Foothills Library: Open Letter to Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers & City Council Members

TO: GlendaleMayor Jerry Weiers and City Council members
Re: Foothills Library relocation proposal

What is a building worth?

A building is not just the land it stands on, and the materials it's built from. The worth of a building comes from the use to which it's put, and how well it serves that use.

In the 2nd appraisal of the Foothills Branch Library building, buried deep in the 150 pages, one line stood out for me:

"Functional obsolescence = $0"

What that line means is that the Foothills Branch Library building is as capable of fulfilling its function as the day it opened. It was designed to serve as a public library, it has functioned as a public library since 1999, and according to the appraiser's report, it is capable of continuing to serve as a public library for many more years.

I submit that, with no loss of function, there has been no true loss of value. The functional value of the building is the same as when it first opened. The financial value should, at a minimum, be the same as when it was first built for 7.8 million. The low market value in the appraisals is a function of a still-incomplete economic recovery, and a large glut of business properties on the current market.

And even that original cost doesn't reflect it's complete value. A truer value might be the replacement value, the cost of building an identical or similar library structure today. That cost would be around 17 million dollars.

But that replacement value isn't the complete value, either. Good libraries (and I consider the Foothills Branch a very good library) provide a public value to cities and their residents. That's a figure hard to put a dollar amount to, but its a large figure, much larger than even the 17 million dollar replacement value for the building.

Accepting an offer of a mere 5 million dollars for a building of such high value would be very, very foolish.

How much is a book worth?

Eviscerating Foothills Library's collection of printed books by eighty percent, one hundred forty thousand books, and moving the remainder into one-quarter the space at the Aquatics Center would also be very, very foolish.

The Aquatics Center was not designed as a library. Moving the downsized library into those spaces at the Aquatics Center would be a kluge, a fix-up, a make-do. The functional value of the smaller space would be less than the functional value of the same square footage in the current, designed-as-a-library, building. The library space at the Aquatics Center would be a degraded version of what we currently have. Foothills Library is a first-class library. At the Aquatics Center, the best we could hope for would be a second-class library.

And, lest we forget, the Aquatics Center would be losing some its current space, taken over by the downsized library. Its own functional value, as an Aquatics and Recreation Center, would be degraded. It too would suffer a functional downgrade, from a first-class facility to a second-class facility.

No, no, no, we are told. The new library space will be as good as ever, we are told, because the library will be going digital. The library of the future, we are told, won't need printed books, or the shelves to hold them, or the square-feet of floor to put the shelves on.

There are many problems, though, with what we have been told about the digital future of libraries. Problems practical, aesthetic and economic.

The practice of "browsing the stacks" is a common one among library users. If you need a particular book, by a particular author, about a particular subject, you can go straight to that spot. But sometimes what you want is just a good book, an interesting book, a well-written book. How do you find those books?

Sometimes you just walk slowly past the rows and shelves of books, scanning spines and covers, titles and authors' names. Something catches your attention. Maybe it's a brightly-colored spine among a run of dull ones. Maybe it's an intriguing title. Maybe it's an author's name you've heard of, but never read before. Maybe you're even looking for a particular author's books, but the books by adjacent authors on that shelf catch your interest, too.

Think of it as a bibliophile's version of window-shopping. There's luck, and serendipity, and coincidence involved. Sometimes it seems like a little bit of magic, too. I've found wonderful books and writers by such browsing, books and writers I'd never have had reason to specifically seek out. It is one of the joys and treasures of a good library, particularly a good-sized library with depth and breadth to its inventory. (Foothills' current inventory of 175,000 books seems about ideal to me.)

In a digital library, or at Amazon and other online booksellers, the experience of that simple footloose wandering is largely lost. Over and over again, a leading complaint about digital catalogs is the inability to browse easily and casually. If you know what you're looking for, if you have a particular title or author or subject, if you can guess the right keywords to search on, digital catalogs can probably take you there. But you can only view a fraction of a fraction of a digital catalog at a time if your search is just for "something interesting". It's slow, and frustrating, and unsatisfying.

With printed books, stacked on shelves, I can browse hundreds of titles in just a few minutes. That's why I, and many others, hope digital books never completely supplant printed books.

I said above that there are economic problems regarding the idea of an all-digital library. Let's crunch some numbers.

Under the relocation proposal, some 140,000 books would be culled from Foothills' current inventory. At first, the public was told those books would be "sent to Main and Velma Teague branch libraries." This turned out to be – let us use a polite phrase – non-factual, and was later revised to state that only a portion would go to Main and Teague, with the remainder to be either sold or donated.

I'd estimate that Main and Teague would probably only be able to absorb about 20,000 of those books, mostly titles Main and Teague don't already duplicate in their own holdings. But let's be generous and say they could take 40,000. That leaves 100,000 titles, a nice even number to work with.

For the new library space at the Aquatics Center to provide a selection with the same depth and breadth as the current printed inventory at Foothills, the new library space would have to replace those 100,000 titles (or a similar selection) with digital versions. This wouldn't be the "expansion of library services" promised in the proposal, it would just provide a digital equivalent to Foothills' current physical holdings.

How much would that cost?

Researching the topic, I found 2013 data that libraries pay pretty close to retail price for printed books. On average, about seven dollars ($7) for mass market paperbacks and about twenty-seven dollars ($27) for hardcovers.

The average cost, to libraries, for a digital book, also in 2013, was... sixty-three dollars ($63).

Does that surprise you, Mayor Weiers, Council members? Those numbers surprise a lot of people.

When a library buys a printed book, they buy an object. They own that book, and they can keep loaning it out until it literally falls to pieces if they want.

When a library pays for a digital book, they're buying a licensing fee, permission to download that book's file to library patrons' devices. Not only does that licensing fee cost more than a printed book, but usually that digital file can only be loaned out to one patron at a time (as if it were a physical book) and only for a limited number of total lend-outs (as if it was accumulating wear and tear like a printed book).

Let's crunch a few more numbers:

If the library space at the Aquatics Center were to match the depth and breadth of the current Foothills Library, to be as good as what the city already owns, they would have to increase their digital holdings by at least 100,000 titles.

The cost for that would add up to... lemme see...

Six Million, Three Hundred Thousand Dollars ($6,300,000).

The City of Glendale would have to spend every penny of the five million dollars offered by Midwestern for the Foothills building, plus over a million dollars more, just to digitally replace the Foothills materials they seem so casually intent on disposing of. But somehow we're also supposed to pay for remodeling the Aquatics Center, and moving the remnants of Foothills there, and buy shiny new computers and other tech, and somehow still have over four million dollars left to pay down a small fraction of the city's debt.

The numbers simply don't add up. The promises aren't believable.

What is a city's reputation worth?

This proposal has brought Glendale into the media spotlight, both locally and nationally. It's not a very flattering light. Glendale is becoming a laughing stock. Not only did previous city administrations toss the city into a black hole of massive debt, but the current administration wants to sell one of its most-appreciated and socially valuable assets at a loss, and tries to pass it off as a good deal. Glendale's government looks like a pack of clowns.

This relocation proposal is one of the shoddiest and most incompetent sales campaigns I've ever seen. From the first day it went public, the flaws and bad data, the spin and half-truths, the misleading promises and lack of timetables, and especially the sheer audacity of trying to pass off the evisceration of a well-stocked, well-housed full-service library as an "expansion", have been pointed out and criticized.

This proposal is a train wreck. As more and more of the true background of how this proposal came to be conceived and presented comes out, the sleazier and more deeply dishonest it appears.

The only clear lesson in this entire affair so far is this: The Glendale city government cannot be trusted to tell its citizens the truth.

Cut your losses, Mayor Weiers and council members. Kick this proposal to the curb, as quickly as you can. Because a lot of people are angry and disgusted over this. And I can make this personal promise: If any council member votes to approve this so-called "expansion", I will do everything I can to see they are not elected to another term.


Bruce Arthurs

No comments: