The Library Is More Than Books

I have reviewed a lot of letters sent to the Chapel Hill Town Council about whether or not the Town should move forward on expansion of our Library.  Letters fall on either side of the issue, but in letters against expansion, I see a theme.  Writers often want it known that they are a fan of books, but they don't want to pay more taxes toward making more available to Library users.As a member of the Library Board of Trustees, I want to address this issue, but first, I must make an admission.  I am not particularly a fan of books.  I have a high school diploma and a college degree or two, so I can read books when forced.  I have even read a few for pleasure, but generally I read so sporadically and slowly that I have to renew a book once or twice in order to finish before the due date.  My wife has filled my house with books for herself and our children, but the shelf space designated for my library consists of a meager 24 inches.  I just don't get excited about books.Why would a person who is so apathetic about books sit on the Chapel Hill Public Library Board of Trustees?  Why would he be passionate about the expansion of that library, even when the expansion will be reflected in his tax rates?  Well, the Library, though it houses a very extensive literature collection, is so, so much more than a location for free books.  The Library provides a laundry list of vital services to all citizen of Chapel Hill.  Those services are offered to everyone and important to most, but their need is even more pronounced among under served populations and during times of economic stress.The Library provides access to resources otherwise unavailable to low-income households.  Chapel Hill, like any community, is home to many individuals with limited or no access to the Internet or on-line services.  You may have heard of the digital divide, which refers to the disadvantages faced by those without access to digital and information technology.  Without that technology, individuals face communication roadblocks and a lack of skills or knowledge required in nearly every workplace today.  The Library works to bridge this gap by offering computer classes, Internet access, and links to career opportunities, government services, legal resources, and non-profit agencies.The Library also provides social and intellectual opportunities for children and adults.  Interaction with others and exposure to reading and culture provides early and measurable advantages for children but is also beneficial to the social and emotional health of adults.  Kidzu and the Morehead Planetarium are great places for kids, but the cost of taking a family may be too great for some.  Programs offered by the Library such as weekly story times, book clubs, and movie nights give families free opportunities for fun and a chance to socialize with other families who live in town.  Adult programs sponsored by the Friends of the Chapel Hill Public Library provide opportunities for anyone to meet new friends and contacts while learning a new hobby or talking about a much loved book.  The Library provides access to a community's shared culture.  OK, I'm not the book's biggest fan, but I do accept that a vast amount of floor space in our new facility will be dedicated to the printed page.  It is important for everyone's mental, social, and emotional development to be linked in to a larger culture.  I have yet to accept that the television is an acceptable device for staying linked to that culture.  Books (printed, audio, and digital), CDs, DVDs, magazines, and newspapers are all important media for allowing people to stay connected to what is going on in their community.  Not everyone in Chapel Hill has the money in their monthly budget to access these resources.  If you're rich, poor, employed, unemployed, homeless, or simply, not from around here, all of these resources are available any time at the Library.So, why is it time to expand the Library?  Is it because we need more books?  Well, given our amazing circulation, yes, partly, but it is also because Chapel Hill citizens need the services of the Library.  They need them in a way that the current building will soon be unable to provide.  Don't support the Library expansion because you like books.  Support the Library expansion because you like Chapel Hill. (Submitted to the Chapel Hill News on February 1, 2010.) 



I realize that's probably over the word limit for CHN, but I couldn't find the limits on-line, so I submitted it as is.

Brandon,You did a great job of explaining why the Library expansion is so important beyond the clearly-visible explanation that our circulation (already twice the state average) is continuing to increase.  The other services this facility provides are every bit as important as you have pointed out.  I hope that the CHN, if unwilling to print your entire letter in their letters section will consider printing it as an Op-Ed piece.  Thanks for sharing it.

You don't make an adequate case for expansion. I agree with all of your points about the contribution of the library but it is not time - now - to expand the facility even if there is need and even if we've got a fantastic construction deal.The Town faces now and in several years to come a continuing decrease in tax revenues and pressure to contain or decrease services. Just with what the Town does now, and with commitments made to new facilities (operations, parks, swimming pools, etc.) we face tax increases that come on top of a revaluation that is hurting lots of home owners.The library is doing a great job; it can continue to do a great job; until times get better it will have to do that better with a sustainable revenue source. Unless, however, Carrboro wishes to pitch in half the expansion costs.(a confessed letter-to-the-council  obstructionist)

I don't think anybody is opposing the library expansion funding simply because he or she labors under the impression that a library provides only books.  We're all well aware of the different resources made available at a well-functioning library.The majority of objections are not borne out of a lack of understanding regarding the services rendered by a library, but out of a genuine concern for the feasability of funding a project like this.  I don't think your post really addresses any of those more substantive concerns.

For the no-expansion arguments, I haven't seen anyone mention (here or in the CHN) how heavily libraries are used during bad economic times. Maybe I have missed those letters. John Carlo Bertot and Paul Jaeger have been tracking public library trends across the nation for over a decade, and they saw indisputable peaks in library use when the economy tanked. You don't have to search long on Google to see similar reporting from mainstream news.

Not surprisingly, Bertot and Jaeger study digital government as well as public libraries since the two are tightly linked. When you support library expansion, you're not just supporting books and readers, you're enhancing digital literacy and local government services. Starting this year, the public library will no longer have tax forms available, and it will be interesting if they experience a bump in computer use as people try to download them. That's only one example. 

I've been part of the Community Workshop Series at the Chapel Hill Public Library, and at first found it surprising to see nurses, teachers, on-rampers, firefighters, town staff, international students -- you name it -- attending computer workshops. The digital divide is largely a socio-demographic issue, but here in Chapel Hill it's also a digital literacy issue. People with and without access to computers use the library, but for different reasons, equally important. And as more and more government services move online, the public library becomes an essential access point for citizenship.


There are several points that nobdoy in this thread has mentioned. 1. Someone talked about high circulation being a reason to expand. This is deceptive because one reason the circulation is high is because of how it's paid for.  People in CH have to overpay to use CHPL so that gives them an incentive to use it more since they're paying anyway.  People outside CH get to underpay so the more they use CHPL the more they save.  Of course you're going to have high usage of something that you give away cheaply or for free.2. One point that nobody mentions in these discussions is that the number of books able to be stored in a given physical space is in the process of drastically increasing.  If CHPL doesn't increase the size of its building it will still be able to drastically increase the amount of its content in the building as a result of the ongoing digital revolution.  Did anyone notice what set the record this past Christmas for Amazon's most gifted item ever? 3. As nice as CHPL is, UNC libraries are about a thousand times better.  UNC employees get to use it for free and it's convenient for them too since they're already on campus every day and they don't have to make a special trip like they do to CHPL.  Also, OC residents that are not UNC employees can use UNC libraries for $25 per year.  And yet despite the fact that making people aware of things like that is directly in line with the stated mission of CHPL on its webpage, I see no mention of it on their website nor do I recall them notifying me of it when I got my library card.  Nor have they ever sent me an e-mail saying so even though they have my e-mail address.  Why not?  Is the mission of CHPL "to aid the individual's self-education, research and pleasure and creative use of leisure time,"as stated on the CHPL website, or is it instead to get people to use a building that is named CHPL?  I would love for the person associated with CHPL that started this thread to address that issue.   I wasted so much time and some money too if you count gas and car wear and tear by going to CHPL once every couple weeks for several years before I realized that UNC libraries was an option for pleasure reading and that it was more conveneint too since I was already on campus everyday.  And when I was checking out all those books from CHPL, other CHPL users were waiting for me to return them.  I can't help but wonder how many others would use UNC if they knew it was an option.

Just curious.  Didn't know if you have to have a student ID, or if by paying the fee you get a visitor account name/password or the like for those comps they have near the lobby & elsewhere.My husband being a UNC grad student and myself being an NCSU grad student, together have access to some pretty big libraries, so I've never known about that $25 option for non-UNC people.

I don't know if paying UNC libraries $25 per years gets you use of their internet.  Actually, public internet connections is one thing I think it makes sense for CHPL to spend lots of space on.  It's space for books they won't need any more of in the future.

Has the town and/or others been in contact with the UNC library
school about these matters? They ought to have a lot of expertise to
bring to bear on many of the issues here, including evaluating current
utilization, future needs, how to expand and when, etc.It's a
funny thing, but local expertise is often not valued as highly as
expertise from out of town, even when the local expertise is first
rate. It has to do with being too easy to get, whereas those from out
of town seem better because they are harder to get, if only for
geographical reasons. We can see, at least in part, how this sort of
myopic thinking played out in UNC's movement on Carolina North: they
basically ignored their School of City and Regional Planning!

There are quite a few faculty from SILS (UNC's Library School) on the CHPL board.

Two former Deans of UNC's School of Information and Library Science are members of The Chapel Hill Public Library Board Of Trustees. One member of the faculty is also a member of the Board.

Why not charge $25 a year or whatever to Orange County residents and have a waiver for low income folks? As a townie, I, too, have paid the $25 yearly fee to UNC libraries for a year's access. Parking is a real issue on UNC so it's not all that convenient, but the library is fantastic. I would like to see how the increased operating costs could be covered before agreeing to a library expansion. Taxes have gone up enough already. 

Why do we have two community library systems in one county?

the full operating costs for all libraries in the County than what would you recommendthe Town Council does?

some folks are willing to pay higher taxes for better services... some are not...and some get to have better services without paying for it - the Chapel Hill Library (the best of both worlds for Carrboro and non-chapel hill residents). I think people in Carrboro should be thrilled that they've gotten free library from chapel hill for so long.I think waiting for the County Commissioners to undertake a massive building endeavor for the benefit of Carrboro (and possibly Chapel Hill ) is not going to happen anytime soon. It's silly to pretend the BOCC is going to invoke massive tax hikes on the county so Carrboro can have it's own library.  Hopefully, the Chapel Hill Council is realizing that given the numerous options of the Hillsborough library (half of which was paid for by Chapel Hill) and the Cybrary and McDougal branches AND UNC's library open to any NC resident - the time is now for anyone who wants access to pay their fair share.   If elected officials want to pretend the BOCC is going to suddenly build a brand spanking new library downtown that is their right to believe it. It will be up to the Carrboro alderman and BOCC whether they want to pay for all their citizens to have access or reduced fee access or get charged individually for cards.

I agree with Mark Chilton on this one... it seems like we should be looking at putting a library closer to downtown so that it is accessible to bikers, walkers, and bus drivers.  I don't understand how we can continue to push the ideas of walkability, high density downtowns, and mixed use development and yet continue to actively avoid putting schools, libraries and other high-use public facilities in our downtowns.  We WANT that critical mass of folks in a dense area so that we can continue to concentrate development rather than sprawling out.  If our governments don't set the example then how can we expect private businesses and citizens to buy-in to the idea of high density development in our town's centers?

I agree 1,000%. I (and others) made the same case on the Transportation Board when we were asked to review the plans for building the library and the Southern Human Services Center in the 1990's. It should not take a genius to figure out that these are facilities that should maximize accessibility, and yet their locations and their site plans are hostile to anyone who doesn't want to OR CAN'T drive to them.

to hop on a bus to Estes or get on a bike to the current library than have people in Carrboro or CH who don't live downtown find somewhere to park on Franklin street.   (there is ample parking on the 32 acre site of the current CH library).  Besides the current CH library is the most heavily used in the state so it must be doing something right.  Nothing is stopping Mayor Chilton from persuading the BOCC to build a library in Carrrboro  (unless they don't want to spend any money that is; in which case expecting the BOCC to pay for operational costs for the CH library is also disingenious)

The thing the CHPL is doing right that is making its circulation so high is that it's giving its product away.  Any entity that gives stuff away is going to do a brisk business. And there is something stopping Mayor Chilton from doing anything to change the current library situation and that is that he isn't stupid.  People in Carrboro get a free bus ride to a free library so why would they want that situation to change?

Why don't we put aside the decision on issuing the bonds for a year or two and try an experiment where the county, town of Carrboro, and town of Chapel Hill establish a county run library on the west side of downtown Chapel Hill or downtown Carrboro.  The town could lease a storefront for a year and see if folks 1) use the downtown location and 2) that downtown location takes some pressure off of the usership at the suburban library?  It seems like this might allow us to come back in a year and make some decisions based on facts rather than speculate about whether a downtown location is viable.  I don't visit the suburban library because it is inconvenient for me as a pedestrian and as a bicyclist (who wants to bike back up that insanely steep hill after visiting the library on a hot 90+ summer day?   My $0.02  Rickie

Rickie, there is the FREE bus sevice so you ride in the ac on those 90+ degree days.

You only get to ride to the LIbrary in free A/C if you go between 11am and 3pm, and can spend an hour or two waiting between buses.

If there is a demand for bus service outside that window then maybe these folks should take that concern to the proper officials. Wanting to locate a branch in downtown Chapel Hill or Carrboro because someone doesn't want to ride a bike up a hill in the summer is not a rational reason to locate one there.Our tax dollars support TWO different libraries system in this county which is one too many in my opinion. Given the present political climate maybe the leadership in Chapel Hill should rethink the library issue or maybe they have and are looking to dump this agency onto the County?

Screw all those kids who aren't old enough to drive and old farts who can't drive well anyway, not to mention hippie environmentalists and poor people who don't own cars. If they're too lazy to get a job, they're too lazy to read or use a computer or attend a class...Sorry to be so snarky, but this is just ridiculous, especially coming from someone who doesn't even vote and pay taxes in Chapel Hill. I AM paying for the library and I want it to be inviting and accessible to the entire town, but especially those who need and deserve it the most.

Spans the better part of the day, when demand is much higher.

And a short (downhill) bike ride or walk to East Franklin will get you to a
bus stop served by several CHT routes plus Triangle Transit.

And FWIW, the 'giant hill' isn't that bad, really, for the more or less able bodied (I'm a middle aged lady and manage it fine, even in summer). 

I frequently cycle to the library, sometimes loading the bike on a bus
for a leg of the trip. It's not too bad to cycle downhill from the
library to U Mal and catch a bus back to downtown. Last Saturday I took
the bus to the library, then walked down to the post office, then to U
Mall, then caught a bus back to downtown. Easy peasey. 

While I would love to have a library downtown (or at the least a bookmobile or
bookdrop--why don't we have at least a bookdrop at the Cybrary--that
would seem a gesture of cooperation from Carrboro to CH??), the current
situation is much more doable than many imagine.




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