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Hey, where have all the
books gone?

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark reporter

The Mid-Continent Public Library is changing the way patrons access library material.

While the number of eBooks and eAudiobooks being purchased is skyrocketing, fewer and fewer traditional books are being added to the library buildings' collections.

Many library patrons are left asking, “Where are all the books?”

Undoubtedly, children were raised to come to the library to check out books, but young people today are learning how to download eBooks from the family computer at home without ever entering the library building.

There are 58 Mid-Continent Public Libraries across the metropolitan area; eight of those are located within Platte County. According to a 2011 financial statement, the county collected and disbursed approximately $7.7 million in funds to the library.

But several library patrons say you wouldn't know the library received such a substantial amount of money by visiting one of the eight branches in Platte County. Not only will you see fewer traditional books on the shelf, but fewer librarians servicing patrons in the various branches.

Patrons will no longer find an elongated desk where librarians await to assist families with their checkout. Visitors at the Riverside and Parkville Mid-Continent Public Libraries are now instructed to check out their own library material utilizing a computer kiosk.

Steve Potter, director of Mid-Continent Public Library, says this allows more money to be spent on “content and services (rather) than people.”

Besides the reduction in staff at the various branches, the number of traditional books purchased was reduced. However, the number of downloaded books called eBooks escalated quite rapidly from 200,000 to 400,000 last year.

“It's continuing to be adopted very, very quickly,” said Potter. “The use of licensed online resources increased ten percent last year and that's the second ten percent increase in a row.”

Despite these recent technological advances which make it easy to access library material from home by downloading a book to your own computer or handheld device, some 4.5 million patrons still visited their local library branch.

According to reports, the Mid-Continent Public Library loaned 9.1 million items last year, which averages about 12 items checked out per person. That is down one item from the previous year.

“The Mid-Continent Public Library tends to ride the tide rather than be drowned by a sea of change,” said Potter. “You wouldn't necessarily think that the library industry is a dynamic one, but it sure is. It seems like it is constantly changing and so forth.”

Several citizens recently expressed their belief that the ever- evolving changes to the library system may not meet the existing needs and expectations of their library patrons.

During the Platte County Commission meeting Friday, one library patron wanted to know why all the traditional books were disappearing. She said eBooks can be altered, thus history can be rewritten.

In addition to her concern over eBooks, she said it was saddening to discover that many reference and educational homeschooling material had been withdrawn from the shelf at the Boardwalk library branch.

According to the library director, most reference material is solely being printed in a digital format.

“The (problem) we have is do we keep a physical book that is obsolete or do we have a digital book that is not obsolete,” said Potter.

He decided it would be best to purchase updated material, while investing more money in computers for patrons to access the digital material.

Still others like, Teresa Emerson of Parkville, say patrons should have a say in the direction the library system is headed.

“I think it is important because of the amount of money that we're spending as taxpayers, that you (Potter) include us on the changes that are being made and allow the patrons to have some input,” said Emerson.

As it is, other citizens like Beverlee Roper, first district commissioner, want to ensure the funds raised in Platte County are indeed strongly correlating with the services and products provided here.

“I think it would be good for the people of Platte County to know that their money being collected—because it is a pretty good size levy on property owners— is being spent here in Platte County, for Platte County.”

As of now, Potter says officials look at the “library system as a whole” rather than individual pieces of a pie. Potter said he would be willing to correlate the money being collected in Platte County with the amount spent in Platte County.

“I think what you'll find…is that people in Platte County are getting a very good deal,” he said.

Potter pointed out that the Mid-Continent Public Library provided about $153 million worth of services just last year, which amounts to about $4 in services received for every $1 they acquire from taxes paid.

The library system provides numerous educational programs. From family programs like the summer reading program that engages young minds to instructor-led on-line courses, the library will continue to provide the public with meaningful programs.

Just this year, the Mid- Continent Public Library conducted a pilot study that keeps track of educational data to better determine the overall effectiveness of the summer reading program.

“Reading helps to combat (educational) loss over the summer,” said Potter.

Not only has the recent data reflected that belief, but it also suggests it makes more of an impact among children with low socioeconomic status.

“Our studies are beginning to indicate that children living in high risk and low performing districts actually seem to gain more by participating in the summer reading program,” said Potter.
In the years ahead, the program will be expanded to additional areas and library branches, said Potter.