816 and 816 North

To thrive in a digital age, libraries offer much more than books to attract patrons

Updated: 2014-02-26T02:38:39Z

By MATT CAMPBELL

The Kansas City Star

The Espresso Book Machine holds many seeming contradictions.

It’s a machine to print books on paper in the age of e-readers. But it relies on digital content.

It can produce 3.4 million titles on demand and each in a matter of minutes. But it sits in the middle of a library surrounded by shelves that it could make obsolete.

It was created to break the model of book supply and distribution that has existed since Gutenberg invented the printing press.

But the Mid-Continent Public Library hopes it will encourage people to become their own publishers, printing their own original content.

“I’m excited about this,” said Mid-Continent Director Steven Potter. “I think a lot of people are going to do things with it, and not just take their crack at writing the great American novel, but things like collecting family recipes and interesting family stories.”

The Espresso Book Machine, brand new at the new Woodneath library branch in the Northland, is a symbol of the many ways modern public libraries are striving to remain relevant in the digital age.

The Kansas City Public Library has dived into a wide menu of public programming. The Cass County Public Library is struggling with falling circulation, but it has creative offerings for children.

“As long as the library can continue to offer information that people want, the format doesn’t really matter much,” said Jim Staley, a spokesman for Mid-Continent, which serves people in Clay, Platte and Jackson counties.

The book machine will become a centerpiece of the Story Center that is planned for the 1850s house adjacent to the Woodneath branch at 8900 N.E. Flintlock Road. As envisioned, the center will be a place where people can take writing workshops and produce their own works in digital, audio, video or traditional print formats.

The library is hoping to raise $3 million to $4 million to convert the house for the Story Center by 2015. In the meantime, the Espresso Book Machine has just recently become available for public use at the Woodneath branch.

Librarian Cody Croan demonstrated its abilities recently by producing a retail-ready paperback copy of “Moon-Face and Other Stories” by Jack London. The machine’s clear plastic sides allow you to watch as the pages are printed, folded and bound by glue to a full-color cover.

The book popped out in a tray on the side of the Espresso machine. The price was $19.75, including a copyright royalty of $8.50.

But library patrons can also print their own works, from poetry to family histories, for a flat fee of $5 plus 4.5 cents per page. The fee is necessary to offset the $120,000 the library board authorized to buy the Espresso Book Machine.

The library offers classes on formatting files, and a staff member assists in the printing.

Self-produced books could potentially be added to the Mid-Continent collection and the authors invited to do talks at various branches.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to lead you to best-seller-list success,” Croan said, “but it’s a very good start on that path.”

There is no other Espresso Book Machine in the Kansas City area.

“This is not just something for the Shoal Creek community or the Liberty community or the Northland,” Croan said. “It’s something for the whole Kansas City metro area.”


Mid-Continent, which has 35 locations in a district that includes nearly 800,000 people, is one of the largest public library systems in the country. The budget is about $41 million and comes almost exclusively from a property tax of 32 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

While total circulation has been relatively stable over the last few years, the e-book portion has exploded from just 22,000 in 2010 to more than 414,000 in 2012.

“Our online activity is growing by leaps and bounds, whereas a lot of our physical activity is tapering off or stabilizing,” said Potter. “And that is simply reacting to what people are saying they want.”

The Pew Research Center reports that in December 2011, 17 percent of adult Americans said they had read an e-book in the previous year. By last month, that figure had grown to 28 percent.

It’s still a book world, however. Mid-Continent’s spending for print acquisition last year was flat at about $3.5 million, but the budget for e-books jumped 50 percent from $500,000 to about $750,000, Staley said.

The library even teaches patrons how to use the various electronic devices that presumably spell doom for the printed book. The library offers a full range of free classes, from one titled “I’m Sitting in Front of the Computer,: Now What?” to workshops on using sophisticated software, which is also available at the library. Many of the tutorials are free online so patrons don’t even have to come in.

The library is embracing technology in other areas as well.

Mid-Continent, which has the largest freestanding public genealogy library in the country, is busily engaged in digitizing that collection in Independence.

The Midwest Genealogy Center holds a seminar each spring, and the theme this year is all about technology, like using hand-held scanners and flash drives. For more information, go to midwestgenealogycenter.org.

Another tech-based initiative is a partnership between the library and the Truman Heartland Community Foundation that has resulted in an online directory of area services for seniors and their caretakers. It is a crowd-sourced project in which people are encouraged to contribute their experiences and ratings of service providers.

The site is careconnection. mymcpl.org and, since its launch last summer, already has more than 260 listings.


Despite all the technology — or perhaps because of it — libraries are proving resilient as comfortable places for human interaction. Potter believes they are ideally suited to be the “third place” after home and work for Americans.

“It is a place to gather to form community, to discuss great ideas,” he said, “a nonthreatening place where all things are welcome.”

For Mid-Continent, that is borne out by a more than 20 percent growth in library visits since 2001. A large driver of that is the more than 60 “story times” every week for families, preschoolers, toddlers and even babies at the various branches. It’s no accident that Mid-Continent’s current strategic focus is on early literacy.

That’s great for Lori Zeller, a teacher turned stay-at-home mom who brings her two preschool boys to story time every Thursday morning at the Blue Springs North Branch, 850 N.W. Hunter Drive. She loves the vitality that story time leader Bobbi Dwyer brings.

“It’s not your typical quiet library time,” said Zeller. “They’re kids, and they need energy.”

The story times help her kids, 5-year-old Parker and 3-year-old Fletcher, stay interested in reading. They both ask to go to the library.

“My kids walk in that door, and everybody in that building greets them and knows them and knows us,” Zeller said.


Every Sunday, the Kansas City Public Library blasts to about 25,000 households an email full of activities for the week: lectures, theatrical productions, exhibits, recitations, films and more.

Overall library visits may have fallen in recent years, but attendance at events has exploded from about 16,000 in 1999 to more than 113,000. More than 46,000 people attended exhibits at the library in 2012-13, and more than 2,000 people attended films. C-SPAN coverage of numerous library events has greatly expanded the audience.

“One of the things we have discovered is that there is a tremendous hunger for book-based programs,” said Henry Fortunato, the Kansas City Public Library’s director of public affairs. “A chance to meet an author, to hear an author talk about his or her latest work.”

Library author events are free and popular. A recent appearance at the Plaza branch by Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution drew several hundred people.

And making history come alive is the aim of a signature program called “Meet the Past,” in which library Director R. Crosby Kemper III interviews actors portraying colorful Kansas City personalities. The popular program is aired on KCPT public television. The latest, to be taped this spring, will feature actor Walter Coppage as Martin Luther King Jr.

“I think our public affairs programming, our adult programming and lifetime learning program is the best in the country,” said Kemper, noting that many events are themed together to add depth and context. “I think we’re the only library in the country doing things that are this organized.”

The library’s book circulation has dropped more than 14 percent since 1999, even though per capita circulation has actually grown a bit as the population of the district has shrunk. But there were more than 79,000 e-books and audio books circulated in 2012-13, a figure that has nearly doubled every year since 2008.

The library this month introduced a new Netflix-like service called Hoopla that allows patrons to download and stream popular video and audiobooks for free.

The library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections, with its vast trove of local historical documents, is currently cataloging a windfall of materials regarding the Kansas City stockyards.

With practically nothing left of the actual yards in the West Bottoms, the 5,000 or so documents contain building plans, maps and other materials from the 1890s to the 1950s. They were donated to the library in 2008 by Bill Haw, owner of the Livestock Exchange Building.

“It’s a remarkable record of how that whole West Bottoms evolved over time,” said Eli Paul, director of special collections.

The library received a $101,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources to catalog the materials. An exhibit about the stockyards based on that material is to open at the Central Library this spring.

The Kansas City Public Library dates to 1873 and now encompasses a population of about 250,000 people. It has revenue of $18.5 million, most of which comes from a property tax levy of 5 cents. It consists of a Central Library downtown, a Country Club Plaza branch and eight other locations.

The library is entering a joint project with the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial and other area library systems from August through October to be called “The Great War, The Great Read.” The public will be encouraged to read Barbara Tuchman’s history “The Guns of August” and Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” to mark the centenary of the war.

The Great Read is to be accompanied by speakers, film screenings and a traveling exhibit.

Fortunato also is cultivating a program for the North-East branch of the library that focuses on the ethnic and cultural diversities in Kansas City’s old Northeast neighborhoods. Pilot programs have involved the Kurdish, Bhutanese and Vietnamese communities and have attracted 75 to 85 people each.

Another series of programs, planned for 2 p.m. on the second Saturdays in April, June, August, October and December, will include Haitian-Caribbean, Indian, Somali and Burmese cultures. The programs explore music, poetry, history and cuisine and will include first-person accounts from immigrants in Kansas City.

“If you look beyond the library’s circulation numbers, we’re about knowledge,” Fortunato said. “We’re about ideas. We’re getting out there into the community. That’s who we are. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but more often than not it seems to hit a chord.”


The Cass County Public Library saw its circulation plummet 21 percent in 2013, from 670,596 to 529,865, and finds itself challenged to provide library spaces and services that people want.

The Cass County library covers a population of about 100,000 people with a budget of $2.6 million and a levy of 15 cents.

That limits how many copies of popular books and e-books the library can offer, compared to larger library systems with bigger budgets.

“We do buy multiple copies of the hottest books, but we’ll buy 10 to 12 instead of 50 to 60,” said Seth Hershberger, assistant library director. “Our patrons will have to wait a little longer, which drives down our circulation numbers. We try to invest more in the things we can afford to do, like providing really good quality programming.”

But the library rents the space for all of its six branches, which means it hasn’t been able to design a custom facility.

“Most of our facilities, including the one in Belton, lack community rooms, separate areas for programming or quiet areas and adequate square footage for those things,” Hershberger said.

Despite the slide in circulation, however, the library still drew nearly 5,500 new patrons last year, nearly 20 percent of the total.

Many of those people are drawn to innovative programming like “Paws to Read,” in which children read to therapy dogs, and pajama story times, in which children wear their PJs and slippers to the library for evening activities.

“Our branches are still very busy, but I find the recent trend of declining use alarming and an indication that we need to do some evolving and adapting to the way people want to use libraries,” Hershberger said.

A starting point is an online survey that the library recently sent out to patrons.

“The hope is we’ll be able to look at that and make some decisions about what priorities we should have with the resources we have,” Hershberger said, “and also what we could say to people that would be really appealing to them and might encourage them to be supportive of an increase in the levy to support a better library system.”

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

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