July 23 2014 12:00 AM

The digital age puts the ‘e’ in ‘library’


With apologies to Mark Twain, reports of the death of libraries are greatly exaggerated, and two prominent Lansing-area librarians couldn’t agree more.

Maureen Hirten, 63, is the director of the 13-branch Capital Area District Library system covering 23 communities in Ingham County. (She’s also the wife of City Pulse associate publisher Mickey Hirten). Randy Riley, 51, was appointed the state librarian in April; both he and Hirten agree that Michigan libraries are hardly on life support systems, though as little as five years ago even they may have held a different opinion.

The last decade has likely seen the most dramatic changes in libraries and library services in Michigan than the sum of all changes in their 196-year history stretching back to when Michigan’s Territorial Library was located in Detroit and had 131 books. But digital developments, fueled by high-speed internet and the ubiquitous tablets and smart phones, looked bad for libraries, especially when coupled with falling tax revenue due in part to the tanking of housing values. (Most libraries in Michigan rely on millage based on property value.)

Riley could easily be seen as in a tough spot. In 2010, Gov. Jennifer Granholm seemed intent on dismantling the State Library, which is housed in the State Library and Historical Museum complex in downtown Lansing. Although Granholm was not successful in all aspects of her downsizing, the State Library has considerably fewer old school books after selling off its entire Dewey Decimal System collection of 75,000 books in 2011. The genealogy section was parceled off to the State Archives, and staff has been reduced dramatically — in 1989, the State Library had more than 100 employees compared to the 33 it now has on staff.

Ingham County voters with the exception of East Lansing and some other small areas, will have a chance to give CADL a vote of confidence Aug. 5 when the millage which supports the library is up for a vote. CADL is requesting a continuation of the current millage of 1.56 mills for four years and expects that to generate $9,180,000 in revenue in the first year.

Riley sees the library’s restructured role as one that provides leadership in issues relating to all libraries across the state. He said in addition to maintaining the Michigan eLibrary, the state’s electronic access system to data bases and publications, the library is working in areas such as test preparation, providing upgraded business information and early reading and literacy programs.

“The State Library should be in a leadership role in those areas,” he said, citing the State Library’s reassignment to the Department of Education as important to its new role. Many library services are delivered electronically through the MeLCat system, where library users across the state can request an inter-library loan of a book and have it delivered to a local library for pick-up. More than 1 million publications move across this system each year. CADL is one of the top 10 libraries in both borrowing and loaning books through MeLCat.

Riley said the State Library has also increased its focus on its Michigan collection and special collection of rare books and one-of-a kind Michigan documents, including city directories and Michigan newspapers.

“Our role has to be to constantly finding ways to make information relevant to patrons,” he said.

Riley is also dedicated to finding out what the needs of libraries are across the state and how the State Library can help facilitate those needs. He’s especially looking to recreate partnerships like the Michigan eLibrary and the Michigan Notable Books Program, which he ran for years. He called Notable Books, a program that has brought Pulitzer Prize-winner writers such as Richard Ford to rural communities, a success story. Riley, like most librarians, has come to recognize the impact and importance of e-books.

“The patrons’ expectation is digital access,” he said “E-books have defined books in a different way, and we have to be careful about the haves and have-nots in that equation.”

Hirten, who began her career with CADL in 2002, became the chief librarian in 2011 and immediately found herself managing one of the most massive transformations in the history of the library.

(CADL celebrates its 50th anniversary of being in the downtown branch this fall.) Facing dramatically less revenue, Hirten said she set about to prepare for the future.

“We looked at every job, every vacancy and staffing level,” she said. Ultimately CADL was able to cut more than $1.6 million in expenses, more than matching the loss of $1.3 million in tax revenue.

One simple revenue source was to implement a fine system that raised more than $250,000 last year. CADL’s annual budget is $10.6 million with a workforce of 229.

When Hirten took over, masses of people used public computers; now, she said wireless usage has jumped, especially

in rural areas, and the library has moved toward wired tables over public computers. Hirten recently restructured some positions focusing on creating community partnerships involving local history, business and digital literacy.

“We now get out to the communities, and I’ve made it a priority,” she said. She also said that libraries, in general have become more of a community gathering place, where groups come to meet, socialize and do business research.

While technocrats and politicians can talk about digitization of libraries, it’s still libraries that have to manage the process. Although e-books and audio books have shown tremendous growth, CADL, by far, still circulates more physical material than it does electronic. The circulation numbers for 2014 to date are 1,252,811 check-outs for physical items and 94,080 checkouts for digital items. CADL executives expect that as more money goes into e-book purchases, circulation in that area will go up.