Austin's Active Shelf Life

Can Our Public Library Keep Up the Pace?

As American urbanites, we expect a public library at our disposal, just as we expect streetlights and ambulance service. In return, we ignore it until we need it, shrug when its funding gets deferred to the cops and tax breaks, and then castigate it when it can't provide a 1946 Statesman or a current bestseller. Perhaps the nearly one million Texans without public library service can remind us how unusual good libraries really are, how elaborate a commitment they involve, and how well they reflect a community's sense of self. A very important piece of Austin's soul is manifest in our public library, which by most common benchmarks -- collection size, number of branches, visits and circulations, per-capita expenditures -- is one of the most expansive in the state. This may not be saying very much, since libraries are not one of Texas' main bragging points, but since city management likes to focus on Austin's ranking vis-a-vis other Texas cities, our primacy in library service has political importance. And we are still not satisfied. We want it all. We want the latest information technology, and the vinyl records. We want the academic journals, and the peerless local-history archive. We want the latest large-print Harlequins for Grandma, the latest Sweet Valley High for the middle-school girls, and the latest Christopher Pike for their brothers. We want the award-winning projects reaching out to youth on the Eastside, and we want more branches for the youth on the Westside. We want the information we need at our fingertips, and we want a downtown temple of knowledge. We want an active, well-stocked branch down the block. And we want it all last week.

Can this be done? Numbed as you are by the hyped-up Fiber Age, you know that information delivery does not come cheap, and never keeps pace with demand. This makes libraries wonderful furnaces in which to burn public money, and they need to be stoked. If you slack off -- as Austin did during the bust years of the Eighties -- rekindling the furnace becomes quite costly. By the cold light of statewide comparisons, or even some national ones, we have been very generous to our library. But we have not funded it well enough to maintain the informed lifestyle to which we have become accustomed, in an era where books are ever more expensive, CD-ROMs ever more commonplace, Internet access ever more necessary, and the social needs the library seeks to meet ever more grave.

So the Austin Public Library system (APL), well-favored and well-loved, still endlessly struggles to meet our laudable and challenging expectations. We must know this, since the neologism "parks and libraries," modified by other terms like "social fabric" and "essential infrastructure," has been buzzing around town throughout the last council campaign and the recent budget debates. This translates, library folks hope, into a deeper commitment of both dollars and sense to Austin's knowledge network. But given today's political and fiscal realities, is there enough money in Austin, in whoever's pocket, to pay for the libraries we want and feel we should have? And if not, what are we willing to do without?

Margaritas in the Desert

If public interest is an acceptable guage, then certainly we can't skimp on providing Internet access. The 50 Net workstations bestowed on the library by the Austin Free-Net have gone over like margaritas in the desert. But these machines "are just a drop in the bucket," warns library director Brenda Branch. "My top priority -- and that of the staff and the (Austin Library) Commission -- is providing an adequate number of workstations in every location, so that we have equal access for everyone in the community."

The Free-Net project cost about $500,000 -- 200 G's from the State Library in a one-time grant, about $53,000 from the city budget, the rest from passing the hat and enlisting corporate partners. (The Metropolitan Austin Interactive Network also participated in the project, helping connect small-town libraries throughout the region.) To provide an "adequate" number of connected computers throughout town -- right now, there are only two workstations at each branch -- we would have to treble that investment. So we should add $1.5 million, which is more than the annual operating cost of the central John Henry Faulk Library, to APL's $11.4 million budget for fiscal 1997. While we're shaking the money tree, we should add another half-mil to bring the existing tech at APL into the current decade -- the typical middle-school library has electronic information tools comparable to our downtown flagship. And top that off with, say, another $1 million a year for the next 10 years, to pay for the increased capacity we need, and the inevitable upgrades, and for Internet services that are now free but will soon cost money, and for making some of the library's own collection (especially that of the History Center) available on-line. After that, God, or Bill Gates, only knows.

Most agree that an accessible and useful on-line library is a worthy goal. It's a logical extension of what the library does with books; if you want those Harlequins on the shelves, you can't really dismiss Netsurfing as so much frippery, and the hard stuff -- specialized reference sources and periodicals, the materials that fill up the entire second floor of Faulk -- is ever more common, more current and in some cases easier to use on the Net than in print, microform, or even CD-ROM. (For example, don't get attached to full-text CD-ROM press archives like NewsBank, as papers like the Statesman -- or the Chronicle -- start dumping their guts onto their Web sites. And come 2000, all but the most basic census stats will only be available electronically, or so the Feds speculate now.)

And if these are the Silicon Hills, then the bumpy one-lane information blacktop leading to and through Austin Public is at least as embarrassing as our lack of a proper city hall. Will the library merit a multi-million-buck bond sale, as more than one council member thinks the city hall does? APL director Branch does not appear to be holding her breath. "Obviously, city funding will have to come our way," she says, "but corporate partners will help, because I don't think the city will be able to find the funding that the library needs for a sound infrastructure. Given the high-tech community we have in Austin, I think that's very possible."

She's probably right, at least in terms of her short-run goal of providing actual workstations, since corporate citizens can easily donate stand-alone hardware. When we move to the larger issues of connectivity -- i.e., a fiber-optic backbone between branches, and between them and the larger network -- and the wide and vague array of new tech-based services for which Austin's libraries will have to be staffed, trained and funded, we're looking at a new library on top of the current one, which still has to confront other social needs -- literacy, workforce training and adult education, youth services, providing government information -- only barely visible from the infohighway, and the pockets of Austin philanthropy are only so deep.

So what do you want to trade for tomorrow's Austin Public Library, a community knowledge network befitting one of the world's great cities? The effective tax rate? More cops on the street? The transportation infrastructure we need? Public health care for your friends, your neighbors, your kids' classmates? Didn't think so. Even when good-government watchdogs liposuction the city budget down to Kate Moss slimness, it's still likely that some funding for a long-term technology initiative that satisfies our expectations will have to come from elsewhere in the library budget. So what gives?

Stretched to Transparency

There aren't really any good answers to that question, which, as APL branch services manager Cynthia Kidd puts it, "has been a real hard concept for some to accept, that there aren't any good trade-offs. Just because we may get the technology we need, doesn't mean we need fewer books, or staff members, or locations."

On the first two of those criteria -- materials and staffing -- APL is already showing visible stretch marks. While even the smallest branch has far more books than, say, you do in your home, the reserve lists for popular titles are long, and more expensive items like multi-volume reference sets, extensive audiovisual collections, academic and trade periodicals, literary magazines, and art books are becoming less numerous even at Faulk. When looking closely at the shelves, you'll notice that the collection is beginning to reveal its age.

APL's book budget expenditures on materials per capita, as the State Library defines it, is $2.69 annually -- among the top 25% of Texas libraries of comparable size, which means on a nationwide level it isn't all that spectacular. As Julie Todaro, Austin Library Commission member and head librarian at ACC's Rio Grande Campus, puts it, "The library's been very creative at providing services, but when it comes to materials, you either have it or you don't. Austin needs to preserve the budget that we have for developing the collection, which is very low for a city this size. There's just no room to cut it."

Staffing is another area in which Todaro feels "there's never been padding. One of the things we used to hear about a lot is the need to reduce management in city departments. The library [staff is] about as reduced as a department gets. The branches are hurting for staff, and some of the city's money for personnel has been frozen, and they need these people." Even though Austin has a larger staff than many comparable-size libraries, branch-level services, like storytime at some branches and reference assistance at Manchaca Road, have already been delayed or dispensed with, due to staffing shortfalls. And even if there were room to cut staff in existing program areas, the library will likely need to add staff to manage the growing electronic services and systems. "That's how libraries meet their mission -- by providing the best kind of electronic access, mediated and with reference assistance," Todaro says.

Ultimately, both staff and materials are stretched to transparency because of Austin's extensive array of branch locations, unequalled by most libraries anywhere and of any size. The ratio of citizens to library locations in Austin is 27,000. Fort Worth is almost double that; the figures in Houston (43,000) and Dallas (40,000) aren't much better; and even in out-of-state towns like Portland or Charlotte, known for their quality libraries, more folks have to crowd into each branch than here. "Most systems are either branch-driven, or they try to have a central location that meets everyone's needs," says the State Library's Mark Smith, administrator of the Texas Library System. "Austin tries to do both."

As a result of its we-are-everywhere approach, even though per-capita spending on materials is relatively low, overall expenditure per capita -- incorporating the overhead of staffing and maintaining so many locations -- is very near the highest in Texas at $20.69. That's higher than the national average, and double the state's average. And one immediate effect of the financial daylight now shining on APL is the increase of that overhead, through the completion of branch-building projects long delayed. Indeed, much of this year's tax increase was intended (before the city's property-tax windfall) to pay for operating this year's two new locations -- Oak Hill, put off so long as to become a minor scandal but opening soon, and Milwood in far north Austin following in the spring.

The other bond-funded construction projects on the drawing board -- Windsor Park, Zaragoza, and Southeast Austin -- will replace current marginal branches like Windsor Village (in a storefront), Govalle (in a cramped and wacky outbuilding in an industrial park), and Dove Springs (in two rooms of the neighborhood center). The $1.1 million renovation of the Americana Theatre, next door to the current North Loop branch, into that library's new home is also set for the near term. By the time these are all finished, the need for new branches in currently sparse suburban areas, or for city-owned stand-alone buildings to replace the remaining storefront branches -- Twin Oaks, Riverside Drive, North Village -- will become equally urgent.

Branching Out

"Our goal is to replace the smallest branches with our own buildings, but where new ones go, and when, depends in large part on what the voters want. It's that kind of a town," Cynthia Kidd says. "The storefront branches were intended to be outposts, and as we built our own buildings we'd establish new outposts farther behind. And even the smallest branches, in any part of town, in areas where there isn't as much circulation, have spawned a real emotional attachment -- any threat to close the branch will mobilize the community."

You're prone to hear talk of equity when discussing the branches -- that is, every part of town and cultural group getting Their Fair Share. Ironically, in Austin, the library-poor tend to be middle-class white people living in boom zones where the library hasn't yet penetrated; the Eastside has decent library branches within walking distance of another, yet before the opening of Oak Hill, citizens down in councilmember Eric Mitchell's neighborhood had to drive as much as 15 miles to get to their nearest branch, either Pleasant Hill or Manchaca Road. "Traditional library users will go wherever they need to," Kidd notes. "We have folks who'll drive great distances, and we have folks who'll go to all the branches to find the items they want. Since, traditionally, we've felt that non-traditional users -- and that includes people in economically disadvantaged areas -- can't travel as far to use the library, we put the branches closer together. That may change with technology; we may be able to introduce people to the library a little closer to home, using the computer."

Branch predicts that Austinites -- who now enjoy a low ratio of citizens to locations -- will be reluctant to lose their neighborhood libraries, but there are less costly approaches to service. A conceptual alternative might be having larger "regional" branch libraries -- which is sort of the de facto reality, with branches like Carver, Manchaca Road, and North Loop occupying informal midpoints between Faulk and the storefronts -- instead of trying to recreate Faulk in miniature at every location. "We're at a real turning point," Branch notes, adding that this very issue is at the crux of the library's city-mandated strategic plan. "This is the time to make those kinds of decisions."

Great Expectations

However the capacity is divvied up, it will still need to be there, putting the kibosh on theories that a more electronic library would be freed from the need to maintain as heavy a physical presence in the community. "Based on the experience of library systems, the opposite happens -- the electronic access increases the awareness of and demand for the other services you have to offer," says Branch. "We still need to plan to accommodate growth."

Such increased patronage is, admittedly, part of the reason the library wants a strong citywide electronic network in the first place. "We're hoping that technology will be a means for bringing the have-nots in," says Kidd. "If you don't reach out, you'll have a city where the gap widens between those who can afford their own technology and those who can't."

Outreach projects, often funded by grants, have become an APL specialty in recent years; the library won the Texas Library Association's "Project of the Year" award three years in a row, all for youth projects, two specifically serving the Eastside. It was these successful outreach programs that, in turn, led Library Journal to name APL its 1993 National Library of the Year. Yet despite their achievements, projects like the VICTORY mentoring program will always be raw meat when the budget axe falls, and a heavy investment in citywide electronic capacity will add further pressure. Yet "I don't see how we can afford not to do projects like VICTORY," Branch says. "The citizens of Austin care about, and care for, the social fabric. They move here and they stay here because we're a community that addresses social needs up front. So those programs are critical."

So the Austin Public Library will continue to do it all, to never say no, and will continue to show how hard a task that is, and uncharitable citizens will continue to be aggravated and disappointed when they see what they get when they get what they pay for. Library officials are, naturally, hoping that, no matter how tightly woven the social fabric in Austin actually becomes, at least the increased attention paid to APL will prevent citizens from taking their library for granted as an entitlement, rather than treasuring it as an asset. Such has been the history of the city's relationship with its library, which is how it has managed to stay ahead of the pack even in the worst of times. And even without obvious solutions ready at hand, library supporters are counting on Austin's love affair with its library to help keep it that way. As Kidd notes, "The citizens of Austin have been incredibly supportive of the Austin Public Library. They've snatched us from the jaws of death many times." n Chronicle staff writer Mike Clark-Madison was formerly a public information officer at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission for four years.

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