Alex Gutelius on the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library
By Joel Friedman
NYLA Member Profile: Alex Gutelius, Library Director at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library
by Joel Friedman
Along with her sit-down with Joel Friedman, Alex spoke candidly about the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library and her role as Library Director.
Let’s talk about the Clifton Park¬–Halfmoon Library. How many years have you been here now?
Three and a half. I started in 2008. It will be four this summer.
There have been some pretty contentious library budget battles and school budget battles around New York. What about here?
For the most part, we have great support here in this community. One proposal that encountered a little resistance was in 2004, before I got here, when the new library building was put up for a vote. The community thought the plans were a little too aggressive so the first proposal was voted down.
I remember that. There was a feeling among some people that having a coffee shop in the library was a frivolous use of taxpayer money. They ended up cutting that out of the next proposal, and the vote passed.
Which I have to tell you is so ironic, because I can’t tell you how many people say, oh, why don’t you have a coffee shop here. And I say, well, because the community didn’t want it. But I think this library, in the forty-odd years of its existence, has tried to provide the services that the public is willing to pay for. It’s getting a little more difficult—given the economy—to continue to increase the number of services that you’re offering and still not increase the tax level.
Compared to the school budget, there’s very little publicity around the library budget. It comes at a very quiet time of year.
The time of year [September] is in our legislation. Whether special-district libraries had any input when the original legislation was written, I don’t know. But we were the second special-district library in the state. There was only one before us. Now there are several. So that date is in our legislation and beyond our control. You say it’s a quiet time, but it’s also right on the tail of people getting their school tax bill. People see their tax bill and then they have to go vote on their library budget. It’s also a busy time in terms of getting people out to vote. It’s right after school starts up again. But then you might ask, well, when would be a better time? It’s hard to tell. Do we want it, really, in the November election? Not so much. It’s worked well, and we really have gotten great support in the community. The library has been a special district since 1985, and there’s only been one budget that hasn’t passed in all those years.
How large is your collection?
We have about 160,000 print items in our collection, and maybe another 25,000 to 30,000 A/V items—DVDs, CDs, audiobooks.
How has your budget changed in recent years in terms of acquisition of new printed materials?
Well, our materials budget has stayed fairly flat, partly because of the downturn in the economy and knowing that we can’t be presenting a huge budget to the voters for approval. But we are certainly looking carefully at the materials we are purchasing and trying to ensure that we’re purchasing what people are using. People say, you should have this or you should have that. Well, if it’s going to sit there and collect dust just because we “should” have a book on such and such a topic, that’s not the best use of our budget. We strive to have a collection that’s being well used—and our collection is well used.
We also have the advantage of working within the Southern Adirondack Library System, and our catalog covers both that system and the Mohawk Valley Library System. That means there are more than sixty libraries that people see as a seamless collection when they log on to our catalog. They can place a hold on a book—with certain exceptions—and within a day or two it gets here. They don’t care if it comes from our library or the Schoharie Public Library or wherever it happens to be. They just want to know they can get that material. So we’re able to take advantage of that larger collection and not have to purchase everything on our own. A popular writer like Lee Child, for example, has sixteen books and a big following. Maybe our last copy of his second book fell apart. Well, rather than spending resources on buying that book again, we have the advantage of being able to borrow it from somebody else—and that’s money we can spend on something else for our patrons.
What tools do you have in acquisition to decide what to buy and how many?
The librarians use all kinds of review tools. They look at print runs. They look at Library Journal and Booklist—all the review journals. You have to know your patrons, the community that you’re buying for. Something that we might buy here, they may not buy over at a big city or a rural library. You’re going to see different collections developed based on the community and what they’re using.
We also look at our holds ratios, so we can see how many people have a particular book on hold. Maybe we have two copies of a book, and then all of a sudden it gets on Oprah and demand goes through the roof. So we have to look at the numbers and reevaluate. Sometimes we may want to buy another copy—but then again, maybe we don’t. Sometimes we can rely on other libraries backing us up. The summer reading program is always a huge challenge, and often we can take advantage of the other libraries’ collections. So it’s a bit science and it’s a bit art.
Are you always buying, or is it a monthly or quarterly activity?
We order materials all throughout the year. I think publishing seasons used to be a little more defined. You know, you’d have this huge publishers’ battle right before Christmas, for example. I don’t think you have that as much anymore. Books are coming out on an ongoing basis now more than they used to.
When I started in public libraries, I worked for a small library, so I had to stretch my publishing dollars pretty far. I’d go to publishers’ presentations, and we had publishers’ reps who would sit with us. I would go once a quarter for a day and publishers’ reps would each have a half an hour or an hour, depending on who they were, and talk about the books that were coming out. They’d also alert us to who would be getting greater exposure in the media—like when and if an author is going to be on television, for example. So you do use those tools, because the reality is if they’re on Good Morning America, you’re going to get requests.
What’s the total population of the library district, and how many library cards do you have out?
The population of the special district is about 49,000. We have about 44,000 cardholders— though not all are tax-district residents. About 36,000 of them are tax-district residents. And that’s a good, accurate number, because we do delete cards on an annual basis, for cards that have not been used for three years. We register about 300 new patrons a month.
So that’s 36,000 out of 49,000 residents. That means 73 percent of all residents have an active library card, and that’s anyone with library activity within the past three years. They can take out a book, they can download music or an e-book, they can sign up for Mango language lessons. Is Mango used a lot there?
Yes. I think it’s a great thing. Libraries used to be able to buy Rosetta Stone, but they won’t sell to libraries anymore. They want to do direct marketing only. We used to offer Rosetta Stone, but Mango is the alternative to that. A few hundred people use it every month. Another service is Ask Us 24/7. It doesn’t get a huge amount of use, but we provide about four or five hours of support for it a week so it’s not a huge burden for the staff. They just do it while they’re at the reference desk.
I like Freegal. I noticed they updated their interface recently.
Yes. Freegal looks much nicer now. It doesn’t have the greatest indexing, but our patrons use it to download about 3,000 songs per month. We also have TumbleBooks for young readers and Universal Class for lifelong learners.
What are your thoughts about the public library as a community center?
I spent a lot of time at my public library when I was growing up. I went to a public library where everything was open and it really was like a community center—maybe because it was a small community library and not a big downtown center. The downtown Toronto main branch was definitely more of a formal, institutional setting. But I went to a local public library where everything was open, and I read from left to right on the shelf and that’s how I picked my books. I just read my way right through it. Maybe I talked to the librarians, and I’m sure they knew me, because I was there all the time! But it was definitely a community center. It was a place where kids went and did their studying, and so that’s what I hope to impart in the public library here. I want people to feel comfortable here. I found when I came to this library that people here are quite savvy. They are able to find the information they need. Yes, they do use librarians for their more in-depth questions, but for the most part our patrons know how to use the catalog. Maybe it’s just the education and socioeconomic level of this particular community.
Occasionally I fill in at the reference desk—they don’t let me down there too often!—and I’ll offer to take people over to the shelves, but they’ll say, oh, no, no, I can find it, thank you. All they need is the Dewey number. But even in this library we do offer a lot of support, offering equal access to the information and to the technology. That’s one of the reasons we chose to offer iPads for use in our children’s library: because ther e are kids who don’t have an iPad or other learning technologies at home. As much as we’ve talked about people in this community being affluent—for lack of a better word—not everybody is. So we’re able to provide that access to information or access to technology or access to things that are changing that not everybody has.
Do you have any sense of the demographic breakdown in usage?
Well, in terms of socioeconomic standing, we’re not asking those kinds of questions of people. We do have computer access for people in the children’s library and in the main section, so patrons can use the computers. Are they here because their printer ran out of ink? Maybe. And that’s okay. Are they here because they don’t have a computer? I talked to my daughter who’s in seventh grade and she had these projects where she had to do things on the computer, and so what about kids who don’t have a computer? Not everybody has a computer. Or not everybody has four computers, like some of us do at our homes. And a lot of people don’t have high-speed Internet.
This initiative to make public libraries more like community centers is a great one, from the patron’s perspective. What are some of the programs that your library has been putting on for the community?
In 2011 we had 950 library programs. Over 22,000 people came to programs last year. A big focus for us is preschool programming. This community in particular has a high percentage of children: about 25 percent of the population. The school district has 10,000 children in it, so if we’re looking at a population of about 50,000 people, that’s 20 percent just of school age children. We offer preschool programs on 6- or 8-week cycles, and during that time we run 15 preschool programs a week.
And then there are many adult programs. Last night we had an e-book program. We have our Friday Free For All program, which has been running for 28 years, every Friday at 10:30 in the morning on all kinds of different topics. It runs from September to May. It’s hugely popular. We get between 80 and 100 people. We had a program last Sunday on cultural changes in the community, with a panel of guest speakers; a Google Docs program; music programs—all kinds of different things. We did volunteer fairs. We had our seniors’ expo in the fall, which was a daylong program focusing on services that seniors need in the community. We had organizations come in that provide services to seniors, and they also gave presentations, so those are some of the broader things we’re looking at doing, too.
Again, we try and adapt to what the public is looking for. At this point it tends to be a question of, okay, what are we not going to do in order to do that other, new program? Because it’s not as though I have more staff or that there are more hours in the day to plan these things. So, yes, we do want to offer as much as we possibly can, but it’s also a question of resources.
How does your library meet the emerging needs of people who have e-readers?
We’re using OverDrive. From the publisher’s perspective, it’s all about digital rights management. OverDrive provides the interface that allows us to lend books using digital rights management. We have a different service for music, Freegal, which is DRM-free. You can download an MP3 and do with it what you like. It’s yours to keep. Not the case with e-books. And, frankly, that’s the biggest challenge for us: getting patrons to understand that it’s very much like borrowing a physical book. Yes, you can borrow it, but you don’t get to keep it.
And the publishers are afraid. Of the big six publishers, only Random House, at this point, will sell their e-books to libraries. Penguin pulled out just recently. It’s a big challenge for us, because patrons don’t understand why they can’t borrow an e-book anytime they want. They also don’t understand that if someone has borrowed a particular book, we can’t also give it to another person at the same time. It really is like a physical book, so it’s a big learning curve for people. Once they figure it out and understand it, that’s fine. Also, from my perspective, although we are now providing e-books, it’s not as though we have any additional money for acquisitions. Although Random House is still selling e-books to us, we don’t get them at a discount like we do with paper books. We usually get about a 40 percent discount on paper books, but often we’re paying more for an e-book than the list price for a paper book. So our buying power is less and yet the demand is huge for these.
As for where this is all going, I really don’t know. Random House has said, yes, we’re going to continue to sell to you, but at a higher price. Who knows? Tomorrow they can say we’re not going to sell to libraries anymore, and as much as the American Library Association is working hard to work with the publishers—and we’re all lobbying hard—it’s a challenge. Harper Collins will sell to libraries, but they’ve put a circulation limit of 26 on it; once their e-book is borrowed 26 times, the license expires and we have to buy it again. I can explain this to you one on one, but it’s really hard to put that out in a press release.
As far as teaching people how to use our e-book services, we are offering classes. For some people it can be a cumbersome process. Once they get the hang of it, it’s not so bad. But it’s not easy to log on to OverDrive, download Adobe Digital Editions, depending on what your device is—and every device is different, and everybody’s got a different computer—so the librarians are working hard. We bought each of the popular devices just before Christmas so the librarians would be familiar with them. They don’t necessarily have e-readers at home, and yet they are absolutely facing those questions every day. Every shift they work on the reference desk they get one or two e-book questions. For some people who at least have some knowledge of computers, it’s not such a leap. You just tell them what to do, what to download, and they’re fine. But then there are lots and lots of people whose kids gave them an e-device as a gift. Some of them can hardly log on to their email; so it’s not only teaching them about e-books and OverDrive but it’s also about computer literacy. We continue to evolve as these things evolve. Things are changing so quickly everywhere. I think that’s the great thing about libraries. We’ve always adapted. We’ve always adjusted. And we continue to do that.
Some libraries are preloading Kindles with a selection of books and lending out the devices. Are you doing that?
We’ve thought about it, but we also have to think about where we’re going to spend our resources. Our demand for print books is not down. In January my print circulation was up 5 percent from the same month a year ago. So it’s not as though I can say, okay, well, people really don’t want print anymore so I can take those resources and put them all toward e-books. I have to juggle. We have to look at what’s the right model for our community.
We’ve actually just introduced iPads in the children’s library. We do look to be able to provide that kind of technology so that kids get used to it, as a supplement. We have one librarian who is developing resources for children with autism. It’s something a lot of parents are facing these days, and all the research she’s done says that iPads are a great learning tool for kids with autism. So she’s looking at what specific resources we can load onto the iPads for that purpose. We do have a lot of parents who come here and bring their children who have autism. They may be working with a coach, for example, and they meet at the library, so maybe we could provide some of those tools for them.
But looking for the right model for lending e-devices: Do we even want to do that? Or do we lend e-devices that have e-books that you can only get in e-book form? There are books available only as e-books already. I can just see somebody like Stephen King doing that, publishing a book that’s only available as an e-book. And it would probably be with a publisher that we couldn’t borrow it from, so then what? Well, we have to provide what our patrons need. What does our community really need from us? Right now what our community needs, I think, is more content, and that’s what we’re looking to provide at this point, at the same time trying to figure out if there’s a good e-book model for us. Or should we provide a gamut of e-books so that people can try them out to see if they like it? We haven’t found the right model yet for us, but we definitely are looking at it.
What about the library’s role as an online and computer resource for people who perhaps can’t afford these things at home? Are you able to measure wifi usage, for example?
We don’t track wifi usage. The cost to do that is too high, and, frankly, we just don’t want to track that. Just walking around, though, I know there are many, many people using our wifi and using the Internet on our computers. There are people meeting in here for business. We have patrons who have a home-based business but just want to get out for a while and work somewhere else. My neighbor is an attorney, with young children at home, and I see him in here all the time doing his work. He said it’s quiet here, he’s got the wireless, we have printing. So, anecdotally I can say that the usage is high.
Last year we had a big program up on the second floor for staff development day. Afterward, we left some tables out and people just started using them. So we left them there, because the use of the library as a space continues to increase too. Whether it’s tutors, or people meeting for business, or people using the wireless, or quietly making phone calls—you know, they’re upstairs, they’re not disturbing anybody. We don’t have a problem with it. It’s a place where they can meet. If they have a home-based business and they need to meet with a client, the library’s a great meeting place.
In 2009, when the economy really started to drop, we had more people coming in here who said they had to drop their cable and high-speed Internet at home. They come here and use our wireless, our computers, or they even watch TV and other video streams. That’s okay. That’s their choice of how they want to use the system. There are other people who don’t think that that’s the best reason to be using the computers. But you know what? The great thing about a public library is that it provides the opportunity for you to use it for whatever you want it to be. I make no judgment calls about what people do. If someone wants to come here and play solitaire on the computer, that’s great. Who knows? For all I know, they could be playing Scrabble with their brother who lives in China. It’s great that they’re using our resources.
One of the things I did notice after the economic downturn was that the use of our periodicals jumped significantly. We have about 200 subscriptions, and they circulate on a fairly constant basis, but we had about a 15 percent increase in 2010; the only reason I speculated it could be was that people were dropping their print subscriptions for financial reasons.
How do you work together with SALS (Southern Adirondack Library System) and its other library members?
The library directors get together regularly. We had a meeting just last week. They’re usually in Saratoga, where SALS is based. Sometimes people can’t meet. Actually last week, for the first time, we used GoToMeeting for some of the directors, because SALS covers a very large geographical area: Warren, Washington, Saratoga, and Hamilton counties. It’s a huge area. Some of the libraries are teeny-tiny, as you might imagine. That’s part of the challenge, too. Clifton Park–Halfmoon, Saratoga Springs, and Crandall are sort of the big three in our system, and a lot of the issues we face are the same, but some of them are so different. In some of the libraries, you’ve got a library director, and she’s it—or he—mostly she. She’s it. Maybe she has a clerk who works ten hours a week, and that’s it. So it’s a totally different job than the job that I’m doing.
If there were cutbacks to the library systems, the smaller libraries would be in a pinch probably more than you would.
Yes, but, really, it’s all kind of relative. A year or two ago, SALS had to review the services they provided and decide on some cutbacks. Some of the services are state mandated, so those stayed. They decided to cut mostly in system-wide support for acquisitions and cataloging. Our library circulates about 850,000 items a year here. So, previously, a lot of our orders had gone through SALS. They processed them and then sent them to us. Well, now we’re doing that directly. We ha d to absorb all that into our existing staff operations. Some of the smaller libraries may only be ordering five books a month, so it’s really not—I mean, yes, it’s a burden for them, relatively speaking, but it’s not like us where we’re processing a thousand or fifteen hundred books a month. But that was a cut that we had to make at the system level. So cutbacks in state aid affect everyone.
You’re not just working for the public as a customer service organization, right? You are in fact working for the government. You are a government-chartered, government-supported tax-based organization.
Yes. This is our role, to provide service. I think the school district is a little bit different in the sense that they have a mission to educate the children, and education is compulsory. But the reality is that if libraries don’t have people coming in the door, or we’re not providing a service, whether it’s physical or virtual, then we don’t have a role to play anymore. We have to be able to adapt and to change and to accept those changes as they’re going on. If you can’t cope with change, don’t work in a public library, because it’s not the same as it was yesterday and it won’t be the same tomorrow as it is today.
How do you see the ratio between MLS employees and, say, library assistants or other support staff?
Our numbers haven’t really changed a whole lot. The critical thing is that I’m looking for the skills. We need to make sure that our staff is able to provide the services that the public wants. When I started here in 2008, one of my concerns was I saw that people were going to our IT staff for help, but they’re not supposed to be public-service staff. I could see that they were really getting drawn into answering people’s questions, helping with their laptops and so on, and I thought, no, this is not our role. And that’s what I said to them at that time. But I’ve come to think differently about that, partly because we went through a focus group process a year or so ago as part of our strategic planning. One of the things we learned there—and, I guess, what we were hearing anecdotally—was that they want that technical support. And to that end, we have devoted more resources. Actually, we have what we call our IT pages on the weekend, to provide additional support. The expectation is that the librarians should be able to help people with their computer questions, but, just from a logistical standpoint, we have IT pages.
We have hired a library assistant who does pretty much all our computer training—she does other things, too—supplemented by librarians for different topics. One of our librarians did a Google Tools class last night, but the library assistant does the bulk of the mainstream computer training. What we’re telling our librarians is that you have to keep up with your technical skills—and we will get you the training you need, and we’ll give you the tools you need, but this is where things are going. Yes, we still have physical books, but you’re not circling it in a catalog anymore when you’re placing that order. You’re ordering it online, you’re looking at those things online. And you’re helping people download a book. Yes, you help them find it on the shelf, but you’re also helping them download a book. So, whether it’s a library assistant or a librarian or a clerk or whatever it happens to be—the balance will shift depending on what we’re doing and the services we’re providing—they need to have strong technical skills, or at least a willingness to learn and to keep up with it.
How do you provide continuing education?
We do a lot of online classes, which is great. Having webinars is just a fabulous thing, because, from a cost perspective, yes, you may pay for the webinar, but you’re not paying for that staff’s travel time. They’re here, working on the desk till 1:00, and they start their webinar at 1:15. They don’t have to spend an hour driving to a class. So we try and take advantage of as much online training as we can. I do have an advantage of having this person. She does surveys of the staff to find out where they need help—whether it’s Excel or something else. So we try and take advantage of those as much as we can. And there is quite a bit going on in the Capital District in terms of training. SALS also provides ongoing training. That’s one of the things we get from them, too.
The library is publicly supported property, and it’s great to be able to get a lot of use out of it. Do you see that role for libraries increasing in the future, or are you sort of at full capacity right now?
Our staff is running full tilt, and I think that’s the case at all libraries. That doesn’t mean that you can’t adjust priorities, and that’s something that our board is looking at. Where are the priorities and where are we going to put our resources going forward?
We can’t continue doing more with less. That’s just not a realistic proposition. You know, people only have so many hours in the day, so we have to figure out what the most important things for the community are. What do they want to see? And we do that on an ongoing basis. It’s not necessarily a big plan and revelation, but we make adjustments. We’re going to be looking at doing some Friday afternoon music in the reading garden this summer, seeing how well that goes over—you know, making all these adjustments each season and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. See what people are interested in, what’s going on in the community, what’s going on in the larger world. We made an adjustment by adding a lot of e-book classes after Christmas, now that so many people have them. And not only did we add more classes, we made them device specific in order for the training to be most effective.
It all goes back to what we were talking about earlier. This is a public library, and we do our best to make sure we’re providing what the public wants so that they keep using our services.
Joel Friedman is a writer, editor, and web content consultant (http://jfcontent.com). He served for a brief time in 2010 as Deputy Director at NYLA and is proud to be a member of both NYLA and his local Friends of the Library.