Metropolis: Wednesday, September 15, 2004
The computer lab at the library is almost always packed — unlike the stacks. (photo by Scott Latham)
Cataloguing Change

Fort Worth’s library moves into cyberspace, with its patrons.


It’s a busy after-school weekday at the Fort Worth Public Library. The check-out counter is packed with children and their parents, arms weighed down with videos and picture books, and the computer terminals are full.

The stacks, however, are a different story. They’re empty — of people and, in some places, of books.

Everyone knows that libraries aren’t what they used to be. Once the place to read a heavy reference book in quiet, they’re now computer-labs-slash-daycare-centers-slash-art-galleries. When you can read that same heavy reference book in your jammies online, why bother leaving the comfort of your home? For librarians, why bother stocking that book?

But beneath the library system’s bustling modern exterior lies an institution in rough financial straits.

The money budgeted for acquiring new materials — including DVD’s, c.d.’s, and books — hasn’t risen over the past few years, even as both the price of books and the population of Fort Worth have increased dramatically. The FWPL’s materials budget, compared to 2003 figures from the Public Library Association, is slightly below the national median for libraries serving cities, like Fort Worth, with populations between 500,000 and 1 million.

“The library is committed to keeping the budget at least level,” said Deborah Duke, the library’s collection management team leader. “If there’s one decision we make, it’s to try to hold the materials budget unharmed.”

FWPL’s materials budget comes from the city’s general fund and has stayed steady at around $1.9 million. (The library also receives a small amount of additional materials funding from regional and state sources.) When compared to, say, increasing funding for police or fire protection, earmarking money for the library can become a second thought. “We have a lot of priorities, including police, fire,” said assistant city manager Libby Watson. “We feel good at staying the course” with the materials budget. To counter this problem and lock in basic funding levels, many libraries across the country have convinced city leaders to set aside a fixed percentage of property tax dollars for library use. “When there’s a budget crunch, libraries [paid for] from the general fund are frequent places to cut,” said the PLA’s Clara Bohrer. “A library that has a dedicated [share of tax dollars] strictly to the library is usually protected. It’s the most secure way to have funding.”

The library, according to director Gleniece Robinson, is talking to “support groups” to create an endowment for the collection. “We’re gathering information from other libraries,” she said. “For some reason, collections endowments are the most difficult. Don’t ask me why.”

The library’s materials budget is also being split in ways like never before. Whereas in the past all a library had to worry about was acquiring the book, these days librarians have to decide whether to purchase the book, the hardcover edition, the on-tape edition, the paperback edition, the foreign language edition, or even worry about purchasing it at all, especially when most library patrons, like those in Fort Worth, would rather dig through on-line subscription databases or listen to a music c.d. or watch a movie on DVD than check out a book.

“We surveyed users and non-users and learned that people come here for c.d.’s, DVD’s, and books,” said Duke. “Nobody does heavy research. So we decided to concentrate more on new popular materials, not necessarily best-sellers, but other kinds of materials,” including c.d.’s and DVD’s. The library, according to Duke, simply “changed purchasing patterns.” Circulation has shot up. The number of materials checked out, according to Duke, has increased by 25 percent, from 3.7 million items in 2002 to 4.2 million in 2003.

The library also recently began spending more of its materials budget on online subscription databases. “Five to 20 percent of the [materials] budget is spent on databases,” Duke said. “That gets to be pretty hefty.”

Library personnel say that they’re changing what they buy in response to Fort Worth’s wants and needs. The PLA’s Bohrer believes this is a good tactic. “The PLA’s stance is that circulation development is based on a community’s needs and wants,” she said. “A library should poll what a community’s interested in reading or having on other media formats and gauge a good portion of development on local input.”

Getting the community interested in reading is still an integral part of any library’s mission, according to Bohrer, but this can be accomplished by means other than tinkering with or adding books to the collection.

“Programming helps,” she said. “Book discussions, book lists. Those are things that libraries can do to broaden perspective as well.”

Broadening perspective in Cowtown is left largely to the Fort Worth Public Library Foundation and Friends of the Fort Worth Public Library, two nonprofit organizations that are dedicated to generating funds for the library while also providing volunteer services and raising awareness. In addition to operating the Friends Books Store, which sells overstocked library material, the Friends group has established the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, which honors legendary Texas authors, and holds an annual mystery lovers’ dinner and panel discussion. The foundation raises awareness chiefly through the Young Lions reading group, a forum created, according to the group’s web site, “for a diverse and energetic group of young professionals who share a passion for the power of books and literature to enrich our lives and who believe in a first-rate library system for our city.”

There are donors who are interested in helping the library acquire more materials, according to foundation founder and president Betsy Pepper. “I’m not surprised that there are holes” in the library’s book collection, she said. “People have started to give us money for the express purpose of strengthening the collection.” But most donors want to help the library deal with more pressing, practical concerns, including an overhaul of the library’s infrastructure.

Fort Worth’s Central Library underwent a make-over a few years ago. The old downtown library was bedeviled by more than 100 leaks that threatened both the collection and the computer center. The foundation raised more than $5 million in private funding in the late 1990s to build the 33,000-square-foot youth center, expanded media center, grand entrance hall, and 3rd Street circulation area, along with a 6,600-square-foot gallery and 900-square-foot office for the foundation within the library.

The FWPL is continuing its make-over by overhauling its Integrated Library System, “the brains” of the library, according to the foundation’s Pepper. Far beyond a card catalogue or Readers’ Guides, the new ILS is state of the art, a system that will allow patrons to search the entire FWPL collection as they would on a powerful internet search engine, such as Google or Yahoo. The PLA’s Bohrer said that very few libraries in similarly sized cities have technology this advanced. For the new ILS, the city has agreed to put up $600,000, which the foundation plans on matching. Over the past year, the foundation has already raised more than $500,000. The new system is scheduled to be in operation by July 2005.

The proposed system will replace a current system that is “15 years old and on the verge of collapse,” according to Pepper. Not only will the new ILS make the work of the library staff easier, Pepper said, but it will give patrons what they’re accustomed to using now at home on the internet.

“The system,” according to Pepper, “is arguably more important than the collection.” Duke, the collections manager, is similarly torn. “Collection and technology are neck and neck,” she said. “People rely on our computers, which are seven, eight, nine years old. That’s another budgetary decision. One day, it’s the collection. Another day, it’s technology. It’s like choosing one child over another.” l

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