Politics & Government

Changes to Wichita’s branch libraries recommended

Westlink is a small library branch, but it’s heavily used, because it’s the only library in the sprawling and densely populated western suburbs.
Westlink is a small library branch, but it’s heavily used, because it’s the only library in the sprawling and densely populated western suburbs. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita’s libraries are the lowest funded in the region, and all the branch libraries have room for improvement, a Wichita State University study has found.

The analysis recommends tailoring the branches’ book collections, technology, meeting spaces and ambience to better fit with the areas they serve.

Eventually, all the libraries will be realigned with their neighborhoods to supplement the services available from the new $37 million advanced learning library under construction downtown.

Even though the new downtown library will be state of the art and most people can instantly access information and entertainment from their smartphones, branch libraries still serve a purpose and are important to their neighborhoods, the analysts concluded.

“We did hear a little bit of resentment about the investment that’s going into the downtown versus into the branches,” said Lisa Dodson, senior project manager for WSU’s Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs. “There is a lot of loyalty to branches. They see that as their library.”

The goal is that the branch libraries will become “third places” for people to go for information, entertainment and social interaction when they’re not at home or at work.

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Alpha Kasubi considers the Westlink branch his library. He said he lives closer to downtown but doesn’t like to deal with the parking.

And, he said, he likes the personal touch he gets from the staff at the branch.

“I’d rather drive the extra distance to a place where I feel like I’m at home,” he said.

Kasubi is a heavy library user, often having dozens of items – books, music CDs, DVD movies – checked out at once. And he reads a wide variety of magazines at the library.

“The money savings are astronomical,” he said.

The WSU study generally recommended updating the buildings and the environment across the library system, making each branch a unique experience, expanding community services and programming, and exploring strategies to getting more people to use the libraries.

Council members were supportive when they got the report last week and several said they plan to look through the research to see how they can improve libraries in their districts.

“I would love to see us drill down (in the data) and find out what we’re missing,” said Mayor Jeff Longwell.

Cynthia Berner, director of libraries for Wichita, gives a tour of the new library still under construction during a topping off ceremony on Feb. 24, 2017. The library is scheduled to open in the spring of 2018.

Money is short

Funding could be an issue in upgrading the branches.

Wichitans spend about a fourth of what Topekans do to maintain their library system and less than half of what residents spend in Johnson and Wyandotte counties.

In fact, Wichita’s library spending of $22.38 per resident per year falls significantly below the national average of $36.

And it’s the lowest funding level among comparable cities and counties across the region, the report said.

The Topeka-Shawnee County library system spends $101 per resident and was named Library Journal’s “National Library of the Year” in 2016.

Johnson County spends about $57 per person served, followed by Kansas City/Wyandotte County at $54.

In neighboring states, Oklahoma City spends $45 per person, about double Wichita’s funding.

Funding in Omaha, at $27.77 per person, was the closest to Wichita at the bottom of the pack, but still about 25 percent more.

“I think the conclusion is we don’t spend per capita what peer libraries spend,” Dodson said.

City Library director Cynthia Berner Harris said Topeka is kind of an outlier among library systems because, decades ago, it decided to rely primarily on bookmobiles to serve outlying residents rather than fixed branch libraries.

Most of the other library systems have a dedicated funding source, such as a designated county property tax levy, that can’t be used for other municipal programs, she said.

Lower funding does have an impact on service, she said.

“It means that on the newest best-sellers, your wait may be longer to get a copy because we don’t buy as many copies (as comparable libraries do),” Berner Harris said. “There may be more items that we borrow from other libraries.

“We don’t spend as much on our programs as other places. We don’t bring as many paid speakers in. We don’t have in some of our locations extended hours that other libraries may have. And at this point in time, we don’t have the cost of a bookmobile operation.”

Change on the way

Some change is already underway, although on a small scale.

For example, patrons of the Westlink branch often have to travel long distances to get what they want from a library.

Westlink is a small branch, tucked between two churches and shielded from well-traveled West Central Avenue and North Tyler Road by a Big Lots store and a Fazoli’s restaurant.

But despite that, it’s heavily used, because it’s the only library in the sprawling and densely populated western suburbs.

Maps showing where people travel for service indicate that residents in the ZIP code around the Westlink library use the Alford and Maya Angelou branches almost as much as they use their own neighborhood branch.

Part of that is that so many people use the Westlink branch, there are long waiting lists for new and best-selling books, so it’s easier to go pick it up at another branch.

Kasubi, who calls Westlink his library, acknowledged that it’s sometimes difficult to get exactly what he wants right away at the branch. For him, it’s not a problem. He checks out so many items that he reads or watches something else until the book or movie he wants is available.

But he said he sees how that could be a problem for a lighter library user who’s maybe interested in one specific item.

“If they have to wait for 40 people to get a DVD, I can see where that would be a headache,” he said.

Jim Lapine, another Westlink user, said, “I’m happy with it, I really am.”

He was especially complimentary of the branch’s periodicals section, which gives him access to a broad range of magazines and is kept up to date.

He said the branch hasn’t changed much since he moved to the neighborhood in 1979. However, he said, he has noticed that a lot of material he used to get from books – such as medical journal articles – is now available only online.

“I tend to be computer illiterate,” he said.

Berner Harris said the library system has recognized that Westlink can have long waiting lists and has taken some steps to adjust.

“One of the things we’ve done to address that more recently is we use a system called ‘floating collections,’ ” she said. “If you have to go across town or we ship something to Westlink for you, you return it to Westlink and it stays at Westlink until the next person wants it someplace else.

“We are already starting to evolve naturally the work (the WSU researchers) have referred to in terms of making those collections unique to interests of those local users.”