Austin Public Library Prizes Tech Despite Limited Budget
Today you’re as likely to see someone reading a book on their iPad or Kindle as you are to see them sitting down holding an actual book. As it changes everything else, technology is also changing reading habits, but that’s not a bad thing according to Austin library officials.
“Every place I go, people say, ‘Well, now that there’s the Internet, people aren’t reading anymore,’” says Brenda Branch, director of Austin Public Libraries. “In fact, the Internet is making more people read – they see jacket covers, they see reviews people share, they see an author on TV or the Internet talking about a book. There’s more exposure that makes people interested.”
The Austin Public Library system is making efforts to keep up with the demand for books, in both hardcopy and now downloadable form. APL has more than 548,000 active library cards in circulation, up from about 520,000 cards last year. The Library experiences a 4 to 7 percent growth rate in the number of materials that are borrowed every year. Last October, that number began including downloadable materials for electronic readers. The first month, 1,000 titles were borrowed; more recently it has averaged 15,000 downloadable titles borrowed per month.
“Downloadables have brought a whole new population who might not set foot into a library but who will download a book on vacation or from a plane,” said Branch, who has served as APL director for 21 years. “You’re on a plane and bored and grounded and you just log on and download a book.”
The challenge for the library though, is to keep up with this demand for new technology with a relatively stagnant budget. Funding for the Austin Public Library comes from the general funds pool that also supports public safety, firefighting, EMS, parks and health services, so purse strings are tight. For the 2012/2013 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, the city manager has recommended the Library receive a bump from $26.5 million to $30 million, mostly to cover inflationary costs as well as funding for 12 full-time equivalent positions, although the libraries requested 24. These suggested budget numbers will be finalized by City Council this week.
The City has “a finite amount of money and they’ve done well by the library, but the dollar only goes so far,” Branch says, adding that more and more the Library is looking for alternative funding sources like grants and the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, which is currently raising funds for the new Central Library.
As a result of limited funding, many specialized positions have been cut. For example, instead of having a librarian for each youth age group, youth librarians now serve all ages. The end result, Branch says, is that although librarians might be doing more work, there isn’t much impact to the library customer. Additionally, Austin libraries have centralized administration at branches and limited their hours, opening a little later, closing a little earlier and closing one day per week. Customers have simply shifted their visiting habits to cope, Branch says.
Despite budgetary restraints, the Austin Public Library is still making very real efforts to cope with the technological demands of Austinites. Computer-learning skills classes offered free to library card holders are popular, and the 653 public computers distributed throughout the library system are always in use.
Additionally, on Aug. 27 the Austin Public Library implemented a new online catalog system, powered by BiblioCommons. The new system works similar to Amazon.com, where customers can see a book’s jacket and read reviews made by other borrowers. They can also make lists, subscribe to others’ reviews, place holds on hard copies and borrow digital books.
“The main advantage for the general public is that searching is better,” says Brazos Price, APL virtual library administrator. “Frequent library users and readers will find that the new catalog makes it easier for them to find and remember new things to read, listen to or watch.”
The new catalog will cost just over $94,000 the first year, with much of that consisting of preliminary setup costs, Price says, adding that the Austin Public Library spent years working on the project – gathering feedback and making improvements to the old system along the way.
“It is important for the library to stay abreast of new technologies because it impacts how our readers consume information,” he says. “Discovery tools, like the new catalog, become more important the more information is out there.”
The Library must be doing something right. So far, the catalog has been a success. In just the first two days, there were 1,000 people who logged on to become a member of the site, says Branch, who is enthusiastic about the new offering.
“It’s going to be a huge hit,” she says. “Obviously, we want to stay relevant. That’s what our customers expect. Every library is going there.”