Library funding cuts provide opportunity for change

By Anna Runer, courtesy of Zanesville Times Recorder

When the Muskingum County Library System’s state funding was cut from about 95 percent of its budget to 55 percent, it could have become an antiquated relic of years past. Listening to the needs of its patrons, however, has turned the page on the future of the library, ensuring its future as a vital community service.

For Assistant Director Blair Tom, the cuts simply forced the library to re-evaluate its priorities and determine what it could do as a business to be more attractive to its customers.

“It gave us the opportunity and the necessity to rethink our business model, to look at efficiencies and effectiveness,” he said.

After several studies, the library has decided to focus more on the technological future of books and reference material, scaling back on some of the less used services while promoting e-book rentals, movie streaming and online reference materials that have become more popular. In addition, the library is now offering one-on-one training sessions for people looking to get a better grasp on technology.

Moving away from the kind of library services Tom remembers from his childhood can be challenging, he said, but providing technology assistance to the community is more important now than it ever has been.

“One of the most interesting things is to be just a little ahead of where the community wants to be,” he said. “Technology doesn’t eliminate the necessity for libraries. In some ways, it increases that necessity, because one of the roles libraries play is making sure the wall between the haves and the have nots does not exist. If I don’t have access to technology or the skills to use it, it doesn’t matter that something is available online.”

Keeping up to date with the ever-changing tech world can be expensive, however, as information technology, maintenance and online subscription costs continue to creep up with the increased popularity of the technology.

To combat this, staff members have been getting more creative, meeting with schools to see whether online resources can be shared, entering a consortium of more than 20 other libraries for the sharing of e-book downloads, and creating a floating AV collection that allows the materials to end up naturally where they are most frequently used while eliminating the need for staff members to collect them from other branches.

The library isn’t abandoning traditional media, however, noting the continual popularity of books and audiobooks among its customers. Many families, Tom said, pick audiobooks for long drives or family trips, while reading a physical book has never gone out of style at any age.

Another traditional library service that remains popular is discovery learning programming, which Tom hopes to expand in 2015 with things such as pop-up children’s programming and partnerships with community entities. Those partnerships can provide context to popular books through activities such as last year’s question-and-answer session with a representative of Dillon State Park to discuss a book on hiking in Ohio.

Listening to the demands of customers has gone even further than determining which materials are more popular, even extending to when the library should be open. After conducting a survey, Tom noticed some customers were having a hard time getting to the library because of the hours. Starting Monday, the branch libraries will open at noon Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays and John McIntire Library will open at 9:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Part of the library’s ability to expand even during trying times is a result of the 1-mill levy, renewed by voters in November, that generates about $1.6 million. That accounts for about 35 to 40 percent of the library’s yearly operating budget, and in addition to making what the library is doing possible, shows the value of the library to the community, Tom said.

“It’s important to know or get the sense that the public feels we’re on the right track with the degree of support from that,” he said. “Also, from a practical standpoint, if that had not been successful, we don’t have the opportunities to even consider the things we’re discussing right now. We’d be looking not at what we can add and grow, but what can exist.”