Guest Column: Board meeting sheds light on library situation

May 2, 2012

By Mike Korn

April 23 brought perhaps the most anticipated public meeting of the Rockford Library Board in recent memory. Many citizens were concerned about proposals concerning the future of the library involving branch closures, the transition of the print collection to a 95 percent digital format and the possible renting of the top two floors of the Main Branch on Wyman Street. These proposals can be found in PDF format at this link: https://docs.google.com/file/d/1SeULADg4W1RrwLq8muFiyGiAGmNMZNbydIlv3vf-Xl24Y8ScdSPtdhzMaU8ca/edit. The proposals can also be accessed at www.saveourrockfordlibrary.blogspot.com.

A lot of important news came from the meeting. Most critical to me was Board Chairman Paul Logli stating firmly in front of the media that there are no plans for an alternative library facility to downtown and a renovated Sullivan Center will not replace any existing facility.

It was acknowledged that some parties had been given a “walk-through” of the second and third floors of the Main Library with the possible idea of “re-utilizing” that space.

During a Library Finance Meeting held April 18, it was also acknowledged that any plan for Embry-Riddle or EigerLab to occupy the upper floors of Main was now “off the table.” Whether this means those floors are now “off limits” to ANY prospective buyer is unclear.

Concerns also exist that the Rock River Branch on 11th Street and Rockton Centre Branch on Rockton Avenue would be closed. In the proposals linked above, Library Director Frank Novak directly laid out his vision for Rockford’s Library System, as follows:

• Rock River and Rockton Centre to be “tech centers” only, with almost zero human presence and no print collection;

Main Library reduced to one floor with little print presence;

Montague Branch turned into a local history center only; and

Lewis Lemon would remain open as a full-service library, although “heavily weeded.”

Novak wanted to close the Lewis Lemon Branch, but didn’t want to get in an “East vs. West” scrap. Of course, the east-side branch would be the one most unchanged, as the farther east one goes, the more priority things are given.

Based on the comments made by Logli at the meeting, much of this would seem to be no longer under consideration.

Betsy Urbik, who spoke during the commentary section, expressed concern about Rockton Centre being closed, saying many elderly and poor citizens depended on the library, including her own mother.

Andy Strong, a former manager of Early Childhood Services with the library, spoke of a “disconnect” among Novak, the board, the library staff and the public. A 31-1 vote of “no confidence” in Novak by library staff was given as evidence of the disconnect.

This subject of disconnection in general came up several times during the meeting, with board member Daniel Ross saying he was disturbed not only by receiving threats by parties unknown, but also by not really getting any dialogue from the public. This is a point I would strongly agree with, as threats have no place in public discourse, and any increase in communication is welcome.

However, that street is a two-way street. The Nov. 18 proposals were originally marked “confidential,” as if they were to be shielded from the public at all costs. Certainly, much of Novak’s tone in the proposals is unprofessional, such as calling librarians “packrats” (page 7) and saying this: “I still hear tales of people saying ‘I need to feel the book in my hands, I love the smell of the pages.’ I believe those sentiments would change if the same people were given an old, moldy book that has been partially chewed on by a pet or an infant at some point at time.” (page 5)

Well, I’m one of those people. So are a lot of the public … the public that the library serves, not the public that should be ignored or belittled.

At a demonstration held in front of the Main Branch April 21, I was lucky enough to talk to a number of people going in and out of the library. When I asked them if they’d rather read a book or a Kindle, a grand total of ZERO opted for Kindle. That cut across age, sex and racial lines.

A pathological hatred of print media is a strange trait to have in a library director. Plus, people don’t go to the library to get books chewed by pets or infants, they go to get materials in good condition. They also like the idea of having a choice, instead of having something shoved down their throats.

Speaker Jesus Correa mentioned his love of the library and paper books. He also wondered why the city is spending $7 million on a riverwalk bridge to nowhere and the library is considering radical contraction.

Correa was interrupted in his speech by board member Jeff Glass (likely in violation of Roberts’ Rules of Order, which Logli admonished all speakers to obey prior to the meeting), but the question remains.

Rachel Leon, leader of Save Our Library, also addressed the board and brought up the subject of the Open Meetings Act being violated by the library board on numerous occasions in the past. Incorrect information had been provided regarding the time and place of previous meetings and not corrected until January 2012. Leon felt this was unforgivable, particularly since the Chairman of the Board (Logli) was a former state’s attorney. Logli denied the situation was intentional, and said steps had now been taken to make sure the correct information would be available at all times.

The subject of excessive “weeding” at the Main Branch also was given much discussion. The library produced figures detailing the weeding that had taken place in recent months and said the collection had actually increased in size overall.

At the March public board meeting, several librarians addressed the board, saying they did not know where all the books were going. That seems strange, especially since it comes close to a time when the board was discussing possible renting of the top two floors of the Main Branch, as outlined in the November 2011 proposals.

Speaking from a personal standpoint, I can’t remember any time in the last 30 years when so many books disappeared so quickly.

Examples of weeded books were provided. Many, if not all, were out-of-date medical volumes. I find it difficult to believe that all weeded books were of this nature, but the fact is, the books are gone and won’t be coming back.

This current spate of “weeding” seems much different than the process that has gone on before, but we’ll accept the figures given by the board and move on from there.

An announcement was made that a private firm has been hired to conduct a public survey concerning library use. The survey would mostly be phone based. This was one of the most encouraging things I have heard. Such a survey should have been conducted prior to discussions of branch closures, digitization and radical restructuring of the Main Branch. The board and Novak may have then discovered just how the public … the people they serve … felt about the proposals.

The April 23 meeting was a positive one. Logli and the board have significantly backed off the most radical proposals. The upper two floors of the Main, Rock River and Rockton Avenue branches seem safe … for now. New chances for communication have opened up between the board and the public, and I urge all parties to take advantage of them.

Most of these positive developments come from the scrutiny and involvement of the public and media. Without the November proposals being divulged to the public, we might be in a far different situation than now. The public MATTERS. The patrons of the library … rich and poor, young and old, white and black … MATTER.

Human beings still have a place at the library … both behind the counter and as patrons. Kindles may indeed be coming — I have zero desire to use one myself, but that’s just me. But they shouldn’t be shoved down our throats without choice.

Books and people are still what make a library tick. On my last visit, I saw a mother and two young children leave with smiles on their faces and their arms full of books. In all prior eras of the library, this is a scene that would make a director beam with pride. Currently, that mother and her kids would likely be considered “out of touch.”

Constant vigilance by the public is going to be needed to make sure we keep these valuable resources. The thought of waking up some day to see the Main Library, which has been a source of community pride since 1903, turned into a CASINO, as has been discussed in the proposals, is disgusting. Rockford already has enough black eyes, but this would be the worst-case scenario. Without an outcry from people of conscience, maybe this nightmare would already be on the way to reality.

I urge citizens of not just Rockford but the greater community to read those November 2011 proposals to see what they really entail. Thanks to Logli and the board for backing off the worst of these. They ended the meeting with a pledge that they are here to serve the library and the public. Let’s keep those lines of communication open!

Mike Korn is a Loves Park resident.

From the May 2-8, 2012, issue

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