Wichita’s new downtown library had a heck of a first month.
According to a new report, about twice the number of people visited the Advanced Learning Library in July compared to the downtown branch at the same time last year. Three times as many people applied for library cards. And patrons checked out nearly 68,000 books and other materials — a monthly record for the Wichita library system.
“It’s an exciting time, and that’s certainly cause for celebration,” said Cynthia Berner, director of libraries.
But the celebration has been tempered by a harsh reality: Wichita’s libraries are the lowest-funded in the region, and that budget outlook isn’t likely to change very soon.
Wichita spends $22.38 per resident per year on libraries — well below the national average of $36, according to a recent analysis by Wichita State University.
That’s the lowest funding level among comparable cities and counties across the region, including Omaha, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, St. Louis and Des Moines.
Most other cities in Kansas spend substantially more on libraries than Wichita does.
The Topeka-Shawnee County library system spends $101.82 per resident — about four times what Wichita spends. Salina spends about $64 per resident, Johnson County spends about $57, and Hutchinson spends $53 per resident.
“It is below low — it is root level,” said Vikki Jo Stewart, president of the Friends of the Wichita Library, a nonprofit group that helps support library programs.
“If you go into any library in this beautiful state, you will see them doing more with $1 than any other organization will do with $100,” she said. “People volunteer, people donate, they are ingenious about doing the most with what they get. . . . But you can only do so much.”
A few weeks after the grand opening of the Advanced Learning Library — during which hundreds of Wichitans lined the streets for a ceremonial “book brigade” — city officials announced a proposal to close two library branches. Mayor Jeff Longwell has since walked back that proposal.
Wichita’s smallest library branch — the Comotara branch, inside a Dillons store at 21st and Rock — closed in July.
A few days later, the Friends of the Wichita Public Library announced plans to discontinue two popular benefits of the library’s gold card program — unlimited free holds for materials and a three-day grace period on returns — in another effort to shore up the budget.
That plan, too, has been delayed. Patrons with gold or platinum cards, which require an annual donation of at least $25, will continue to receive the current benefits through 2019, Stewart said.
In the meantime, library officials are exploring ways to recover more of what it costs to pull items from shelves, label them and move them among branches.
The Wichita library charges patrons 25 cents to reserve a book or other item and have it delivered to their chosen branch. Berner, the library director, said the actual cost for that service is about 31.5 cents.
“Our goal is not to charge people money for the sake of charging money. We really are trying to find ways so that people don’t have to incur fees,” Berner said.
“But the city has asked every department to look at what services cost, and then to determine when fees should be adjusted or when new fees should be implemented so that we are generating revenue to support those services.”
Some library patrons say additional fees deny equal access to materials. If a book is available only downtown or in an east-side branch, for example, someone living in west Wichita would have to drive to get it or pay a quarter to have it delivered to the nearest branch.
John Hammond, a Wichita State University math instructor who moved to Wichita about six years ago, said he was “upset and very irritated” when he learned that the library charged 25 cents to reserve a book.
His wife, Jessica, worked for university and public library systems in Missouri and elsewhere that didn’t charge extra for holds or transfers, he said. In fact, Wichita is one of only a few library systems in the country that charge a fee to reserve materials.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s such a great deal. It’s only a quarter.’ And I’m like, ‘No, this is not how libraries work,’” Hammond said.
The Hammonds frequent the Rockwell library and pay $25 a year for a Friends membership that entitles them to free holds. But they have petitioned the library board to consider doing away with hold fees altogether.
“Our neighbors who cannot afford $25 should also have access to the books across the library system,” John Hammond said.
Supporting the library
During 2017, the Wichita library processed 260,707 holds. That would generate more than $65,000 for the library — one quarter at a time — if it discontinued free holds for gold members.
Berner, the library director, said she couldn’t say how many of the holds were covered by memberships because the library lumps its desk receipts together, including hold fees and overdue fines.
But some members reserve numerous items — sometimes more than 50 at a time — to be shipped to their local branch, Berner said. Then they sift through the stack, check out two or three items and send the rest back.
“That’s technically covered by the (gold card) benefit, because we say unlimited free holds,” she said. “But when you think about the resources required to fulfill those kinds of requests . . . it’s certainly not what anyone had in mind when that program started.”
Friends of the Wichita Library began in 1938 as an advocacy organization. It operates a used book store inside the downtown library and holds occasional book sales to support library programs.
The gold card program, which launched in 1995, offered free holds and a three-day grace period as a way to further boost memberships and build support for the library.
Some people join the group primarily for those benefits, Stewart said. Others donate the $25 or more each year to support programs such as the Wichita Big Read and the 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten campaign.
Competing for funds
During this year’s budget process, library officials asked the Friends group to update its membership program to feature “benefits that do not directly impact the revenue that the city generates from library fees and fines,” Berner said.
Many library systems have a dedicated funding source, such as a designated property tax levy, that goes directly to the library and can’t be used for other programs. Not so in Wichita, where the library competes for funding along with other city departments such as police, fire, parks and public transit.
“There are people that say, ‘We don’t need libraries because we need to fill these potholes,’” Stewart said.
“From the Friends perspective, we have no control. . . . We can’t do anything except say we’re working on it. We’re in negotiations with the library staff, trying to figure out what we can offer.”
Berner said the library is reexamining its overall fee structure. It could institute limits on holds, charge more for amenities such as meeting rooms, charge new fees for some services or discontinue others.
Whatever happens, officials want to make it easier for people to pay fees. Rather than needing a quarter to pay for the occasional reserved book or BluRay, Berner said, the library is considering a system that would allow patrons to have debit accounts attached to their library cards for simple swipe-and-go transactions.
“We’ve spent the past year . . . talking about the very heart of our business,” Berner said.
“What are the things where, if we didn’t do that, we really wouldn’t be a public library? Those are the services or activities we would deem untouchable. And then what are the things that become more discretionary or perhaps could be scaled at a different level?
“It’s really about listening to our patrons and our staff and our board and really trying to figure out that balance,” Berner said. “What are we doing that doesn’t make sense anymore . . . and how can we be strategic about those decisions to make the most of the money we do have.”