November 24, 2012

Longer waits, less money for new books at Wichita library

If you are using the Wichita Public Library, you’re likely to wait longer to get your hands on that hot new murder mystery.

If you are using the Wichita Public Library, you’re likely to wait longer to get your hands on that hot new murder mystery.

If you were using the public libraries in Lawrence, Oklahoma City or Topeka, odds are you would get the same book sooner.

It’s a matter of numbers — and money.

In recent years, the Wichita Public Library’s per-person spending on library materials has been less than half of the amount in Oklahoma City and Topeka and half of the amount spent in Lawrence. Less spending translates to fewer materials and longer wait times, sometimes several weeks longer.

In those other cities’ libraries, for every popular new book copy, about three people are waiting to get it. In Wichita, there are likely to be about seven people waiting, where it used to be about five, said Cynthia Berner Harris, the city’s director of libraries. When she came to work for the library in 1984, it was three people waiting per copy.

“We ask people to bear with us and know that we will get copies to them as fast as we can,” she said.

New books are spread thinner in the Wichita library system because of tighter budgets, Berner Harris said. At the same time that the cost of books and other library materials has risen, city funding has been stable or decreasing, and state support has dropped.

In 2008 and 2009, the Wichita library received $763,920 in city funding each year for its materials budget. That dropped to $687,530 in 2010 and stayed at that level in 2011 and this year. It will remain the same next year.

As for state funding, the library received $242,873 for all expenses, not only materials, from a state grant in 2008. By 2012, state aid had fallen to $162,844.

According to a Public Library Association national report in 2011 that was based on earlier data, the Wichita library’s per capita spending on library materials was $2.33, compared with $5.77 by the Metropolitan Library System serving Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County, $6.18 by the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, and $5.67 by the Lawrence Public Library.

Data also showed that the Wichita library was on the lower end for materials budgets for libraries serving populations of 250,000 to 499,999. Where Wichita had a total materials budget of $867,613, the other cities in the same population category had an average budget of $1,612,449 — almost twice the amount of Wichita’s.

The good news is the Wichita library has managed to keep spending on materials at a consistent percentage of total library spending, Berner Harris said.

“I think this data tells us that although our overall funding available for materials purchases at our library is less than many of our peers, we have done a much better job than most (in recent years) of minimizing the amount of cuts to our materials budget,” she said in an e-mail.

There is no industry standard on wait time for library materials, said Eva Poole, chief of staff of the District of Columbia Public Library and president of the Public Library Association. It’s up to localities “to decide what is best” based on their budgets, Poole said.

Nationwide, funding for new library materials has suffered, Poole said.

Waiting lists

It’s natural for people to be eager about getting new books now because many new titles come out around the holidays, Berner Harris said.

She gave some examples of new fiction in demand at the Wichita library:

• “Notorious Nineteen” by Janet Evanovich. Even before the book was released, the library had 161 people on the waiting list.
• “The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling. The library had 21 copies and 121 on the waiting list as of Tuesday.
• For non-fiction, one example is “Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. The library had nine copies, 63 on the waiting list.

The library has taken steps to shorten the wait, Berner Harris said. People used to be notified by mail that their book was ready; now they can get the word by e-mail or text message, allowing notification the same day the book becomes available.

The library has streamlined its process so that new books often get put on a shelf within 24 hours of being received, she said.

Library challenges

But there are built-in challenges for libraries. Retail outlets often get new books before public libraries.

John Maxwell, 70, said he has had a Wichita library card since his mom got him one when was 8 or 9.

“I’ve always been a reader,” he said. “I can name every librarian I’ve had since I was in Hyde School back in the ’40s.”

Maxwell doesn’t blame the library for not having new books available as fast as he would like to read them.

“I have a great respect for libraries, and it’s not anything that they’re doing wrong,” Maxwell said.

But he wonders about priorities. In an e-mail, he said, “The city/county find ways to provide incentives to corporations, but we have difficulty funding schools, building a new library, even buying a few books.”

The Evergreen library branch on North Arkansas, the branch he most often uses, isn’t just vital to him, he said. He sees many young families from the neighborhood coming to Evergreen to check out books.

Other libraries

The Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library tries to have no more than about three people waiting for each fiction copy. It’s five to one for non-fiction, which is generally in less demand than fiction, said Gina Millsap, the library’s chief executive.

The three-to-one wait time for fiction got stretched to five-to-one around 2008, when the recession hit and the library materials budget got cut by 55 percent, Millsap said.

“We just couldn’t buy as much stuff,” she said. But the funding has improved, and “we’re coming back.”

Millsap remembers hearing a story at a library conference years ago: A library director and police chief were both making budget presentations to a city council, in another state. The police chief spoke in support of the library budget, saying the council members could give money to the library now “or you can give me a lot more money later,” meaning that a child who is reading and learning is less apt to commit crimes as he grows up. It’s the idea that by improving the quality of life, you prevent crime in a cost-efficient way.

At the Metropolitan Library System, which serves Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County, librarians try to keep the wait time to no more than three people per copy and no more than two people per copy for the most popular items, said Janet Brooks, the system’s materials selection manager.

The Metropolitan Library System has been fortunate that its budget has not been cut when other libraries’ funding has been, Brooks said. She said Oklahoma City takes particular pride in its literacy, libraries and bookstores.

Restoring funding

Wichita Vice Mayor Janet Miller said libraries are “a standard bearer for judging communities a lot of times.”

Libraries provide access to technology and are a critical resource for families, especially for early childhood development, Miller said. Research shows that children who learn to read early are more successful in all ways, socially and academically, and it’s much tougher to make up that learning later, she said.

Miller, who has been on the City Council since 2009, said, “We held as long as we could without making cuts to the library. There’s not been anything immune to budget cuts in years.

“It’s going to be several years, probably, before we have funding to add back to the library,” Miller said.

“I certainly look forward to the day when we can add money back.”

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