When Did Ann Arbor's Library Get So Cool?

Wander into the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library and you can't help but notice the vibe. Browsing the shelves, foraging through the DVD  racks, determinedly tapping keys at computer screens are noticeably happy people of every age, race and personal style. When you consider that the library is a municipal resource funded by local tax dollars it becomes all the more impressive to see so many users enthusiastically taking advantage of its services. It makes you wonder how much the Secretary Of State's Office or the city's Planning Department could learn from librarians.

Much like many local cafes, it's clear that the downtown library has become a community unto itself, attracting a rich tapestry of patrons. And so the question has to be asked: When did the Ann Arbor District Library
system get, well, so cool? And how? 

Was it the installation of banks of internet-connected computers backed by a ready-to-help staff? The multi-purpose website with access to state-wide materials, research tools, news, events and patron commentary? The way the AADL has appropriated the practices of distant cousins, gigantic book sellers like Border's
 and Barnes and Noble, with tools and displays and layouts that facilitate and even encourage browsing?

Whatever it is, it's actively providing the community with a new sense of place, crucial to the evolution and sustenance of a community. In many ways, the AADL can
be defined as a near perfect example of a "third place." (The first and second places are the home and workplace.) According to Wikipedia, third places, serve as "'anchors' of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction." Such gathering places serve current societal needs - and, like the AADL, are typically free, inexpensive, and most importantly: accessible, both to different social groups and geographically speaking. It's an indication of Ann Arbor's vibrant scene that the town has created and nurtured a third place of this quality.

Josie Parker just might be the culprit
she's pushed the AADL to flourish as an accessible and innovative resource for the community. As its system director for the last six and half years, she has overseen the formation of three additional branch libraries, helped to increased service hours, and assisted in refining the AADL's role in the community. According to Parker, the AADL mission is to guarantee access to materials and digital resources as well as to serve the community as a gathering place.

"Our mission with the library may be simple, but it is complicated to produce," says Parker of the library's ongoing development.

Library usage demonstrates an enthusiastic audience for AADL resources.  Parker reports from library-gathered statistics that of the 155,000 people in the AADL's district, 84,000 have library cards. That's 54% of the population. 

And usage is growing. In 2007, the library system saw a 12% increase from 2006 in building visits -- 1.6 million visits, says Parker, who notes that the growth trend has been similar throughout previous years as well.

"Our increase in circulation between 2006 and 2007 was 37%," says Parker. That amounted to 7 million transactions. Of these, it's surprising, and perhaps heartening for die-hard bookies, to note that books are still the most popular material - 2 million circulated in 2007. DVDs came in a close second - just under 2 million -- and CDs comprised 700,000 of the total transactions. 

But perhaps the most significant growth can be measured is use of the AADL's website: According to Parker there were 4 million visits to the website in 2007 - a whopping 131% increase over 2006.

Part of the library's dynamic growth is in its programming - the events it holds at its locations. In fact, the library is much more than a provider of circulating materials. It's increasingly a venue for speakers, community organizations and a wide variety of events.

"Our programming here has become a major part of what we do," explains Parker. "We have become an important participant in community support and facilitation."

Even hard-to-please teens are getting programming directed at their interests. In addition to the incredible line-up of visiting authors, the library hosts such wonders as computer gaming competitions, comic book drawing lessons, story book times -- and a thousand other attractions. This June alone library events will run the gamut from guests like Levi Meeuwenberg, a participant on American Ninja Challenge, to Brazilian samba superstar, Gilberto Gil.   

Laura Pershin Raynor, youth services librarian at the AADL, says that the Ann Arbor community has come to expect the unexpected from the library. 

"We attempt to surprise and educate with our changing displays and unusual programs," says Raynor.

And the kids are being drawn in. 

On the forefront of "video-gaming in the library" that is sweeping the country, the AADL is drawing teenagers who have never walked through the library door before. Rayner says that such programs are drawing repeat visits from teens as well, as they come back to check out more library resources they never knew existed. A recent poetry slam that drew over 200 teens from around the country demonstrated that a library doesn't have to be dull, and can indeed be a noisy, bustling place. Library patrons have been not only tolerent, but receptive to the "exciting vibe," says Raynor. Of course, the library assures that patrons who want to avoid noise and activity have quiet, more "traditional" library spaces and retreats all over the library. 

Last summer, the library displayed a tank of live lamprey eels in an aquatic tank entitled, "Great Lakes Science Today." The display drew both fascination and repulsed reactions, says Raynor, but patrons were able to see threats to the freshwater ecosystem up close. It was an original and effective way for those passing through to achieve a higher awareness and therefore stronger connection with each other and the Michigan community at large. 

And some activities just draw people together for fun: This summer, the AADL is breaking all boundaries again with the Teen Graffiti Contest, held in the AADL staff parking lot. And the popular Dancing Babies program starts this Saturday - featuring the Hokey Pokey and the Limbo for babies.  It's true - there's something for everyone. 

The library is also becoming a hub for community and nonprofits without budgetary flexibility or meeting places. not only does the library provide meeting rooms but if it deems a group's programming to be of value, it will provide the venue and some advertising for the event.

According to Parker, in 2007 the AADL saw 46,000 program attendees. A recent visit by Cokie Roberts of National Public Radio, for instance, drew an attendance of over 1,300 people, for instance.

The Virtual Universe of the AADL

Between the advanced online request system, self-checkout stations, and self-serve hold shelves, you never have to slow down and interact with a human being at the library again, if you so desire. 

The system's website is carefully designed, however, to encourage self-motivated searches and allow patrons to request materials without setting foot in the library. You can determine where to pick up a requested item, and then receive an email when it is ready. Patrons can manage their accounts, monitoring due dates and renewals remotely. You can even pay late fees over the Net.

"We've received national and international attention for our design," says Parker. "Unlike other library sites, it's straightforward."

Michael Henry, a self-described geek who grew up in New Orleans and Detroit, agrees with Parker. As a development officer for the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, he spends time in the AADL downtown library to get a break from the campus environment.

"The AADL website is great compared to other library sites I've used," says Henry. "It's simple, clean and uncluttered, with lots of nested information." 
A Greener Library

The AADL is also setting an example for the Ann Arbor community - in its pursuit of green building and sustainability best practices. The Mallets Creek branch sports a year-round energy-saving green roof and a storm water system. It was even awarded the 2005 American Institute of Architects Michigan Award for Sustainable Design. According to Parker, the library's three new locations (Mallets Creek, Pittsfield, Traverwood) use daylight sensors to determine how much electric light is used indoors moment to moment. Perhaps one of the most amazing architectural features of the branch buildings is that they are designed inside and out to conserve energy on both heating and cooling costs, valuable attributes in Michigan's fickle climate.

Scheduled to open June 30th, 2008, the Traverwood branch -- the newest of the branches --  was built with lumber from Ash trees that were victim to the
Emerald Ash Borer. Ironically, the pattern left by its fatal sub-bark permutations describes an elegant tracery almost, Parker says, like "lace." Traverwood will display examples of Ash that were harvested whole in the hopes of educating visitors about this devastation long into the future.

Though its smaller locations are definitely state-of-the-art, the AADL main library itself may be ready for an upgrade. Ann Arbor native Tyler Kinley, a development associate for Ypsilanti-based
Phoenix Company, frequents the Main Library location for books, graphic novels and DVDs. Although Kinley loves the selection of his favorite media, he points out what many are already saying: that in terms of aesthetic appeal, the downtown location is lagging behind. Kinley cites the impressive, natural light-rich Seattle Public Library as an example of how form can successfully unite with function in a public institution.

Many share Kinley's vision of a more appealing downtown library, and in fact, plans for improvements to the Main Library are in the works. With the completion of
Traverwood Parker and her fellow AADL colleagues are busying themselves with the future of the main location, and whether a rebuild or merely a renovation will best serve the AADL's larger mission. Yet not everyone is convinced the downtown library needs change at taxpayer expense. 
In 2008, says Parker, $11,923,000 in operating costs will come from taxpayer money.  However, it shouldn't be news to locals.

"We levy the funds because the voters approved this in the mid-nineties," explains Parker to critics. "At that time 80% of voters said 'Yes, you can tax us at this rate for a library, and these taxes can be collected in perpetuity.'"

Other library funding comes from the State of Michigan Penal Fines - $275,000.00; grants and gifts - $100,000; and library fine revenue - $400,000.  Parker predicts the library's operating budget for 2008 will be about $13 million. 
The library has a mission - and that mission is not isolated from its main source of funding - the taxpayers of Ann Arbor. As a public entity paid for by the people, the library serves its users in one of the most measurable, direct ways imaginable. The numbers Parker reports don't lie. Between circulating materials, providing training and education programming, giving access to news, Internet and archival resources, the AADL provides residents with the kind of ownership that isn't present in other communities. And it does it with the kind of vision and evolution we rarely experience from our public services.

"The library is a vital community building that will always be open and welcoming to all ages," says Raynor.

A quick visit on any day of the week proves that Ann Arbor residents are getting the message.

Leia Menlove is an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in the Ann Arbor Business Review and Mind, Body & Soul Magazine.  Her previous story for Concentrate was Art Counts In Washtenaw County.


An Interactive World Map in the Children's Section at the AADL-Ann Arbor

Josie Parker-Director of the AADL-Ann Arbor

Father and Daughter Check out the Aquarium in the Kid's Connection -AADL-Ann Arbor

The Library Features Monthly Art Exhibits-AADL-Ann Arbor

AADL Website

Traverwood Rendering (Courtesy AADL website)

The Teen Room at the AADL-Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He bought a canoe this week.

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