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The Evolving Role of the Columbus Metro Library

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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Last week the Columbus Metropolitan Library received another high ranking as one of the very top library systems throughout the entire US.

We sat down recently with Patrick Losinski, The Executive Director of the Columbus Metropolitan Library to discuss why our library system is so successful. Pat tells us about the history of the library, how the system continues to evolve, and reveals some of the things that the future may hold for the main library building located Downtown

Walker Evans: Hi, Pat. Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with us today. The public library is a topic that that comes up fairly regularly on Columbus Underground, but I’m not sure if we’ve ever tried to gauge how many people are regular users.

Pat Losinski: It would be interesting to see the Columbus Underground demographic and find out what they think about the library. For years we’ve seen that libraries have almost become a personal habit. So usage and advocacy aren’t usually determined by demographics or background or other social factors. Our customers at some point developed a habit of using the library and then continue to do it. That seems to be how it works, not just in Columbus, but everywhere.

WE: Do you think that has to do with someone’s upbringing? Whether their parents brought them to the library early on as children.

PL: I think either that, or some other sort of connection along the way led to library usage. I also know that the proximity of libraries greatly increases the usage factors. We do demographic studies where we look at our neighborhood branches and we’re amazed to see the maps of dots that indicate where homes are located that have checked out books in the last month. At some points it almost looks like complete saturation right around the library locations. People see them in their neighborhoods and they know what it offers. Even today with the virtual world, the power of those physical buildings is still awfully strong. We get 8.5 million visitors to the buildings themselves and 12 million virtual visitors. Obviously there is some overlap, but when you put those numbers together it’s pretty powerful.

WE: It seems like a lot of different industries or sectors have struggled with the move into an online space. The example that everyone usually points to is the traditional news media. It sounds to me like library systems all over the country have really led the charge in making online functionality and computers a part of the core services of what libraries offer. Would you agree with that?

PL: I think so. Another strategic advantage of libraries is that at the end of the day, who is the physical aggregator of all of that virtual activity. In other words, where are people going to go and talk about it and feel that core space in where that can happen. Obviously we know that it happens in coffee shops and other kinds of places, but we have not only the inviting environment at the library, but also the other resources that support the curiosity and discovery and what people are looking for.

WE: One other technology example that comes to mind is the self-checkout system implemented at the library. Many grocery stores have also used self-checkout systems as a way to cut staffing costs and help their their bottom line. Has the library has used this technology as a way to reposition staff people for other resources?

PL: It’s actually both for us. We have had eight years of a frozen budget from state funding and now an 8.5 million dollar reduction that’s coming form the state, so we’ve actually had to do both. Fortunately for us, we’ve been able to make those staff reductions through attrition and so our staff members are now redirected to help our customers. That’s great because it’s a better use of their time to get them away from the analog work of checking out books and redefine the real advantage of human participation at the library. I mean, we still checkout 17.5 million items per year, so as important as the virtual world is, it’s not as if someone flipped a switch and said “Everyone move to the Kindle this year”. So we’re still maintaining that part of our service program. We used to have long lines for people waiting for staff to check out their books. Today, even with those 17.5 million circulations, you can’t find a line in our whole system. In addition to the increase in efficiency and the help around costs, we never really fully understood that customers appreciate the added confidentiality. You know, if you’re checking out “No Fault Divorce in Ohio”. We recently had an elderly gentleman who said he didn’t want the staff to know that he had prostate cancer and this was a great way for him to check out his own materials on the topic and to maintain his privacy.

WE: I lot of discussion on Columbus Underground revolves around urban redevelopment. What sort of role do you see the library as playing in both urban and economic development?

PL: The library plays a huge role. I’m glad to get this question, because it shows a level of understanding. Sometimes the impact and affect isn’t readily apparent. When we think about redevelopment and economic development, the libraries resources assist in so many ways, particularly to small business people. They think of the library as their corporate library. If you’re a two-person shop well, who’s there to assist with research or assist with developing the business plan or helping to get to the right agencies along that course? I think it’s the library. We’ve done so much with the Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, we do some work with Columbus State, and again it always happens with partnership.

I think another important development piece is the physical traffic that we have in this system of people who come to the library. When you parcel out our 8.5 million visitors to our 21 branches, that’s a tremendous mass of people coming in. Those people eat and shop and park and all of the other things affiliated with visiting the library. So, developers really recognize that having a library nearby is essential to community and community development.

More and more we get calls from developers who are asking if the library be interested in their projects. At this point we’re still in the planning stages, so we’re just listening to those kinds of possibilities, but I think within the city we have certain locations where we’d consider mixed-use development in the future. So, could the library be part of a partnership that involved a commercial enterprise? A restaurant? Some other activity, or residential? If we’re in an area with high density, could we support the notion of library lofts above a library building? I think for many people that might be a fabulous amenitiy to have right below where you live. I think we’re open to all of those types of possibilities and I think it would leverage our strength but also recognize that we’re not here just to serve customers, we’re also here to improve the community.

WE: That’s interesting that you mention how customers to the library also visit other types of businesses nearby. I wonder if there’s any economic impact study on how that works in urban areas.

PL: We’re actually pretty involved with a national group called the Urban Libraries Council, and as the name implies, these are urban libraries from around the country. There’s about 175 members. One of the publications we put out about two years ago was called “Public Library Contributions to Economic Development”. Part of the report talks about the work that Columbus is doing. It’s real and it’s been verified.

WE: We did an audio podcast earlier this year about the state budget cuts, and talked with three librarians about what the cuts would mean not only to the library system, but also to the community at large throughout the entire state. Can you give us an update on what those cuts really mean now that they’ve gone into effect?

PL: Well, there was some sentiment that came back to us from the administration back in June & July as though somehow these cuts were fabricated or that the library community could sustain this level of reduction. For us in Columbus, it’s almost a 30% reduction in state funding. Fortunately we have a local community levy that is in place that helps support the library as well, but 2/3 of the libraries in the state rely only on state funding. We’re only a couple of weeks past the November election where 37 libraries literally rushed to the ballot because of the cuts that they were forced to implement. The good news is that statewide these library issues passed by around 81%, which I think is another example following the incredibly passionate response from customers when the cuts were just talked about. It’s almost legendary at the statehouse how the customers responded. I think there’s a strong message there that says that these were real cuts and that libraries have had to reduce services at a time when our usage is up and public support remains very strong.

Here in Columbus that means about an $8.5 million reduction for us. I think we’ve cut close to $2 million in our materials budget. Not everyone will feel that on week one or even month one, but some customers are beginning to feel it. With that level of cut, we had to do something on the staff side. We think we found a good solution where we reduced hours and cut pay for exempt staff. We’ve had almost a 20% reduction in hours. Folks have lost Sunday hours, we open an hour later and close an hour earlier, and have greatly reduced hours on Friday and Saturday. We tried to be thoughtful and really understand the usage patterns to really cut the hours were least used, but it was painful to make all of those reductions.

WE: It’s definitely a tough issue because the state budget is hurting across the board, but at the same time it does seems like there is a large opportunity for shaping our future development and growth of our state through our educational institutions, which of course includes our libraries. Dr. Bill Lafayette at the Chamber of Commerce recently recommended that I read a book called Caught in the Middle, which proposes a regional solution to solving the problems plaguing the rust belt cities. Do you see value in a more regional approach to how library system operate throughout the Midwest?

PL: I think there’s two facets in the response here. One is in the library community as a whole, and the second is in the broader community. You framed this in the context of the state budget, so I’m going to start with the budget again. As difficult as the budget was, there were clearly choices made and priorities articulated in that budget. Higher education did very well, and no complaints here on that… I think they should do very well. It’s really part of our challenge to say that we are part of that education continuum. It starts for us in this library system with a focus on Pre-K. There was a great article by David Brooks in the New York Times that said by age five we’re able to predict with depressing accuracy if someone will graduate from high school and go on to college. So in many respects, the game is over by the time that child arrives at kindergarten. Libraries are doing education at pre-school level for kindergarten preparedness, so that’s an important part of the education continuum. I’ve had this conversation with Dr. Gee at OSU and told him that we are your seed corn. Students will never make it to the college level if we’re not doing our job as the library community. So I think absolutely we are a part of a larger education continuum.

In terms of the libraries themselves though, because of our state funding setup, Ohio leads the nation. We still have a relatively new administration and I don’t think they fully understand this. We’re one of two states that funds public libraries through state dollars… the other being Hawaii. I’ve worked in three other states, and the way this works in other states is that if you’re a resident of a particular community, you have access to that library. If you’re not a resident of that community, then you don’t have access to that library. Here in Ohio, customers go seamlessly back and forth between libraries. Whoever has the best information or the best service or the best technology, someone can go in and get access to that information. Because of the state funding, Ohio libraries share resources freely between systems. That doesn’t happen everywhere else. So when you talk about the key ingredients in this state that could move us past this notion of being “caught in the middle” in rust belt industries of the past, we’re part of that system that’s already in place to help Ohio.

WE: With the city budget also being in a crunch this past year, many have made the argument that the services deemed “essential”, such as police and fire services, need to be funded first, and similarly the city had to make drastic cuts to recreation centers and things of that nature. On the surface, rec centers are not looked at as an essential resource, but they do ultimately contribute to the quality of life in the city. When you start to look at children in neighborhoods who lose those community rec centers, what you end up with is more kids out on the street getting in trouble. So it almost becomes more of a preventative resource as well. I’ve heard some folks say that libraries are in the same type of position to provide children and teenagers throughout the city with a community resource that can also act as a similar type of preventative resource. Would you say that’s accurate?

PL: Absolutely. Really, there’s not a location within our system that’s not busy. I think particularly in certain city branches you see children who are coming into the library from single parents or parents who are working several jobs. We know from many studies that the period after-school into the early evening are one of the most dangerous times for kids. We started our Homework Help Centers because we thought kids needed that service, but now we walk in and see see kids who have not only filled the Homework Help Center but also kids who are waiting to get help and they’re playing chess while they wait. You have to wonder what could be better than this type of environment for this child. So absolutely, these are quality of life issues, and these are investment issues that we’re making the community. We think that the library is an essential part of that fabric of Columbus.

Another good example is our participation in school lunch program. I don’t think many people understand what happens during the summer months. Do we suddenly think that children are no longer hungry for June, July and August? Several years ago we were approached to continue offering the school lunch program at some of our city library branches. We didn’t have to pay for the lunches, they were delivered and our staff passes them out. Essentially, if we have kids coming to the library during the summer, trying to participate in the summer reading program, it’s going to be hard to have their attention if they’re hungry. You can go to a branch location and sometimes see 65 kids standing in line Monday through Friday for lunch. It’s amazing to think that it’s actually a need in our communities, but we feel very proud of the role that the library plays in saying that yes, this is community asset, it’s more than just books, it’s more than just a place to use technology, it’s also a community center that you can count on. That’s why it’s so important in each community.

WE: One of the community aspects that we haven’t touched upon, and that I’m a personal fan of, is the art exhibitions that take place in the Carnegie Gallery in the front portion of the library. Do you want to talk a bit about those exhibits?

PL: Yeah, I think we know how important the arts community is in Columbus, and I think it’s safe to say that not much gets done in the arts community without partnerships. We look at this as a part of the changing role of the library. The Carnegie second floor is such a remarkable space in this building so it was just a natural extension to what we were all about. We had a partnership with the Ohio Arts Council to maintain an arts registry database that’s been in place for a long period of time, so this was just trying to focus on local artists and providing a place that people are familiar with. In some ways it’s like the Job Help Center. There’s a difference between going to a government agency where you walk in, take a number, and sit down until your appointment is ready, as opposed to being in the library and seeing a poster for a program that is going to start in 20 minutes and I just walking in. I think it’s the same way with the art in the library… maybe you came here for a different reason and didn’t plan viewing an art exhibit today, but the library made it possible. We also have an extensive Arts & Media Department at the library, so it’s all tied together through a culture of education.

WE: We interviewed Denny Griffith at CCAD a few months ago, mostly to discuss the reshaping of their campus into a more urban setting and how that type of development helps to shape the Downtown landscape, especially within what is known as The Discovery District. It’s probably safe to assume that the budget cuts will be preventing the Downtown library from launching any major redevelopment anytime soon, but do you see any other types of potential as far as additional “urbanization” of the Downtown library goes?

PL: Well, one thing that I think we want to try to determine long term is what can be done with our “back yard”… the Topiary Park. This library was built before the Topiary Park was developed, so the library was built in a way that now has our back to it. So now we’re asking ourselves how we can integrate the Topiary Park space with the Library space? Anyone who’s been to New York City to Bryant Park behind the Main Library can see the potential here. They’ve blown WiFi out there and you can see where they did some redevelopment and added two levels of books below Bryant Park and I love seeing that relationship to their library now. The library that was the catalyst that made that development work.

So, what could we do here in Columbus? There are certainly advocates of the Topiary Park, and many people know about it, but in many respects I still think it’s a hidden jewel. What can we do as a library to draw people in? One things they’ve done with the new Ohio State Library is used it as a total pass-through for the campus. If you’re walking from the quad to Ohio Stadium, you’re walking through that library. I’m wondering if we could do the same here with Topiary Park. It could be very cool.

WE: Yeah, that’s very cool to know that these ideas are being tossed around for the long-term. Are there any other shorter term items of concern for the library in 2010?

PL: We do have a levy coming up next year. It’s a 10 year levy that was approved in 2000, so we’re going back to our voters in 2010. The first thing we’re doing is making good on the promise to get to 2010. It’s always hard to tell this far out on how much people will support a tax levy, but the library has only had four issues on the ballot in our entire history, and they’ve all passed. I think in many respects, the amount of publicity that there has been around the state budget reductions in library funding and now people seeing libraries closed during the times when they used to be open, certainly helps the understanding for the need for funding. But I think more than anything that this is a community of such veracious library users that they’ve always been strong supporters of the library system and see it as integral to the community. So, I would hope that all of those things move towards a positive sign for us. These are difficult economic times, but it’s been 25 years at the same tax rate for us without a renewal, and that’s a pretty strong story to tell in regards to our accountability and what we’ve delivered over the past 25 years. Hopefully this next generation is going to look at that and say that they’re willing to give the same support that the previous generation did.

WE: I hope so too. Pat, thanks again for taking the time to sit down with us today and share all of this great information and insight.

PL: My pleasure! Talk to you again soon.

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