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Check out the future at the Johnson County Public Library

Updated: 2013-07-18T20:28:24Z

By MATT CAMPBELL

The Kansas City Star

Johnson Countians love their public library.

So much so that circulation has not plummeted in this e-age that some believed would eventually make obsolete those buildings full of shelves with printed books.

Circulation of material in all formats at the Johnson County Public Library was actually up more than 5 percent this spring over last. Per capita circulation is about 15, meaning that’s how many check-outs or downloads occur in a year for each one of the 431,000 people in the library district.

There were nearly 2.8 million visits to the library in 2011, which officials like to say is more than tickets sold for the Chiefs, the Royals and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art combined.

Still, the library is at a crossroads.

Striving to maintain relevance in a fast-changing world, it began offering e-books late last year and now offers patrons two databases of music to download. This summer the library rolled out an e-magazine service. All the library branches have wi-fi, and the system provides free access to computers and the Internet.

The library still devotes the majority of its collection budget to printed material and DVDs. But what will libraries look like in 10 or 15 years? Because no one really knows, Johnson County library officials are asking patrons for help as we all feel our way into the future.

Of course, the invitation is online.

The district is asking patrons to participate in a survey that will help determine its course. About 1,500 people had done so by late May, prompting officials to extend the exercise from a planned cutoff in early June through the rest of the summer.

The professional library managers could have shaped their own strategy for the future, with input from a library board appointed by the Johnson County Commission.

“Or, you can take another course and reverse the hierarchy,” said Johnson County Librarian Sean Casserley, who took the helm last year. “You can go out to the community and engage them and engage the staff. Since we felt our role is to provide services to the community, we thought we should understand really in depth what the community wanted.”

The library bought a software product called MindMixer to be the portal through which patrons can voice their opinions about the library. It was developed primarily for counties and municipalities, and Johnson County is thought to be among the first library systems to use it. It is easily accessible at www.jocolibraryconversation.com

The trending suggestions so far:

• Bring back the bookmobile, which the library hasn’t had for many years.

• Build the planned Monticello branch for fast-growing western Shawnee, already.

• Commit to fostering early childhood literacy.

That last one is already a key focus of the library and will continue to be.

“When you hear that from the community and you’re already doing it, it reaffirms that you’re on the right track,” Casserley said.

But here’s another online suggestion, from a patron named Julie, for the library to mull over:

“I want a coffee shop!”


Johnson Countians take their library seriously.

“Neighborhood libraries like Cedar Roe are the linchpins of civilization,” one patron wrote recently on the MindMixer survey. “I am not kidding and I am not exaggerating.”

That person, and many others, are concerned about the future of the Cedar Roe branch in Roeland Park, which is the northeastern-most of the 13 library locations in the system.

A 2009 facilities master plan called for a consolidation of Cedar Roe, 5120 Cedar St. in Roeland Park, and the Antioch branch, 8700 Shawnee Mission Parkway in Merriam, at a new, unspecified location. Cedar Roe was built in 1969 and does not meet modern code or disability requirements. It does not have fire-suppressing sprinklers. It will soon need roof repairs.

But that 2009 plan, which also included building three other new branches and other expensive capital projects, was stymied by the recession. Now, the county commissioners want a new facilities plan.

About 50 people showed up at a Thursday night meeting recently at the Sylvester Powell Jr. Community Center in Mission to hear Casserley explain that process. Most of them favored keeping Cedar Roe, or at least keeping a library branch in Roeland Park.

Leslie Seifert-Cady said Cedar Roe had been her family’s library for 21 years and she loved walking there with her kids.

“I think that’s an important factor to consider,” she said. “It’s a neighborhood library. It’s the only library in the northeast corner of the county and that’s really important to me.”

Lili Shank warned that losing the library would be one more blow contributing to the “doughnut effect” as people leave older areas for further and further suburbs with more amenities.

Anne Hogan noted that Roeland Park residents pay taxes that support the library system, but said she would be willing to pay even more to keep a library in Roeland Park.

A decision to build any new branch library likely would require a tax increase.

Casserley assured the audience that no decision about the future of Cedar Roe has been made. The library board of trustees and administrative staff met all day last Wednesday to discuss library facilities and begin setting criteria for the future. Only after that is done will officials will begin to make tactical decisions.

Another hot topic for library lovers is the lack of one in western Shawnee. Land for a Monticello branch has been acquired near Kansas 7 and Shawnee Mission Parkway. Until one can be built, the library has begun offering story time programs for kids at the Mill Creek Activity Center, 6518 Vista Drive, and they are packed. The library is considering installing a Redbox-like vending system in western Shawnee for people to check out books.

There also is discussion of closing the Lackman branch, 15345 W. 87th Street Parkway in Lenexa, in favor of opening one in Lenexa City Center at 87th Street Parkway and Renner Boulevard.

The library system experienced staff reductions and cutbacks in hours a couple of years ago, made necessary by drops in property tax revenue that is the library’s main source of income. Several branches were closed on Sundays and they all closed at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays. Cedar Roe was closed on Fridays.

The library has since been able to restore many of those hours, and this year it hired people to fill 10 vacancies left by a county government early-retirement offer. Eight more positions will remain unfilled through the rest of the year, however, as the economic recovery remains uncertain.

The library system’s budget this year is $23.6 million but it will probably be 2017 before the library gets back to where it was, financially, in 2009, Casserley said.


Alice Schultz uses the Johnson County Library a lot. She likes to come to the Central Resource library to read on paper Investor’s Business Daily and The Wall Street Journal. Recently she saw something in the library’s summer calendar booklet that caught her eye. It was called “MakerSpace” and was described as a somewhat magical place where “a 10-year-old can teach classes and a 70-year-old can play with toys.”

More specifically, MakerSpace was billed as a place to be creative: websites, podcasts, music, animation, green-screen videos, business cards, circuit boards and more.

“I saw this in the (calendar) and thought it was too interesting to not check out,” said Schultz, who dropped in on a recent Monday and was given a brief introduction by librarian Brian Oertel.

MakerSpace debuted this spring in a repurposed room near the information desk at the Central Resource library, 9875 W. 87th St. It is equipped with iMacs, cameras and other pieces of equipment and computer programs that many people might not normally have access to. There is even a MakerBot 3D printer, although it is temperamental and often out of commission.

As a real estate agent in Lenexa, Schultz was interested in tools she could use professionally, but she acknowledged being a little bit intimidated.

“I need to take some professional pictures that are a lot more creative than what I’ve had in the past,” she said. “I’d like to design a new website. I would benefit from a little practice and just messing around. I don’t know how to put the ingredients in to get the results I want.”

Librarian Meredith Nelson, who had a lot to do with MakerSpace, said staff and volunteers can help, and there are reference books and tutorials available.

“But the idea of MakerSpace is an opportunity to come in and tinker and play,” Nelson said.

It may have looked like Jamie Pierre Jackson of Overland Park was playing on an iMac recently, but he and his brother were serious about their computer-generated animation project.

“I’m designing a character for our entertainment company,” Jackson, 22, said while attending to details of a figure called The Scarecrow, which he hopes will catch the interest of a large studio like Disney or Universal. His 24-year-old brother, DeAndre Jackson, was engrossed in another aspect of the project at a computer nearby.

“I do have an iMac at home but I don’t have these programs,” Jamie Jackson said, referring to Adobe Creative, Dreamweaver and others available at MakerSpace. “It’s a big benefit to be able to come in here and use this. These programs are really expensive.”

MakerSpace can be reserved for up to two hours at a time and up to three months in advance. On Monday evenings, from 5 to 9 p.m., the space is kept open to anyone. A special program to dissect and examine electronic devices is planned for 4 to 6 p.m. on Aug. 12. Bring your own electronics and tools.


The Johnson County Library broadened its step into the digital world this summer with the introduction of an e-magazine service called Zinio, which offers free access to page-by-page views of titles from Good Housekeeping to Popular Mechanics and Mother Jones to Skateboarder.

That was partly driven by the sense that digital tablets are emerging as the dominant electronic device, eclipsing desktop computers.

“The (tablet) format suits magazines so well,” said Casserley, “and this service allows you to download the magazine and you keep it. There’s a limit of 250 titles but there is no limit to downloads.”

The library is paying $30,000 a year to Zinio to offer the service to its patrons, but by doing so it is greatly expanding its collection because it would be impractical to offer so many magazines physically at all 13 library locations. Zinio is accessible from home with a library card and a PIN.

It’s a similar model to Freegal, a downloadable music database available through the Johnson County Library and others. Freegal has a limit of three songs per week, but usage has spiked.

Freegal is just one of two music databases offered by the library. The other, called Naxos, is geared toward classical and jazz recordings.

In all, the library offers more than 100 online databases for patrons in addition to the nearly 1 million physical items in its collection.

Incidentally, those items have been modernized with bar codes for automated sorting for re-shelving and for inventory management. The project has resulted in a 70 percent reduction in thefts.

Another way the library is embracing the digital age is by starting an online summer reading program this year and aiming for not just kids but teens and adults as well. A game-playing element was added by allowing kids to earn e-badges and prizes for reading, logging their tallies and even posting book reviews.

In just the first 10 days, officials were gratified that about 900 people registered for the online reading program: 400 kids, 200 teens and 300 adults.

“We made it a family activity,” said Kasey Riley, director of communications for the library system. “Why would we want to relegate reading to just kids?”


Casserley, who was information technology manager for the similarly sized Allen County, Ind., library system before coming here, sees libraries as social levelers.

“Rich people tend not to use libraries,” he said. “They can buy the computers and they can buy all the books they want. But where libraries meet a need is with the middle class to the poor.”

United Community Services of Johnson County reports that nearly one in five residents here lives in low-income households, defined as up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level or an income of $38,000 for a family of three. The number in 2000 was one in 10.

Casserley points to studies that show children’s early exposure to language greatly affects their development. That is key to the library’s “6 by 6” program, which emphasizes six important pre-reading skills children need before they learn to read about age 6. The story times are funded in part by the Johnson County Library Foundation and the Kansas Health Foundation. About 120,000 parents and children attended them throughout the library district in 2011.

The “6 by 6” program got a big boost this spring with a $5,000 grant from the Greater Kansas City Hispanic Development Fund, which will allow the library to print more materials in Spanish.

That is important, said Casserley, who recently met with the Mexican consulate in Kansas City and learned that 40 percent of the people seeking services there reside in Johnson County. Literacy is perhaps the biggest challenge to this population.

The Oak Park library branch at 9500 Bluejacket St. has a bilingual staff and offers bilingual story times as well as a Spanish-language information phone line.

Society is getting more complex and the way to navigate is with information.

“That’s a core value that we have as part of the American dream,” Casserley said. “Education is our pathway out of poverty.”

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com

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