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Leaked document angers Rockford Public Library fans

The Rockford Public Library’s board of trustees can expect to see something unusual at its meeting Monday night… a large crowd. That’s because two confidential reports by the library’s executive director have been leaked to the public. The documents detail ways to offer the public more digital services by cutting staff, closing some branches, and heavily “weeding out” print materials.

The Public Library has been an important institution in Rockford since it opened its first reading room in 1872. And the 110 year old Carnegie library on the banks of the Rock River now anchors a six branch system.

But like just about every taxpayer supported public service in America, Rockford’s Library has been clobbered by the economy…pension troubles…and the changing demands of technological evolution.  

That’s why the library’s board of trustees asked the library’s executive director Frank Novak to put together a paper identifying trends, looking at expenses, and how an underutilized downtown theater known as the Sullivan Center could fit into future plans. Two of these reports from last year, stamped “confidential,” were leaked. One’s titled “Facilities and Digital Library Plan.” A follow-up is called “Rockford Public Library’s Sullivan Center Transitional Plan, a.k.a The First Floor Plan.”  Novak confirms the documents, but says they were to bounce ideas between the board, his staff, and himself. He called them “theoretical papers looking at different models, exploring circulation.”

And even though they’re labeled “plans,” both Novak and board president Paul Logli insist they are not plans, certainly not strategic plans. He says “it was generated to identify trends and to generate discussion and it certainly has done that.”

Logli expects a lot of speakers to line up at the upcoming board meeting to express their outrage at what they’ve read in the reports. Most will be there because of the efforts of a group called SOL…Save Our Library. They’ve already decried the library’s huge increase in funds devoted to acquiring e-books…35% of that particular budget category.  SOL posted the leaked reports on its website. So what’s in these reports anyway? Let’s start with what Library director Novak wrote in the executive summary: “The plan calls for nearly all information resources to be provided in the digital format, the closure of some library locations, and the downsizing of library staff as needed. Although the plan is controversial, it puts the Rockford Public Library head of the curve.”

Dipping into those points a little further:  Novak writes “After 2012, the library would put 95% or more of its total materials budget into digital materials.”  Board President Paul Logli says that statement might be a conversation starter, but it’s not going to happen. He says he can safely say that the library is not moving to a 90% digital collection this year or anytime in the foreseeable future. He adds that the board is comfortable with the libraries and the current branches and traditional services.

The Sullivan Center document examines the idea of moving many, if not all, services out of the downtown main library into what used to be known as New American Theatre. It’s an arts venue just two streets and a parking lot away from the library. The Sullivan Center would remain a performance space AND an all-digital, no-print library. Logli says the board has been in discussions with the owner of the Sullivan Center, who would give the recently-remodeled building to the library. And while Logli says it’s a very generous offer, the board needs more information about its future plans before it can accept or reject the Sullivan Center.

As for the other library branches, Novak wrote that ideally, only the newest and most cost-efficient branch, on East State Street, would remain. But he also proposes turning Montague into a local history and genealogy center. Rockton Centre and Rock River would be tech centers with no print materials, and close when their leases expire. And Lewis Lemon would remain intact, with both print and digital materials…although Novak said he would prefer to close it, “it is simply not worth the trouble of getting into an East vs. West political struggle over library service.” The school based library was nearly closed before, but public outcry saved it, since it is located in an underserved area. And language like that throughout the leaked documents makes them even less palatable to people who were never supposed to see them. Trustees are warned that librarians, as a profession, are packrats, so they will complain to them about having to weed the collection aggressively. “Library staff members are welcome to beat their chests, clap, chant, protest, or stomp their feet,” but it won’t change the fact that ebooks are supplanting print books.

The point is made clear, though, that libraries have to find their place in the digital world, a feat made even more difficult by real economic hardship. Board president Logli says his board exists to serve the public…not force the public into anything it doesn’t want. Logli says although some of the language in the leaked documents was “inartful,” it was just there to identify trends and generate discussion.

Library director Frank Novak says he’s just doing his job: spotting trends and thinking forward. And Logli says the reports were NOT roadmaps, and the board will do ITS job before making any major decisions. He says without public discussion, open debates, and recorded votes in an open meeting, there won’t be any votes.

The public’s welcome to comment at the next library board meeting, which is this Monday at 5:30 at the library’s east branch. Logli doesn’t expect any of the big issues in the reports to be on the agenda.


Here are links to the library documents, courtesy of Save Our Library.




SOL’s website: http://www.saveourrockfordlibrary.blogspot.com