Defining Wichita’s libraries of the future will be the next big debate at City Hall.
Are they best anchored by a new, $30 million central library at Second and McLean, a project idled by the city’s debt issues? Or by an upgraded system of branches that provide high-tech information to consumers as close to their homes as possible?
The discussion is fueled by an internal Wichita library use report that City Council members say trends toward branch libraries and regionalized Internet learning access.
The report showed circulation at the central library was down 18.4 percent in June from a year ago. It also showed declines at four regional branches — Alford, Evergreen, Rockwell and Westlink — that are mostly in the single digits.
The report showed use of electronic books was up 38.5 percent systemwide. But e-books make up only 3,200 of about 203,000 materials checked out from the library, or 1 percent, over the month. Any conclusion that books are fading as a desirable library item is premature, library director Cynthia Berner Harris said.
Attendance figures in the report showed the Westlink branch, at 8515 W. Bekemeyer, near Central and Tyler, is almost as popular a destination as the central library.
Several Wichita City Council members say now is the time to step back and take a hard look at how a system of high-tech libraries might work around the city, minus a central hub.
“I don’t know what the library of the future looks like,” council member Jeff Blubaugh said. “I don’t know that anyone does. But now is the perfect time for us to sit down and craft the libraries of the future, figure out what people want and what is the best use of city dollars.”
“My argument is to rethink whether the hub and spoke system (a central library feeding a series of city branches) fills the public need that exists today,” council member Jeff Longwell said. “Would the public be better served by strategically placed, high-functioning branches so we save our dollars on the rest and not try to have a huge hub and spoke system?”
Council member Janet Miller and the city’s library staff and advisory board have a different take: The city has planned for a new central library for seven years.
Faced with debt issues, the council backed off the latest $30 million plan this month, saying the city can’t afford to borrow money to build it.
“I’m going to side with the experts who’ve looked at this issue extensively,” Miller said, “and the notion that we don’t have a plan for the library of the future is just wrong. We’ve had a plan for the library of the future for six or seven years ... and now we just need to figure out how we can afford to implement it.”
Miller, who has the central library in her district, sees a strong future for city libraries, calling any suggestion that the city doesn’t need a central library “incredibly naive.”
“I think the importance of a central library is pretty clearly established,” she said. “It’s impossible to run our spoke and hub system without the central hub.”
Remodeling the current downtown library is another option. Some council members hope an extra decade at the current location would bridge the current economic downturn and make a new central library more doable.
City Manager Robert Layton said last week he wants to bring the council and library board together again as “a matter of better dialogue ... regarding the future of the library system.”
Berner Harris cautioned that report on June circulation declines is missing a couple of key variables: decreased library hours and staffing issues that have hampered the outreach for summer child and teen reading programs. Last summer, the city cut library hours to trim the budget.
“At face value, when you look at the materials circulation numbers for June, they were off substantially,” she said. “But there’s a big thing you don’t see right at hand.”
Instead, when circulation is measured at the downtown library for June 2012 and 2013 by the hours a facility is open, materials delivery was up slightly in June 2013, Berner Harris said.
“The hours a library is open to the public has a direct relationship to the number of items checked out,” she said.
“Those June numbers are a snapshot in time. And the context of those numbers, for our purposes, is even more important.”
Library of tomorrow
But some council members say the monthly attendance numbers are reason enough to take a look at the entire library system.
“We need to know whether we’re focusing our efforts and money where it needs to be focused,” council member James Clendenin said.
“Are we going to focus our money on traditional libraries, the same old way we’ve done business for years, or are we willing to look at where the world is headed and how to spend our money on the ways people want information?”
One option would be to create an administrative center downtown that provides materials on order to patrons at upgraded branch libraries.
“I envision something different than a warehouse full of books,” Blubaugh said. “In all the library presentations, we’ve seen nothing else but hub and spoke. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I see something more with technology.”
Specifically, interactive technology, he said.
“We’re learning differently. I think the future is learning through your hand-held device,” he said.
Clendenin says the city needs to standardize library services across all six council districts. He said library services in his southeast Wichita district are embarrassing.
“When I mention the idea of a southeast branch library, people perk up,” he said. “No question that people in this district still want to use a library. There’s a big population of people in southeast Wichita that don’t have a readily accessible library. We have little or nothing available down here.
Clendenin floated the idea of remaking the “hub” of the library system.
“I don’t think you necessarily have to fully abandon the hub and spoke system, but it can look differently than it does now,” he said.
It’s unclear where the debate is headed.
Miller is still advocating for a new central library, admittedly without major city financing. Councilman Pete Meitzner said his mind is still open, with remodeling a possibility at the current central location on South Main. Clendenin, Longwell and Blubaugh say they’re starting to entertain an entirely different, more regionalized system.
“The library board has said that unless we have a strong main branch, we can’t have a library system,” Clendenin said. “Well, I’m finding myself partially disagreeing at this point with that thinking.
“I really do think you can have a central distribution point for materials. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for some of us on the council to notice what the numbers are doing in our branches. Bottom line: If we’re not looking at all our options and what we can do to better serve our customers, then we’re being irresponsible.”