Branching In

Library Director Larry Frank is guardedly hopeful about his budget

The Knox County Public Library is not planning to close any branches. That's the short answer to some rumors going around last week.

However, the cost of running a major library system with 17 branches may be rising faster than the ability—or will—of county government to finance it. The cost of books and nearly everything else a library buys for its patrons is going up, partly driven by energy costs.

Closing branches has come up, though, as a possible response if Mayor Mike Ragsdale's proposed budget is not approved by Knox County Commission. The library's budget had been $12.3 million; the new budget calls for between $12.8 and $12.9 million.

"Yes, from a national standpoint, we are underfunded," says library director Larry Frank, but he's aware of the county's budget predicament and is expecting no special favors.

"We are open twice as many hours as any other system our size," Frank says. The KCPL employs about 200, and is open a total of 900 branch-hours every week across its 17 county-wide branches. "We do have more branches per capita than any other system our size," many of them opened as a result of community demand in this culturally balkanized county where every neighborhood keeps a jealous eye on the next neighborhood over. Frank says the library has tried to keep its branches open by specializing their services, emphasizing children's programs, for example, and de-emphasizing services and materials, like some periodicals, that are duplicated at other branches.

"I know how difficult it is to close branches," says Frank, who has spent most of his long career working at libraries in other parts of the country. "It's not pleasant."

Frank has responded to the crunch with a hiring freeze, starting July 1 and expected to last at least six months. And one way to save money is to decline to buy as many multiple copies of the same book.

"Readership is increasing," he says, as the cost of materials is going up, and publishers are unable to offer as generous library discounts as they once did. The number of active library-card holders—those, that is, who have used a card at least once in the past three years—is at an all-time high of 160,000, a 45 percent increase since five years ago. Facing rising demand and rising costs, and a nearly flat budget, Frank says, "We're in kind of a Catch-22."

You can probably find Joseph Heller's Catch-22 without much of a wait, but as a result of both the rising demand and the rising cost of books, without a commensurately rising revenue, some waiting lists are incredibly long. John Grisham's latest legal thriller, The Appeal, has 342 system-wide holds on it. Several other books have waiting lists 100 or more would-be readers long.

To move the lists along, the library has shrunk the loan period to just two weeks; it had been, for many years, three weeks. (Patrons can still renew books three times, if they're not on hold.) "I don't particularly like it," Frank admits. "What it reflects is an attempt to adequately deal with limited funds."

The full budget request before County Commission comes to $12,837,000. "If the budget went below $12 million," Frank says, "my administrative staff and I have considered scenarios of what could be cut back and how much."

The library has also proposed to commission that some library services, like the Beck Cultural Center and the East Tennessee History Center, might be partly funded through hotel taxes. (It might make some sense; judging by the daily register at the McClung Historical Collection, many of those who use it are from other parts of the country, and are not Knox County taxpayers.) Corporate sponsorship, which already pays for several of the library's special events-oriented programs, is also helping around the fringes of the library's operating budget; the sponsored digitization of McClung's photographic collection is soon to be a reality.

Frank is also questioning why the Public Building Authority, which controls the library's physical plant, has budgeted $360,000 for utilities for the main library, when Lawson McGhee's actual bill last year was only $195,857. Frank presumes the balance is administrative.

"This is the first system I've ever worked at where the library wasn't directly responsible for its own utilities and maintenance," he says. He assumes Knox County's system has been handled differently as an effort to save money. "I think they thought they could save money that way—but I question the cost-effectiveness."

But he's hopeful the budget item gets approved, which will result in a general improvement in the library's operations. Asked about worst-case scenarios, Frank can turn uncharacteristically folksy. "I'll lift my britches up when I get to the creek."