An increased reliance on technology is propelling the main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County toward a new model of its former self, the Main Library of the 21st Century (ML/21). Among the stacks, however, some staff are concerned that this isn't a leap forward for everyone.
"The general feeling is that the public is not getting better service from the changes," says a main branch employee, agreeing to talk on condition of anonymity.
The employee says he's nervous about talking but is committed to bringing the issue forward. He says fears and concerns run across the board for the staff but he's the only one willing to break silence, albeit anonymously.
That opinion is a direct contrast to one of the primary tenets of ML/21. Greg Edwards, library services manager for the system's Central Region, explains that the new blueprint will offer "a service approach that's more pro-active" by incorporating a "better utilization of staff and resources."
The most disputed change comes from rolling six site-specific reference desks -- such as Education & Religion and Language & Literature -- into a single information desk located on the main floor. A call center will be affixed to the kiosk to answer questions streaming in via phone and the Internet.
"This is, I think, the biggest concern," says the library employee, who feels that the workflow will create a logjam. "They have a certain expertise in those departments. They're not going to be in that department. They're going to be centralized."
The major overhaul is a necessary component of time, according to Edwards.
"Years ago the main library was designed and structured to answer reference questions by individuals," he says. "Today a lot of that activity is done electronically. They don't have to leave home to do it. We're structured here at the main library to answer reference questions."
In the past 15 years the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County (PLCH) has seen a 40 percent drop in reference questions. Noticing the change, the main library organized a project team in August 2005 to analyze operations and services with the intent to keep the library relevant in the age of instant information. The library gathered data via public surveys, staff focus groups and researching the direction of peer libraries.
"Most libraries were moving to this," Edwards says. "Some had already had it. We're a little behind the curve there, but it's fine."
In November 2006, the Board of Trustees for the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County voted in favor of the ML/21 restructure. It's a step sideways, according to some staff.
"It'll transform the library into more of a mall atmosphere," says the library employee.
PLCH will market the new brand toward one of its key demographics -- downtown professionals who frequent the library's peak lunchtime hours. The Popular Library, another feature of ML/21, will pull together fiction and audiovisual materials into a library within the library.
"It'll have more of a bookstore feel to it," Edwards says.
Other departments undergoing the extreme makeover include a Teen Center geared toward patrons ages 12-18, the second largest demographic visiting the library, as well Homework Central, staffed predominantly by volunteers available to tutor students.
"They really don't have a space," Edwards says. "We knew we had a demand for it. In our branches, a lot of focus is on helping teens and serving teens."
Research needs will also be met in the newly titled The Cincinnati Room, an expanded Genealogy and Local History department capitalizing on the library's esteemed standing in the field.
Computers will move into a Technology Center for easier accessibility with specialized professionals on hand to navigate the web of computer advances.
As construction begins in September to deliver a new brand of service for library patrons, ML/21 will also allow PLCH to reduce operating expenses.
"That's what has a lot of people worried," says the library employee. "There just seems like there's less positions for the staff we have now."
According to an in-house memo, the consolidated reference center will have room for 17 librarians, nine library services assistants and two part-time shelvers. The memo additionally states, "The library will re-assign most of this staff to the new Main Library positions resulting from ML/21. Any librarians in the merged departments not re-assigned in this manner will be re-assigned to other positions in the system outside of the Main Library within the entire system."
Asked how many librarians, library services assistants and shelvers the various reference departments now have, Edwards says he doesn't know.
Interviews will be conducted over the summer as staff competes for positions within the ML/21 model. Edwards says no one will lose a job. PLCH has maintained vacancies on its staff in anticipation of the major changes coming to the fore, he says.
To quell internal fears, PLCH held a series of meetings in June to address the issues of the staff. The good intentions proved unsuccessful, according to the library employee, who described the tone as "condescending" with "concerns being brushed aside."
"There were no real answers given," the employee says. "There was a very PR-filtered response. We're just tools in a machine to the administration."
But the public will be the ones tightened in a vise, the employee says, if ML/21 is not received or executed favorably.
"What are they going to do -- go to the competition?" the employee says. "There is none." ©