Senior Living

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Health & Spirit

Library letdown

By Joel Mills, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho on

Published in Senior Living Features

Reduced hours

Current Lewiston City Library hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. The new hours will be 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 1 to 5 p.m. Friday-Sunday, an overall reduction of six hours. The schedule will be implemented in March after logistics are ironed out.

* According to the library, there were 160,035 visits in 2014; 128,287 in 2015; 120,284 in 2016; and 115,770 in 2017. The number of registered borrowers has also dropped, from 26,559 in 2014 to 20,646 in 2017.

Completing a new building wasn't the end of a process for the Lewiston City Library.

It was just the beginning.

Even though the major phases of construction on the downtown showpiece were completed in 2013 and 2017, some patrons have been wondering when the library will be running at full speed. Officials say it will take time, money and some creative thinking for the library to live up to its true potential.

"We've got a beautiful facility and hard-working people," library Board of Trustees Chairman Bill Cone said. "And we want to try to build on that and have the whole library functioning at its best."

But attendance has been on a downward trajectory, and understaffing recently led the board to approve a reduction in library hours.

Library Director Alexa Eccles said Lewiston's budget is data-driven, and city hall wants to see clear evidence of need before it will consider requests for things like new positions. And competition from other departments will only grow as other city matters -- like high-dollar infrastructure projects -- demand attention.

"It's not just asking for more money, but being more efficient with your dollars," Eccles said of efforts to operate in the much larger space. "There's a limited amount of resources the city has allocated to the library. So we all have to work as a team."

And recently retired City Manager Jim Bennett -- who called the library the city's greatest accomplishment during his tenure -- said patrons shouldn't be surprised by some growing pains.

"The idea that additional staff, equipment, books and other parts of the library collection need to be expanded because of the size of the new library is nothing new," Bennett said.

A MUCH BIGGER SPACE

The first floor of the remodeled building -- the home of Erb Hardware and Cornerstone Interiors in its previous lives -- opened in June 2013 to great fanfare. Three earlier attempts to use voter-approved bonds to replace the small, 40-year-old city library on Thain Road failed. City councilors were able to make the new library project a go despite those defeats with funding from the Lewiston Library Foundation and an $800,000 loan from the sanitation department.

The loan was controversial, as was the new location about five miles from the old library. But city officials were confident objections would die down once people had a chance to see the transformation. That hope largely panned out, and the building was well-received in Lewiston and around the state.

"We've got a beautiful facility," Cone said. "It's just gorgeous."

But one of the first reminders that a building alone does not make a library came when the Twin Rivers Genealogy Society lost much of its access to a family history collection it had amassed over many years. Eccles said a lack of shelving space was the culprit, since most of the library's second floor would sit unfinished for four years as the city and the foundation put together the funding to complete the project.

Library staff set up special hours for club members to go into the basement to use the collection, and the complaints faded away. The collection now has its own space on the first floor.

But the episode was an indication of the challenges the library would face.

Eccles has made several requests for new employees over the last few years, with some success. But last year's city budget talks began with a mandate that no departments would get new positions, leaving the library staff spread even thinner when 14,000 square feet were added with the opening of the second floor.

"I would love to see more teen programs and fully utilize the spaces upstairs, like the makery and hands-on learning opportunities," Eccles said.

The "makery" is a room where patrons can use technology to work on projects. But it frequently sits unused due to the staff shortage. The second floor also was completed without several pieces that were bid separately, including bookcases and other furnishings.

Last month, the library board voted to reduce hours in an attempt to take some pressure off the existing staff. Eccles said the change should also help the library offer more programs, including bringing back weekend story times and a special story time for very young children.

Current hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The new hours will be 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 1 to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, an overall reduction of six hours. The schedule will be implemented in March after logistics are ironed out.

Even though the library won't be open as long each day, Eccles is excited about the addition of Sunday hours, since that could help add some life to downtown on a day when most businesses are closed.

The decision to split the salary of a retiring senior administrator to create full-time positions for a children's librarian and a supervisor was a creative way to stretch staff dollars even further, she added.

STAFF MORALE SUFFERING

Cone said he suspects the short staffing issue has combined with overall low wages and benefits to create turnover and other issues related to morale. The wage issue is especially acute for a border town like Lewiston that has to compete against a much higher minimum wage in Washington. Part-time wages start at $9 per hour at the library, and there have been no increases for most staffers since 2014.

When the library moved out of the 7,000-square-foot Thain Road building in 2013, it had 12.5 full-time-equivalent positions covered by eight full-time and 12 part-time employees. Now, in 36,000 square feet of space, it has 16.5 full-time-equivalent positions, with 10 full-time and 12 part-time employees.

Most public libraries staff their operating hours with a 50-50 ratio of full- and part-time employees, while Lewiston has a ratio of about three part-timers for every full-timer.

"Those are factors that are realities," Cone said. "It stretches the people that are there."

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Another contributor to staff stress is an increasing reliance on those part-time positions, which receive fewer benefits than full-time positions.

"We would love to offer full-time work," Eccles said. "But the city hasn't budgeted benefits for full-time work."

She asked the city council to convert two part-time positions to full time last year, but was rejected.

"We know it's an uphill battle," Cone said. "But part of the board's responsibility is advocating for staffing and functioning of the library. The budget meetings are coming up, and I think the board will have a presence there to advocate for these concerns."

Still, he added, there may be a feeling that the library has "had its share" of city funding for the time being, making the task even harder.

Eccles acted as the defacto project manager on the building remodel, Cone said, and wearing two hats all those years didn't leave her enough time to work with staff. The library foundation is paying to construct an outdoor reading space on the second floor, but the board expects she will be free to just run the library after that.

"I think the board has felt that wrapping a construction project up and focusing on the library and the operations, that's the ideal," Cone said. "So we're hoping that's helpful."

EFFICIENCY IS THE WORD

Eccles' philosophy of making more with less has led to some significant accomplishments, she said. In addition to creating two positions out of one, state and federal grant funding pays for all the library's computer network needs.

Another effort is underway to save money on processing library materials. And the organizational structure has been changed so that two full-time supervisors now report to Eccles rather than the eight full-time employees who reported directly to her in the past.

Filling a vacant volunteer coordinator position will also help the library be more efficient, since that person marshals its numerous boosters to tackle some of the workflow. The community has been generous with its donations to the foundation, and it also wants to be generous with its time, Eccles said.

HANDLING COMPLAINTS

Bennett said complaints about the library tend to garner outsized attention, while compliments tend to be ignored.

"I think the number of complaints is minor compared to how much the public really gets out of this library and uses it and appreciates it," he said.

Still, the library needs to listen to gripes and learn from them, Bennett added.

One issue that blew up on Facebook last year came from Lewiston resident Shane Thornton, who tried to donate some lightly used books, but was turned away. Thornton said he felt mistreated by library staff, and instead took his books to the Asotin County Library in Clarkston.

"They were kind and honest when they accepted my books, and I have always felt welcomed there," Thornton said in a Facebook message to the Lewiston Tribune. "Unlike in Lewiston."

More than 80 people commented on the post, many complaining about negative experiences and swearing off the Lewiston library in favor of other local libraries.

Eccles said she doesn't know whether a staff member didn't receive proper training, but the library does accept donations. Books and other items are either added to the library's collection or given to the Friends of the Library for its periodic book sale fundraiser.

Attendance at the library has tapered off since the first floor opened in 2013, but Eccles and Cone weren't able to attribute the numbers to either a normal drop in initial enthusiasm or the problems perceived by patrons.

According to the library, there were 160,035 visits in 2014; 128,287 in 2015; 120,284 in 2016; and 115,770 in 2017. The number of registered borrowers has also dropped, from 26,559 in 2014 to 20,646 in 2017.

By comparison, the Asotin County Library saw stable attendance over a similar period, with 83,223 visits in 2013; 84,547 in 2014; 83,713 in 2015; and 77,276 in 2016. Library Director Jennifer Ashby said the drop in the last year may be due to wider availability of electronic and audio books.

Cone said he wasn't worried about attendance at the Lewiston library, and expressed confidence that the numbers will grow as the facility matures.

Negatives aside, Eccles said people are visiting and enjoying the library every day, and its presence has been a positive for the revitalization of the downtown area.

"It already is a destination," she said. "The more we put into the facility, the more the community will benefit."

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Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.

(c)2018 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)

Visit the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho) at www.lmtribune.com

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(c) Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
 

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