Sunday, July 2, 2000 - Section B, page 6

Napoli: Window of opportunity ahead, if Harris wants library

Donald J. Napoli, director, stands in front of the new fiction books at the St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend.

Tribune Photo/JOE RAYMOND

Donald J. Napoli, director of the St. Joseph County Public Library, is this week's Newsmaker.

Q. Why, in your opinion, did Harris Township reject an opportunity to join the St. Joseph County Public Library?

A. Higher taxes was the primary reason, even though our own survey of Harris Township citizens after the petition drive showed that the majority would like to have a public library in Granger. Even those who said they would not use it often themselves wanted a public library.

I believe the concern over rising property taxes eclipsed the desire for a library. Many seemed to believe that purchasing our non-resident fee card would be cheaper than the paying the property tax. They believed this in spite of a study prepared by Harris Township residents just before the petition drive that showed 70 percent of the households there would be paying less in property taxes than the fee card.

Our postmortem survey also showed that most Harris residents opposing the offer did not have a library card to any public library and had little knowledge of the services available. Only one-fifth visited a public library in the previous year, but over half visited book stores in that year. What they were paying out of their pockets each year for a limited number of new books and tapes probably exceeded what they would pay in taxes for unlimited access to the same materials at a public library. I don't think many took these factors into consideration. All they saw were the additional tax dollars.

What is sad for me is that by now Harris Township could have had a large new attractive, high-tech public library facility in downtown Granger similar to the one we just opened in Centre Township. As part of the petition drive we promised to work with citizens of that community to plan and build a branch similar to the one in Centre, and to complete it at about the same time that Centre opened. Two years after the Harris petition drive Centre Township has its new library, an absolute "Wow!" to the community using it, while the citizens of Harris Township don't even have plans.

Q. Will the issue be raised again?

A. This is the responsibility of the residents of Harris Township. Indiana State library law for an unserved township to join a public library district requires at least 10 percent of the registered voters of the township to sign a petition to join the library district and the signed petition must be presented to the Library Board of the district they want to join and to the trustee of the unserved township. Unless a counter-petition with more signatures is filed within 30 days after the petition is filed, that's all that needs to be done for it to take effect and all residents have immediate access to that library.

If a group of registered voters from Harris wanted to carry another petition to raise this issue again, there is nothing to stop them. According to the law, this can be done once every year until it eventually gets passed. No number of defeats can end the attempts. If any Harris residents are interested, I am certainly willing to discuss it with them. The ball is always in their court.

This issue cannot be placed on a ballot, as some Harris Township residents suggested the first time we went through this. That's not how it is done according to Indiana's public library law. It must be a petition signing and collecting process. A window of opportunity is coming up, however, this November. If enough Harris Township residents are willing to carry a petition at the polls in Harris Township on Election Day, collecting signatures from registered voters as they approach or walk away from the polls, standing at least 50 feet away from the polls (a legal requirement for any soliciting at the polls), in just one day they probably could collect signatures from enough Harris voters to get their own public library in short order.

Q. When the library is excising old books, are any old favorites lost? What are the criteria for selecting these books?

A. We have several criteria we use when withdrawing books and other materials from our collections. We take physical condition into account as well as the timeliness of the material. Non-fiction, especially, needs to be timely because we live in an era when we have access to a wealth of information that is constantly changing. Public libraries try to keep up with these changes. Also, there is only so much shelf space, with all the titles printed annually, so some books must be pulled off the shelves on a regular basis to make room for new materials. Physical condition of the material is also a factor. Some books are just lost because people don't return them; others wear out from use and cannot be replaced because they are out of print.

The number of times a book or tape has been checked out over a period of years, along with the number of additional copies of the same title, are other factors in deciding what to retain. We may purchase multiple copies to meet initial demand, but later, when the demand falls off, we'll withdraw the multiple copies to sell at our book sales and keep one or two copies.

We still have lots of old favorites around. We do keep and maintain the classics. We do purchase and keep for at least 10 years every title declared each year by the New York Times as "Notable Books of the Year," even if some of them are not used. By their very definition, old favorites are books people still want to read again and again, so we will keep them and repair or replace them when they wear out. It only makes sense to keep the things people want and need and enjoy. If a public library isn't used, what good is it?

On a per-capita basis, SJCPL is one of the most heavily used public libraries in the nation, with over 100,000 repeat customers. This has a lot to do with why SJCPL was ranked as one of the best public libraries in the United States. The people of our taxing district get their money's worth out of their public library. We make it so.

Q. Would a cutback in funds for the Federal Depository Libraries program affect the St. Joseph County Public Library? Why, or why not?

A. This issue does not directly affect us since SJCPL is not a depository for federal documents. While the local universities reported in the Tribune's June 19 article that people use their paper collections, our staff has been able to handle most questions by accessing these documents directly over the Internet in their electronic format. In addition to personal, professional search assistance, we also provide "hot links" from our web pages to these resources and even conduct periodic classes for the public in learning how to search and use the electronic formats in place of the paper formats. With access to the Internet, every public library in the nation can now become a depository of all government documents and we are reaching the point where every public library in the U.S. is or will soon be connected.

Q. Your library system has consistently high ratings in national surveys. Whom do you credit for this success?

A. First of all, we did not achieve this overnight. I think part of the "secret" to our success is that we always work at trying to be better. While we're finishing one project, we're constantly looking forward to the next. We have employees who are always scanning the horizon for new technology or for ways to make our services more useful to the people we serve. We also have a large crew of community volunteers who generously donate their time and energy in many areas of our library system to augment and extend services beyond the limits of our budget.

We're very proud of what we've achieved and we have a wonderful group of people who've worked very hard as a team to get us where we are.

In our recently updated long range plan, we've deliberately set out to become "the best public library for our community," not necessarily the best in the nation even though we ranked 2nd among all U.S. public libraries serving populations of 100,000 to 250,000. Our thinking is that if we work at being the best public library we can be for this community, maintaining our high national ranking will follow naturally.

Our new long-range plan is ambitious, but we really think one reason we're here is to enhance the quality of people's lives. So whether the issue is access to the Internet or writing a resume or just finding a fun book to read at the beach...we want to be the place where people come to find what they need, what they want and expect for their tax dollars.

Over the years we have also gradually increased our materials collections and budgets for books and other formats from 9 percent in 1977 to 20 percent in 1988 of all expenditures, and have maintained 20 percent ever since. This has allowed us to expand into a new formats, like videos in 1983, electronic periodicals on CD's in 1985, CD-ROM software in 1995, full-text electronic periodicals and newspaper over the net in 1997, and DVD collections in 1999. This month SJCPL will provide access to recently published electronic books that can be checked out over the Internet from netLibrary by our library card holders. Despite all these new formats, we still buy a lot of books and ranked 8th in the nation not too long ago in the number of books purchased per 1,000 residents.

We have also enormously increased the number, variety and quality of library programs for all ages (like our annual "Science Alive!", Ghost Story and Poetry Writing contests) and these too have brought state and national awards. We have added new buildings, new equipment and state-of-the-art technology, leading the nation with the first public library Web site on the Internet in 1994.

We continuously look at our public's use of these resources to see if we are being successful in responding to what the public wants.

Our new long-range plan also places strong emphasis on staff and public training in the emerging information technologies, e-commerce, distant learning, and the effective use of electronic information resources. Although we have always tried to do this, we are also placing even more emphasis on merchandising our materials and services, making them easier to find and use, and creating library spaces that are friendly, inviting and comfortable.

In addition to an excellent staff, I also attribute our success to Library Board and Friends Board members who have supported the staff's ideas and efforts to give the people of this community public library services that strive for excellence, and who have also brought to the table their own community leadership qualities and insights.

We have been blessed with a community that supports us when we want to renovate a branch or build a new one ( like the Francis Branch in 1977, the four city branches in 1983, the expansion of the Main Library in 1992, the addition of two mini-branches in North Liberty and Lakeville in 1990, the Readmobile service to at-risk children in 1996, and the new Centre Township Branch in 1999). Just as we have been fortunate to have employees and community volunteers who are oriented to provide our customers with quality services, we also have many users who love their public library and come back through its doors again and again in greater numbers, showing appreciation for what our staff, our volunteers, our Library Boards have tried to serve them over the years.

To see SJCPL's new long range plan, visit our web site at: