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Board ponders future of libraries

On the heels of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors approving level funding for both public county libraries Monday evening, the library board met with County Administrator Jim Halasz Wednesday evening to discuss possible future funding and the future of library services.  

As Halasz spoke of things yet to come, he asked members of the public library board and Friends of the Library to ponder this, “What is the shape of services to come?” 

He encouraged board members to investigate evolving technologies, trends and needs of the libraries.   

When discussing the county’s overall budget and how it is distributed, the county administrator pointed out Halifax County is “getting older as a population; there are fewer people; and some indicators show that we are poorer.” 

For local government, he said those demographic trends produce “less revenue or stagnant revenue,” while “demand for services and costs do not go down.” 

Halasz also reminded the board the county will be facing debt over many years to come due to the mandated renovations of the Halifax County historic courthouse which he said will likely mean increases in the real estate tax rate, one of the only taxes not “maxed out.” 

The county administrator also explained several other entities would receive level funding as well, including the schools, and he also forecasted the library will continue to receive flat funding over the next couple of years. 

Library Board Chairman Bee Edmunds Espy asked Halasz and Library Director Jay Stephens for suggestions on where the libraries “should be directing their energies over the next couple of years.”  

Halasz’s suggestions included regionalization, reading rooms placed on the edges of the county and more use of technology. 

Stephens presented a PowerPoint of “Potential designs for future library services” for those present “to think about.” He stressed that no decision had to be made right then and that he is “not endorsing anything.”  

Other than keeping the libraries at the present arrangement, he spoke of five other possibilities. 

Among them was regionalization, the formation of a regional library system with adjacent libraries or joining an already established regional library system.  

Advantages of this included an expansion of access to resources for customers and some sharing of long-term expenses. On the other hand, regionalizing could mean loss of local control, potential initial start-up costs and difficulty in finding partners in adjacent localities. 

Another suggestion involved centralization, which means combining both current existing facilities into one building. Centralization could save on personnel costs, and it might would allow for more space, and the building would be an upgraded facility. 

Disadvantages include construction costs, renovation costs and possible ongoing rent. 

The opposite of centralization, decentralization, was another idea. It would mean keeping both locations open but reducing hours. With this, the libraries also would develop outreach services to outlying areas of the county, including the possibility of reading rooms, deposit collections or library kiosks. 

This would bring easy access of library services to communities who haven’t had it before. Disadvantages of decentralization would include an increase in personnel costs and collection costs. 

Another option would be to convert to what the director referred to as the headquarters/branch design. This would include maintaining the current two libraries but designate one facility as the system’s headquarters or main library while the other would be the branch library. 

Stephens said this could save some cost in personnel and collections but designating one library could cause bad feelings in the community of the branch library, and it could possibly impact local funding. 

Another suggestion was converting to the hybrid model, meaning combining existing facilities into one building and developing one form of outreach service. 

Stephens said pros of this include increased space and upgraded facilities as well as library services being offered to underserved areas of the county. He said cons included construction costs, renovation costs, possibly on-going rent, increase in personnel costs and increase in collection costs. 

Other options in the PowerPoint presentation included a Library Kiosk, a Library-A-Go-Go, a bookless library and 4th Floor. 

The Library Kiosk would be a stand alone fixture in the county that would have a computer system that would allow for a library cardholder to request a book available from the library system. 

A staff member would then deliver the book to the kiosk placing it in one of the lockers. The cardholder would then use a code to open the locker. 

There also would be a book drop for the cardholder to return the book to the kiosk. 

Stephens said a Library-A-Go-Go is a “redbox for libraries.” It is an automatic book-dispensing machine that allows for cardholders to borrow books and return them to the device when he or she is finished. 

The 4th Floor concept comes from a library in Chattanooga, Tennessee where they turned the fourth floor of their building into a public library and education facility. This floor supports the “production, connection and sharing of knowledge.” 

The library director told the board there are a “number of options” from which the board can choose.

Board members asked Stephens where they should go from here. 

He encouraged the board to form a committee of stakeholders from the community. 

“Get them together, show them the options and begin to talk about which format they feel would best serve the community and which appears to be the most efficient and go from there,” said Stephens.  

“Once you begin those talks, it will become clear in a short period of time what avenue should be taken,” Stephens concluded.