Friday, Sept. 15, 2006 | Jose Aponte is not afraid to call himself cheap. Born in the South Bronx, Aponte says his mother taught to him the possibilities of doing something with nothing. As director of the San Diego County Library, he is always trying to stretch the dollar.

Today, Aponte says he’s doing that by decentralizing the county’s library system into one that focuses on community needs. He says the system will provide more services and equalize library access for all patrons – while saving a little cash at the same time.

Six months after implementing bits of his methods, Aponte’s seen circulation at county libraries increase 20 percent and attendance for teen programs increase by 400 percent. While the city of San Diego and other systems around the country are reducing their hours, the county library system is adding hours and opening four libraries on Sundays. Aponte is only beginning to put his philosophy into practice, but his approach could provide new lessons for other libraries, especially as public funding dwindles.

Proponents of a new main library for the city of San Diego are advocating for a world-class facility that would house a growing collection of materials and provide a public forum for San Diegans. But with a $185 million price tag, some are asking whether a large main library is truly essential as the city faces financial troubles. And a new school of thought is emerging on how to build a different kind of system.

Aponte is not the only one testing a new decentralized model for bringing informative materials to the public – one that doesn’t rely on a central hub. Many county library systems around the nation already operate a floating collection system, which allows materials to move freely from branch to branch. Some question whether the system is a better fit for counties, with their large areas, rather than cities.

Unlike other systems, these decentralized library branches do not own their materials and the books can flow more easily to where they’re needed. The San Diego County Library is among those embarking on this path. Aponte’s plan will include online collections, next-day book delivery and more programs for patrons.

More than that, Aponte sees a way of building libraries – a philosophy that would minimize the need for a large main facility. A large percentage of materials are usually housed in one place, he said, like a flagship facility. Meanwhile most of the population does not live near that one location, making it difficult for those people to access materials.

“What we’re talking about is equity,” he said. “Because when you get all these benefits, what do you do with it? Well, do you make the more affluent communities more affluent? Or do you take that resource and look for the greatest need and measure it out?”

Aponte is not alone with his convictions.

Bill Ptacek runs the King County Library in the Seattle area with what he calls an “anti-central” system. Though King County does not use a floating collection, materials are not necessarily tied to one community. Instead, Ptacek said his system emphasizes online catalogues and delivery services where patrons are able to receive any requested materials within 24 hours.

Ptacek said that while the “anti-central” library system is probably more efficient, its success is also due to King County’s highly dispersed setting.

People are changing the way they use libraries, Ptacek said. Instead of stepping into a library to browse the shelves, people are increasingly dependent on technology and the ability to quickly pick up requested items.

“They use that catalogue or that electronic database in lieu of going up and down the shelves,” Ptacek said. “They may go to a major university library or massive public library to look for certain materials, but [the facility] doesn’t need to exist because we have same resources in catalogues that preclude the need to do that.”

William Knott, director of the Jefferson County Public Library in Colorado, said having a floating collection allows patrons equal access to the system’s entire resources. Jefferson County uses the system throughout its seven libraries with 1.2 million books.

“When you have a new library, it’s stacked with new staff and new materials that belong to the whole county and not just one (library),” Knott said.

Traditionally, each library branch in a city or county has its own collection tailored specifically to a community. The city of San Diego, for example, employs a system with the central library serving as the main hub. Patrons from Rancho Bernardo who want books not available there can make a request to another branch that has it.

Most of the time, the book would be available at the central library and is then shipped to Rancho Bernardo. But if the requested book is in the Pacific Beach branch, it then has to go through the central library, where the delivery system is based, before going to the requested location. Once the patron is finished, the book must go back to Pacific Beach, again only after passing through the central library.

The entire process for a system like that takes days and the material spends more time in trucks than in the patron’s hands, Knott said. It’s also a system that depends highly on a main facility for moving materials through.

A floating collection, advocated by Aponte, allows books to move freely between branches, eliminating the central hub and materials would not be assigned permanent homes.

“You have a collection of 1.6 million books versus 50,000 in one branch or 100,000 in another,” Aponte said.

The county libraries will start circulating about 40 percent of their books through the floating system starting in December. Few other libraries are applying the model and some doubt that it can work for every location.

Both Aponte and Knott say whether or not a decentralized system would work in an area depends on demographics, patron attitudes and infrastructure. Aponte maintains that his model can work in an urban area. But Knott said a city might have a difficult time implementing a floating collection.

The City and a Main Library

To be sure, the county and city library systems have great differences. The county library serves an area about double the size of the state of Delaware with 32 branches and a total of 1.6 million materials. Meanwhile, the city library’s 34 branches are spread out from Rancho Bernardo to San Ysidro with 3.3 million materials in its entire collection.

Most large cities around the country have central facilities functioning as the hub for administration and book delivery. While branch libraries have materials that cater to general interests, central libraries also hold collections encompassing broader topics that patrons from branch libraries can request. City library officials say a new central library is needed to adequately house San Diego’s collection and become the nerve center for the entire system.

Anna Tatar, director of the city’s libraries, said the city of San Diego too has looked into the possibility of implementing a floating collection. Officials found that it would not fit the city’s smaller service area, she said.

“It makes sense in a county system because of the broad geography that needs to be covered,” Tatar said.

Like many library officials, Tatar said central libraries serve a bigger purpose than just storing and distributing books. Some of the city’s materials are also being floated throughout its branches, but the central library houses research materials, historical documents and other unique archived items which provide as reference materials to San Diegans.

“A central library is more in-depth,” Tatar said.

Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association, shares the same view as Tatar. Burger said libraries should play a broader role in the community they serve.

“[Libraries] serve as places for public computing, public programming, a place where community members can come together,” Burger said. “What we’re really talking about are things that you get when you invest in a central library.”

Library experts also say the desire for downtown facilities taps into the sense of civic pride and the desire to have a symbol for a city.

“The downtown facility is often a place that communicates the spirit and vitality of the city and community,” said Christie Koontz, an information studies professor from Florida State University. “When well-built they can also be meccas for tourism.”

Civic, social pride is extremely important, Aponte said, but there are other important elements at stake including what he calls social capital – the knowledge and information people gain from libraries. An area can only generate social capital, Aponte said, when more library materials are accessible to everyone.

The county library system is adding hours at its branches, but in the city of San Diego, officials have cut hours by 13 percent in the past year after a few years of relatively stagnant funding from the city.

In spite of the fact that libraries throughout San Diego are cutting hours, city library officials are still pushing for a new main library project that would be a world-class facility. The project would more than double the main library’s space and its collection size.

Officials said the money to construct such a facility would come from state grants, private donations and funds from the city’s redevelopment agency. But the anticipated $85 million in philanthropic donations has not been collected and a groundbreaking scheduled for July this year already passed. Meanwhile, construction costs continue to increase and no donations have been announced aside from $3 million pledged in 2005.

Most libraries use most of their budget to pay for manpower. Aponte said using a floating collection and other elements of his “Libraries of the Future” model allows for a more efficient circulation. It frees up people who might have worked on a complex distribution system to work on other parts of library services and allows libraries to open for longer hours.

With the amount of manpower needed to run a library, some critics have brought up doubts about politicians’ claims that the new main library planned for downtown can be staffed and maintained at the same level as the old library.

Likewise, talk about floating collections is usually heated, Knott said, with people arguing that it would diminish the quality of books. But Aponte said floating collections are the wave of the future.

“We challenge the notions of the brick and mortar of the library. What’s the best place for the brick and mortar? Where there’s a landmark or where the citizens can use that facility,” Aponte asked.

Please contact Marnette Federis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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