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VOL. 128 | NO. 97 | Friday, May 17, 2013

Past Due

Study details library usage, sparks call for more funding

By Bill Dries

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In the last five years, the 600 computers in the Memphis Public Library & Information Center were used 1.2 million times.

Tiffany Wiggins and Johnnie Williamson with son Johnnie Williamson III, 4 months, do college research on the computers at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.  

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

In that same five years, the budget for the library system of 18 locations has been cut 21 percent and there has been a 20 percent reduction in hours over the same five years.

Those are just some of the numbers and percentages from a strategic plan for the library system commissioned by the nonprofit group Friends of the Library and Memphis Library Foundation.

The survey results and library usage statistics presented by Linx Consulting and Smart City Consulting were part of a push for $2.9 million in additional city funding.

The goal of the new funding would be to add 47 employees to the library system and increase the library system’s collections budget to $2 million from less than $1 million.

The new employee count and collections budget would each be comparable to what library systems have in comparable cities, according to the comparison by the two consulting groups.

“The library is on the wrong side of the curve,” Smart City’s Tom Jones told City Council members this month during budget deliberations.

But the amounts are not in the administration’s operating budget proposal, and library director Keenon McCloy said the plan is more of a “roadmap for the future.”

The Memphis system is what McCloy calls a “hybrid.”

“The anticipation in the regional model was that you’d close a neighborhood location to make way for fewer but larger locations,” she said. “I think it’s unlikely that the city would have funding in the (capital improvements) budget any time in the foreseeable future to construct all of these additional libraries that would be required. Those also cost much more to operate on an annual basis than the neighborhood. It’s not actually a cost savings.”

So the Memphis library system has regional libraries like Cordova, Whitehaven and East Shelby.

But the usage of the neighborhood branches also is high, according to the new report.

“Frayser is very much a neighborhood branch. It’s among the busiest in the system, but it’s tiny,” McCloy said. “It’s 6,400 square feet. No matter what time of day you go, it is packed with people who are either looking for jobs, waiting for computers, checking out books. It’s an extremely busy branch.”

Patrons come and go through the busy atrium at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. A recent study was part of a push to gain additional funding for the library system. 

The study confirms the different libraries are used for different purposes.

“At Poplar-White Station you have incredibly high circulation. More people are going there to check out books and peruse the collection than are going there for computer usage,” McCloy said. “If you’re in North Memphis or South Memphis, on the other hand, you might see spikes in computer usage. Of course there are long lines.”

The study’s conclusion is that in some parts of the city, libraries are places where those who are out of work or looking for better go to look for jobs on computer terminals. Many work places only take job applications online.

The library system has e-books available, but they cost three times what books on the library shelves cost and they have a lower circulation because of usage limits that set how many times an e-book can be checked out before the library has to pay again for its use.

In less than a year in 2011, the library system’s e-books collection went from 300 to more than 1,000 with 6,225 checkouts of the e-books during that time.

“It’s kind of like a software license agreement. You own a book for a finite number of checkouts. But it’s managed kind of like a regular book,” McCloy said. “Yet the average cost of an e-book is three times that of a hardback book. … We have to continue to repurchase them every time that number of checkouts has expired.”

Until libraries and publishers and distributors work out a new arrangement, critics of library collections rooted in printed copies of books might find the movement to e-books slow going.

“People say eventually everything will be electronic,” McCloy said. “The reason that’s not coming faster is no one can afford the price tag on that. Those resources are so much more expensive. … We always have a wait list for any of our e-books.”

The proposed libraries budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $16.1 million, about $200,000 less that the adopted budget for the fiscal year and about $100,000 less than what the budget is forecast to look like at the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.

The administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. proposed closing five library branches last year at this time during the city budget season. Four of the five remain open. The fifth, the Highland Avenue Randolph branch, is on the market for sale.

The report recommends the Cossitt Library, the city’s original modern public library, at Front Street and Monroe Avenue on the city’s promenade section, be torn down and a new Downtown library be built elsewhere. The Cossitt has been targeted for closing before.

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