Got Books?

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The Austin Public Library Friends Foundation empowers Austin’s public libraries to reach beyond the written word.

Think libraries are quaint, dusty relics of another time? Don’t tell Tim Staley that.

Staley is the executive director of the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, and he takes the job seriously. Start a conversation with him about libraries, and you’ll probably learn something you never knew. You’ll almost certainly walk away with a new, or perhaps renewed, appreciation for libraries.

He is mild-mannered, well-read and gregarious. Like any good Austinite, he enjoys the best of Austin’s laid-back culture: swimming at Barton Springs, hiking the greenbelt, and playing tennis at Caswell Tennis Center. He listed East Side Show Room, Perla’s and Barley Swine as his favorite restaurants.

Staley’s also a passionate defender of what libraries represent, and he has little patience for the political climate that’s cast public institutions in a negative light.

“Somebody who thinks that the library is obsolete today probably themselves haven’t been to a library in several years,” Staley said, recounting how many times he’s heard that opinion and how it frustrates him each time. “All I ask them to do is any hour of any day go to your (library) branch. And you tell me it’s obsolete. That those people who don’t have access to the Internet using library computers; that those retired people using the library for resources aren’t using the library system.”

The APLFF supports the Austin public library system through programs and activities. Events and programs such as the Mayor’s Book Club and the Youth Writing Workshops foster literacy and reading, while programs such as Connected Youth help kids gain technology access and learn about library resources.

As the economy continues its slow climb toward recovery, that work is more vital than ever. Walk into any Austin library, and it will likely be full, despite the changing relationship Americans have with books, Staley said. As the economy struggles, library use has been on the rise.

“The public library in America is in a very interesting position right now,” Staley went on. “People are using the library…for a range of services: access to material, access to job search databases. You can go to the library and take classes, learn to use certain software…and that’s all fine and good. But the other result of a weak economy is that funding is not where it needs to be. This places libraries in a challenging position, and Austin is no exception to this.”

According to The State of America’s Libraries, an April 2010 report from the American Library Association, there has been a decade-long trend toward increasing library use nationwide, and even an acceleration during economic hard times.

“Data from a January 2010 Harris Interactive poll…indicates that some 219 million Americans feel the public library improves the quality of life in their community, an increase from 209.8 million reported in 2006. Survey data also indicate that more than 223 million Americans feel that because it provides free access to materials and resources, the public library plays an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.”

Books are, of course, an essential part of any library. But Staley is quick to point out that the American library is in a renaissance of sorts right now and is gaining a role as an important community space.

Cities such as Seattle, San Antonio and Denver have built central libraries with distinctive architectural design that facilitate social space for meetings, teen space, art exhibits and more. Austin’s new central library, scheduled to open in 2015, will likely be designed in that new tradition, he said.

“Libraries have come to address all these community needs, so it becomes more than just access to information and knowledge, it’s social space. It’s particularly useful here in Austin, where you see a westward expansion of downtown. This will be the sole public space in the expansion of downtown. Between Seaholm and Green, you’ll have this community space that will draw people from throughout the community to downtown for an array of programs.”

While the central library is essentially already paid for by dedicated city funds, the APLFF will identify ways to enhance it and raise money to pay for those enhancements. That could be anything from a technology upgrade to nicer furniture. The goal is to make this not just a good library, but a great library, Staley said.

Libraries are also increasingly bridging a technology gap, as life becomes more and more electronic. While some school- children will have tablet computers and home computers to help them through their academic careers, plenty of their peers don’t have any Internet access at all and turn to the library.

The APLFF created Wired for Youth Centers in 2000 with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the City of Austin, and in 2009 it helped introduce Connected Youth, which brought laptops and new programs to Austin libraries. However, it’s an unfortunate truth that as library use and programs grow, funding has been decreasing.

“A majority (56 percent) of libraries report flat or decreased operating budgets in FY2010, up from just over 40 percent in FY2009,” the American Library Association reported in a study on public funding and technology access.

According to Staley, the good news is that the Austin Public Library system has not had to weather the budget storms other library systems have suffered through. While budgets, services and hours have seen cuts, the Austin library system hasn’t had to close branches altogether (unlike Phoenix and Denver).

Staley went on to say that the APLFF has taken an active advocacy and awareness role, keeping library supporters– and there are a lot in Austin–abreast of budget decisions that impact the library system.

“The library doesn’t care who you are. You walk through the door, lay your hands on a book, and it’s as much your book as anyone else’s in the city. It doesn’t matter what your race, gender, or sexual preference is. That equal access is what I find most compelling.” Note: The 3rd Annual Austin Teen Book Festival is Oct. 1st.

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