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Library debate good for the community

by Carolyn Kahant for TaxpayersWatch


     Comments made by County Commissioner #4 Dave Nicholson that computers and the Internet may have made libraries obsolete have sparked a strong public reaction.


     Nicholson, in his capacity as liason for the County with the City of Kerrville in developing the contract for the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library also expressed some critical observations about the current state of our community library, calling it a haven for the homeless and possibly even pornographers. This has brought up fears about future funding by the county. A column by Joe Herring in the Daily Times inspired  several well-considered, even penetrating, letters to the editor that show residents place a high value on their library, and will rush to it's aid if they perceive it's existence being  threatened.


     This is a good thing! Commissioner Nicholson consistently expresses his belief the public needs to get more involved in local governmental issues. He told TaxpayersWatch in a phone conversation on July 8 that his introductory comments that proved to be so controversial were meant to create an awareness and dialogue on the services our community wants and expects from a library system, and also to consider their costs.


     For example, he informed me that the University of Texas in Austin has moved 60,000 volumes out of their main student library, and turned it into an "electronic" library where just about everything is accessed through computers. This is disturbing, but nevertheless true.


    Commissioner Nicholson believes the Joe Herring column was misleading. His main concern, he says, is to create a 9-member citizen Advisory Board that would oversee the management of the library. He wants this Advisory Board to have real oversight responsibilities, not simply act as boosters. The Library Board would work with the Kerrville City Manager, since Kerrville is the contractor of the Library. The Library Manager would report to the Library Board and the City Manager. This is Nicholson's plan, which, if approved by the City of Kerrville, will be presented as a final proposal in the near future.


     TaxpayersWatch believes Commissioner Nicholson was right to bring up cost concerns vs. the value the community is receiving from the public library. The comments of the other commissioners as to the number of libraries in the county, and whether some consolidation could take place, was also appropriate, whether one agrees or disagrees with them. They are doing their job by looking at various options. The public, too, behaved appropriately by getting involved in the discussion. This is the way sound decisions are made. We are pleased that all this takes place out in the open, assuring that all sides can be heard and considered before decisions are made.


     If you would like to be considered as one of the 9 members of this proposed board, let your county commissioner or city council member know. As it is now designed, five board members will be appointed by the County, and four by the City of Kerrville. And if you want to express yourself on this issue, write to us and we'll publish your letters here on our website. Let us hear from you!


(This particular writer is one who "loves libraries", but has also, reluctantly at first, "joined the information age" and is an avid internet user. We must continue to fund libraries for the same reasons that we fund public education. Or are we ready to have our children attend school on their home personal computers?)


     Because TaxpayersWatch believes you should know exactly what your representatives are doing and saying, here is the pertinent portion of the minutes of the Commissioners Court meeting on June 27, 2005:


JUDGE TINLEY:  Let's move to Item 12, consider and discuss the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library contract between the County and the City of Kerrville.

COMMISSIONER NICHOLSON:  Before we get into the details of the contract, I want to share with you of the learnings I've had about the future of the library. And what I found is that brick-and-mortar libraries are becoming obsolete.  That is to say, libraries as we know them now are becoming obsolete.  Just as the advent of the interstate highway system and low-cost airfares made obsolete passenger trains back a half a century ago, the internet highway and low-cost computers are beginning to make libraries obsolete.  It's no longer necessary to go to a public library for research or to get information.  For many people, that information is available at home on their personal computer, online.
We have seen that people who are nostalgic about passenger trains have persuaded governments to spend billions of dollars to keep a few of them in operation, and I think that we will see that people who love libraries or who opt not to join the information age will deny the trend of library obsolescence and will persuade governments to either maintain or expand these relics at taxpayers' expense.  Libraries resist the trend toward library obsolescence in the same way that conductors and train engineers did 50 years ago, and for the same reasons.

     Libraries will try novel approaches to attract patrons who no longer need the library for the traditional research and literary pursuits.  Libraries will come to resemble internet cafes, video arcades, day care centers, and homeless shelter. Our library's -- our library's experimented with schemes to slow the obsolescence curve.  An ill-conceived program to deliver books to the hinterland -- Center Point, Ingram, Mountain Home -- was tried about a year or year and a half ago, and it failed within three months.  And my calculations indicate that it probably cost more than $100 to deliver each book during that period, and cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars. 


      We can see now that the -- the movement away from libraries for research and  literary purposes is -- our library's experiencing the dark side of the undesirable element in our community.  It has seen pornography stashed in children's books, other crimes committed on the premises, and patronage by the homeless seeking respite from the weather.  All of this suggests that this Commissioners Court should consider the future of the library and its utility to citizens when making decisions about investing tax dollars in the library in the future.

COMMISSIONER LETZ:  I'll make a comment.  And I share some of those sentiments, but not all.  I think the -- you know, I think that there is certainly a change in the role of libraries.  I think that there will always be a need for libraries in all communities, and this community; however, I think the need is going to -- is going to change. And I think one of the things that I really commend Commissioner Nicholson for is kind of really looking at the whole library picture, and I think it needs to be looked at in this county.  We currently have the Butt-Holdsworth Library, and I think there's a public library of some sort in Ingram, I've been told, which I believe is run through the school in Ingram.  Tivy has a library.  Center Point has a library in the schools.  One right across the county line,  there's a public library in Comfort and a library at the high school and other schools, and then there's a library at Schreiner University.  I do not see the need for that many libraries.  I think there can be a consolidation, a working together.

     I think there is a need to have a place where people can get books and read.  I think there's a -- you know, a very good system has been developed nationwide and statewide of loaning books.  You know, University of Texas and A & M, they'll send their books out to virtually any library around.  You know, there's other shared contracts and agreements with San Antonio and other big cities.  So I think, you know, there's a need to have a place where people can go get a book and read, but I don't know that we need six libraries in Kerr County.  I really think that there's some efficiencies that could be gained, and I would really like to ask, through Commissioner Nicholson, that the Library Advisory Board seriously look at consolidating use to the public of Schreiner University, Butt-Holdsworth, and the school district libraries.  I think that that's where I'd like to see us go.  And I think that -- I think it's already being done to a large extent.  I think that all of those entities are somewhat open to the public, and yet at the same time we have librarians and administrators in each one of those libraries, and I don't know that that's efficient.


COMMISSIONER NICHOLSON:  I agree with everything you said.  We need to -- we need to get a thorough analysis of the opportunities for doing things differently and better.  And the -- and the Library Board, particularly as reconstituted, is the right place to do it.


COMMISSIONER LETZ:  Right, I think the Library Board is.  And, you know, I think the mayor, at our last meeting, brought up the possibility of a library district, and that may be, you know, a way to fund it.  And it may be a way to help the taxpayers and the schools, the city, the county, and also be able to work with the university.


 COMMISSIONER BALDWIN:  I used to use the memorial library quite a bit.  Because of my computer now, I hardly ever go over there.  I mean, I -- I read three or four, five newspapers a day, and I can do it all right there online now.  And -- but when I did go over there, they were -- absolutely excellent care, professionalism.  They were very professional.  But I keep hearing -- when this conversation comes up in my small circles, I keep hearing the word "Schreiner University Library," and I've always wondered, are they -- does the university -- are they closed to the public or are they open to public use?  And in that conversation, people talk about the quality of library it is.  It's supposedly -- I've never been; I couldn't tell you where -- I did good to find Schreiner University the other night.  But that it -- that it's absolutely up-to-date, and they take excellent care of it, and all the documents in there are up-to-date, and it's just supposed to be an excellent facility.  And I've always wondered about that, if -- and it kind of piggybacks on what Commissioner Letz was saying, you know, having -- of course, we can't control Schreiner College or the high school libraries and those kinds of things.  We have just somewhat -- not very much control, but we have one vote over the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial.  But I agree with what y'all have said.  You know, there's -- the use of libraries is kind of a downhill issue, and we sure have a lot of them here.



 COMMISSIONER LETZ:  To answer part of your question, based on a conversation I had with President Summerlin at Schreiner University -- I probably shouldn't quote the number, and I hope the press won't quote me on it, but I believe somewhere around 40 percent of the usage of Schreiner library is from the public, so I know that they -- the public does use that library and is allowed to use that library.  And I -- and it's a substantial usage.  And while we don't -- to go back to another statement you made, we -- you're correct, we certainly don't control anything at Schreiner University or the school districts.  And sometimes we wonder if we control anything at Butt-Holdsworth, but there are things called interlocal agreements where we can certainly, you know, have an influence on those other libraries if both parties are in -- so choose.

 COMMISSIONER BALDWIN:  Well, if -- you know, if our taxpayers are using another library, you know, y'all can help me.  I mean, don't forget, I grew up out in Hunt. I don't think real clear sometimes.  But if our public is using one library and we're putting "X" amount of dollars in another library, how -- how does that make sense?  It doesn't. So where are we with -- how much do we fund -- what is our share with the funding with the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library?

COMMISSIONER NICHOLSON:  My recollection, Commissioner, last year we were asked to fund something like 415,000, 408,000.  Something over four.

JUDGE TINLEY:  400,000.

COMMISSIONER NICHOLSON:  And we funded less than that.  Seems like we funded 385 or something like that.

COMMISSIONER BALDWIN:  $385,000 a year.

COMMISSIONER NICHOLSON:  And, you know, costs of everything's going up.  I would not be surprised to get a -- a library budget -- operating budget that would be on the order of $900,000 this year.  And there is some thinking going on in the community about enlarging the library.Y'all have seen some preliminary architectural plans for that.  I wanted to say a little bit more about the internet, and I don't want to try to pretend that I'm an internet and computer guru; I just barely get around on it.  But like Commissioner Baldwin, I can do an awful lot of research and reading on the internet.  In fact, I get the New York Times delivered to me by e-mail every morning.  Don't read it, but get it delivered to me.

COMMISSIONER BALDWIN:  You're probably the only guy on your block that gets it.

COMMISSIONER NICHOLSON:  I wish they'd put it out front so people would think I was literate.  (Laughter.) I've gotten into a lot of libraries around the country and was amazed at how much I could do on the internet.  And, speaking of the university libraries, it has been a – a necessity for universities to have a top-notch library. That's got -- that was the way the quality of the school was measured -- one of the ways.  I don't know whether -- how important it was, but at least it was perceived to be important, and I wonder if that's going to continue. I talked to one of my professor friends and I said, "Are students using laptops?"  And he said, "Every one of them has a laptop."  They come to class, they set their laptop down, open it up, and they even take the class notes on the -- on the word processing part of it.  So, I don't know how long this -- this library obsolescence curve is.  It could be much longer than I think it is, or it could -- it could snowball and happen very fast.




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