said there will likely be more of those types of non-traditional items added to the library’s collections. [She briefed the board about AADL's realia collections earlier this year: "Mammoth Molars, Other Realia at the AADL."]

Parker cited another upcoming change related to the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled, which is managed by the AADL. There are technology changes that will be supported at the federal level by the National Library Service – moving from tape cassettes to a digital format, for example. Some of the AADL staff are acting as advisors in this transition, which Parker said she’s looking forward to.

On the financial front, Ken Nieman – AADL’s associate director of finance, human resources and operations – pointed to the possibility that the state legislature might eliminate the personal property tax (PPT). If that happens, the library would lose about $600,000 in annual revenues, he said. The library would be able to absorb that if the board voted to increase the amount of its millage that’s levied, he noted. [For more background on this issue, see Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Library Board Briefed on Tax Issue."]

Parker also pointed to another aspect of running a public library that she said might not be obvious. As an example, she described a scenario in which a two-year-old in a stroller is playing games on an iPod, while a parent and four-year-old are taking part in a storytime session. Growing up, the expectations of that two-year-old for what the library offers will be very different from what expectations have been in the past, she noted. The challenge for the library is to meet those expectations without reserve or judgment, and she hoped AADL would be able to do that. In that regard, Parker added, “Space matters – and that’s all I’ll say about that.”

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  1. August 10, 2012 at 8:59 pm | permalink

    I doubt if there will be any serious candidates running against this winning team.

  2. By Lyn Davidge
    August 11, 2012 at 11:37 am | permalink

    Excuse me? As one of the potential candidates who attended the information meeting, I must take exception to your comment, Mr. Cahill. I am completely serious in considering a candidacy, as I must believe you were when you decided to run for AADL Board. There are 4 Board positions up for election this year. As of Friday morning, Aug. 10, only the 4 incumbents had filed. They are all hard working public servants who seem to care deeply and sincerely about the library and the community. So I mean no disrespect to them when I say that I believe unopposed elections are not in the best interest of democracy. The voters deserve always to have a choice, to have alternatives for each office when they step into the voting booth. Personally, I would love to see 8 names on the AADL ballot in November!

  3. By Nelson
    August 11, 2012 at 12:04 pm | permalink

    There’s nothing quite so American as making up your mind before you know all of the facts.

  4. August 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm | permalink

    I ran for the AADL board in 2010 because I wanted to be involved in a community service position, and because I had some differences with the current board’s directions. I also ran because the incumbents had not filed and it was not clear that there would be a full slate of candidates. This had nearly happened in a prior election, where Jean King filed on the last day, then resigned shortly thereafter so that she could be replaced. I was amused to see that the incumbents did not leave any such ambiguity this time, so perhaps I performed a service by making it clear that nature and politics abhor a vacuum.

    There are a number of policy directions, including the move toward a library focused on activities rather than collections, the replacement of the downtown library building (if the bond does not pass, what then?), and the involvement in the disposition of the Library Lot, that are all legitimate issues for a competitive campaign. I’m sure there are others.

  5. By Eric
    August 11, 2012 at 8:46 pm | permalink

    So “activities” are going to replace the collection as the focus of the library? What “activities”? Why should the taxpayers fund white elephant buildings and overpaid employees with toilet paper library science degrees to run a ragbag of “activities”? As the collection evaporates into cyberspace the raison d’etre of the library dies. The agenda for the next decade should be to run down and terminate the library.

  6. August 11, 2012 at 10:41 pm | permalink

    Ouch, librarians are not overpaid, are well-trained good people, and in libraries is the future of civilization. Just look how things ran down after the Alexandria library burned. Mend it, don’t end it.

    Also, my mother was a librarian.

  7. August 12, 2012 at 3:01 pm | permalink

    Eric, you are wrong on the merits. The electronic revolution has already happened in the Library. Nonetheless, circulation of objects (books, DVDs, etc.) continues to rise, and so does the number of people going in the doors.

  8. By David Diephuis
    August 12, 2012 at 8:39 pm | permalink

    @7 David, IF the numbers mentioned in the article are reflective of 2012 fiscal year stats, then the 1.6 million visits reported are 137,000 LESS than in fiscal year 2011, down by 7.8% AND also less than the number of visits reported for the 2008 fiscal year.

    But even if those numbers are correct, if we go back further, library system usage has increased substantially since the time before the new branches, up by more than 50%.

    I hope the AADL publishes their 2012 annual report soon. It will help in evaluating the “case” for a new downtown library.