Task force: How to ‘re-engineer,’ save county library system?

by Frank DeLoache

CHARLOTTE – The Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system circulated 7 million books and other items in 2009-10. The library staff answered about a million requests for information, from the simple to the complicated, and handled another 194,000 requests for assistance with computers.

Just to maintain those basic “core services,” the library system needs the equivalent of 264 full-time staff members, according to Sean Hogue, the financial analyst advising a task force studying the library system.

But the system, which has lost almost half of its staff to budget cuts, only has the equivalent of 223 full-time staff.

Right now, a new committed corps of volunteers, the greatest number in the towns of Cornelius, Davidson, Matthews and Mint Hill, is supplementing the paid staff so 20 branches can remain open.

At their third meeting Tuesday, Nov. 16, members of the task force said the current model for delivering even basic library services will likely need “re-engineering.” But those structural changes may not target smaller community branches that were threatened with closing last spring – before the four towns, Charlotte and the county put together a $5 million bailout.

Scott Stone, vice president of Merrick and Co., told fellow members about recently visiting the main library in uptown Charlotte. He found the basement, which once housed a “virtual village,” now closed (because of budget cuts) and rows and rows of half-full book shelves.

At the same time, the main library sits on valuable downtown real estate that could bring $20 million on the open market, Stone said.

Earlier in the meeting, library system Director Charles Brown said the system already has expanded its system of “shared collections,” where books remain at branches until they’re needed elsewhere. That saves the system the expense of returning books to a large central facility, and Stone appeared to question whether the system really needs a large central facility.

The 17-member task force is far from making any recommendations, but they are getting a better understanding of how the system operates.

Several members of the task force asked about the possibility of building an even larger force of volunteers. But library administrators said the four town branches have “maxed out” on the number of volunteers that can help. To keep the branches open and return to a five-day week in the four towns, the system already has doubled the amount of volunteer time to 5,000 hours a month.

One administrator said the reduced paid staff can coordinate only so many volunteers efficiently, and some of the smaller branches can accommodate only so many volunteers because of limited space.

Davidson town board member Connie Wessner suggested the library might try to study the town branches as a model for the best use of the most volunteers possible.

Task force Chairman Jim Woodward also wants to begin gathering up-to-date information from other cities and library systems about how they’ve handled or avoided budget cuts and how those communities pay for their libraries.

Woodward suggested the task force compare Charlotte-Mecklenburg with other urban areas Charlotte business and county leaders generally regard as the area’s chief competitors.

The task force ratified a list of the following cities for research: Atlanta, Ga.; Austin and Dallas, Texas; Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa, Fla.; Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; and Baltimore, Md.

Inside North Carolina, the task force will study library systems in Durham, Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Raleigh.

Carol Hull, the Mint Hill representative to the task force, already started the research on Austin. Hull told fellow members she wanted to know how libraries fared in cities hit hard a decade ago in the dot-com bust, and she learned that the Texas capital had suffered. So she went to the website for the Austin library system and connected with the system’s finance officer.

Austin avoided large budget cuts this year, Hull said, by going to great lengths to show the benefits the library provided for the community.

As the task force prepares to study other cities, Bill Millett, who previously worked in recruiting for the Charlotte chamber, recalled how city and chamber officials succeeded in luring Royal Insurance headquarters from New York City to Charlotte. With all that Charlotte offered, Millett said Royal officials were swayed finally by child-care rules adopted by the state and because Charlotte-Mecklenburg had just won the title of National Library of the Year.

Now president of Scopeview Strategic Advantage, Millett said he still advises corporate clients on relocations. And these days he’s getting calls from clients asking, “What the hell is happening in Charlotte?”

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