Their mission: Reinvent library for the future

by Frank DeLoache

Early in their inaugural meeting, members of a Mecklenburg County library task force said they want to hear from comparable library systems that have weathered the historically bad recession well – and how they did it.

They got two answers from staff and consultants, neither of them particularly encouraging. First, libraries across the country are struggling to survive and looking for solutions, just like Mecklenburg. Two, nobody really has a lot of information about what libraries look like two years after the bottom fell out of the economy.

“You’re going to be reinventing the library, the library of the future,” local consultant Cyndee Patterson told the 16-member task force. “The world is very different right now, and unfortunately, most of the data (about libraries) is more than two years old.”

The recession hammered Mecklenburg County, and the library system’s budget has been cut in half in the past three years, forcing library trustees to cut the staff from 600 to 312. That’s why library trustees and county commissioners created the Future of the Library Task Force, which met for the first time Wednesday, Oct. 20, at the Charlotte Convention Center.

But the task force is doing more than trying to figure out a stable financing method for keeping the libraries open. Members also have the challenge of deciding how the libraries should change in the next three to five years – what services it should offer and what services to cut.

Jim Woodward, former chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is leading the task force, and he told his fellow members they have a lot of work to do if they hope to bring a recommendation to Mecklenburg County commissioners and the library system’s board of trustees by February.

The task force has a tentative budget of $225,000, which includes $65,000 for Patterson’s Lee Institute and $70,000 for California-based La Piana Consulting, the companies who will do most of the research for the special panel.

La Piana’s Vance Yoshida told panel members they must think about the library in different ways. “Think about competition,” he said. “You always face competition – for volunteers, for funding. You’re competing with Amazon.com. …

“What is going to be your competitive edge? Why are folks going to come to you? Why are people going to volunteer to help you? Why is the county going to give you money versus, say, the parks and recreation department?”

“It is critical that we have open, vigoruous discussion,” Woodward told the group. “Disagreements are welcome.”

Members took that to heart immediately. Of those services now offered by the library system, “all of them are good things,” Ed Williams, retired editorial page editor for the Charlotte Observer, said. “But we are not going to be able to do all of them any more.”

The library system should “provide services essential to the community that someone else does not do and do those excellently,” Williams said. “Our challenge is to pare the library down from what it is now.”

That, said Davidson Commissioner Connie Wessner, means the task force needs to know what local residents really want from their libraries. The task force doesn’t want to support a new library that residents won’t use or support, she said.

That prompted retired television broadcaster Bernie Simmons to caution against building the library of the future based on the whims of a survey. She described herself as a “fierce” defender of the library as “a great repository of information” that people may not know they need until they need it.

Scott Stone, vice president of Merrick and Co., responded by saying the task force has two major upheavals that occurred in the past two years – the recession and technology. While he said he supports Simmons’ idea of a repository information, Stone asked, “How will people get that information?”

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