Libraries across the country are facing a dilemma: How to stay relevant in an ever-changing technology-based world? With information that used to be found only in the dusty stacks of a local public library now readily available over the Internet, libraries are increasingly focusing on becoming “community centers” instead of just a warehouse for books. But, after a pipeline-fueled spending and building spree in Alaska during the 1980s, Anchorage’s library system today is struggling to transform itself.
The Municipality of Anchorage has five libraries: four branch locations -- in Mountain View, Muldoon, Eagle River, and Girdwood -- and the system’s centerpiece, The J.Z. Loussac Library, in Midtown. In 2010, a branch library at the Dimond Center Mall that served south Anchorage was shut down for good. According to the city’s library director, towns with about the same number of residents as Anchorage have, on average, nine library locations.
The budget for Anchorage’s library system is declining. In 2012, it was $7.2 million, the lowest annual budget since 2006. But costs -- for everything from labor to heating and operating expenses -- are going up. E-books are among the library’s fastest-growing circulation items, and they can be expensive compared to paper books. Libraries in the U.S. traditionally get a 40 percent discount when they order books from a publisher, but still pay full price for e-books. E-book discounts, which are generally available to the public through online retailers like Amazon, are not offered to libraries. And then there are the expenses required to lend electronic media files -- things like networked computers and Internet access, costs not easy to anticipate years away.
To offset the budget crunch, library hours were reduced across the Anchorage system in 2009. Despite the decreases in availability and access, library use is going up -- at about 2 percent per year. The areas seeing the highest increase in use all involve new technology -- technology that was not in place when the city’s main branch, the Z.J. Loussac Library, opened in 1986.
In dire need of repair, with an outdated layout, leaky ceilings, and insufficient capacity for internet bandwidth and program space, the Loussac is showing its age. “The building is holding us back,” said Mary Jo Torgeson, director of Anchorage’s library system. A disintegrating terrace ceiling, deteriorating steps and outdoor space unusable during the winter months will take millions to fix.
For years, problems at the Loussac library have been addressed as they came up, but a major renovation is needed to keep the building safe and to make it ready for a new generation of library users.
In early November, sprinkler pipes on the Loussac’s first floor froze because of water pooling inside the ceiling -- the result of corrugated metal sheeting put in place outside the building. The sheeting was installed to protect people from falling pieces of the library’s weathered outside entrance.
“If you patch up problems, it just causes new problems,” Torgeson said.
Not just aging infrastructure
A plan to refurbish the front of the Loussac Library will address many of the issues, but the funding has yet to materialize. The current plan to remove the outdoor staircase, and expand the front of the building would be funded with a $10-million request to the Alaska Legislature this year, $2.75 million in bonds to be put on the April municipal ballot, and private donations.
But aging infrastructure is not the only challenge facing the Anchorage library system.
As the managers of the Anchorage library system look toward its future, one thing is clear: the city’s libraries must adapt to changing technology, and changing needs. E-books are the fastest growing part of the library system’s circulation. Computers are among its most-used equipment. Anchorage’s libraries currently have 84 public-access computers -- hundreds fewer than other cities of the same size. But technology is expensive, especially when installed inside buildings that weren’t built to handle it.
The Loussac was built well before the Internet age and was not wired to handle a lot of electronics. The current Internet capacity of the entire library system was recently doubled, but is still 35 percent below the minimum needed to ensure everyone hooked up to the library’s wireless and hard-wired Internet connections can go online.
Without charge, Alaska Communications (ACS) just doubled the library system’s capacity to about 40 megabits per second. That’s means the library system can send or receive up to 40 million bits each second. It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t. Especially when it is shared by the all five Anchorage public libraries. Torgeson said she wants to see at least 55 Mbps, and plans to eventually upgrade to 100 Mbps.
But Internet capacity and a crumbling exterior aren’t the only problems facing the Loussac library. It doesn’t have enough electrical outlets to handle computers, projectors and other devices needed to create new youth and adult program space. A large unused area on the fourth floor is being tested out as a place for hands-on learning programs. But currently, the “Innovation Lab” contains just a few desks and art supplies. And the wiring already in place can cause unexpected problems.
“When we held a zombie scavenger hunt on the fourth floor, we turned off the lights,” said Toni McPherson, the library’s community relations coordinator. “But, we had to turn them back on because we soon found out that the switch also shut down the lights in the men’s bathroom on the first floor,” she said.
The shift in purpose for libraries in the 21st century -- from buildings housing stacks of books to places for complete, current information access -- is a difficult one across the country, and Anchorage is no different in struggling to adapt. But technology, especially information available over the Internet, is not competing with libraries, it is helping them transform.
“Technology is not killing libraries. It is expanding what we do,” said McPherson.