Little Rock voters will be asked Nov. 9 to approve a millage increase to support the Central Arkansas Library System. The 0.5 mill increase would raise Little Rock’s rate from 3.3 to 3.8 mills. A millage rate represents the amount of tax paid per every $1,000 of a property’s assessed value. Early voting begins Nov. 2. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is the revenue that would be generated by this millage increase important for the library?
The library needs to address a structural problem in its revenue stream. If you look back to the last time there was an increase to the operational tax in 2007, and you take the revenues since then, which have grown a little bit, and you compare that to increase in expenses and adjust that all for inflation, there’s a growing gap.
One significant driver is that the pricing model for buying digital content is so much less favorable to libraries than the print model. The company OverDrive is the middleman in these transactions. Digital publishers and OverDrive are exacting a toll on libraries and public schools that’s all being borne by taxpayers. We can’t solve that problem; I wish there was some sort of solution, some type of regulatory or congressional resolution, that would deal with digital content the way a case in the Supreme Court of the United States over 100 years ago dealt with print. Until that case, it was not clear that libraries could do what they do with print books.
If we buy a copy of Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” for $17 or $18, and I think we bought 20 or 25 copies of it when it first came out, we can circulate that until it falls apart or there’s no longer demand for it. When we buy copies of the book digitally — $55 for the e-book, about $65 for the audiobook — it’s a license, and once the meter clicks over 26 times or a certain period of time passes, we have to buy it again. When I got here in 2015, the digital component of the total book budget was about 12%. It’s now 27%.
What about programming?
We need to do more of what we’ve been trying to do, in terms of connecting to underserved communities. We hired two liaisons, one to serve the African American community and one to serve the Latino community. We need to do more of those kinds of things to get out in the community for people who can use the library but aren’t generally aware of it or don’t have a habit of coming to it. We also need some more in the way of upgrading our hardware, computers and such that we provide for the community who are on the wrong side of the digital divide. We saw this in the pandemic. So many things were shuttered, but the library reopened after June of last year, and scores and scores of people were coming to our branches to connect to the internet, to get photocopies of things they needed for benefits, to get a notary on some important document — there really wasn’t another place to do it.
Would it affect staffing?
Since I got here we’ve made an effort to be fiscally responsible. We reduced the number of people on the payroll by about 8% by some efficiencies I thought were important. We brought in-house some things that were more expensive when outsourced. But one thing we haven’t done very well is paying our people, particularly at the bottom, a competitive rate. We’ve got 63 people making less than $13 an hour. When Amazon and Costco are paying people more than the library, that says something about our community.
If taxpayers approve this, it will generate about $2.3 or $2.4 million of operational revenue every year. We would earmark about $800,000 of that for upgrading salaries on the bottom end and about $400,000 for dealing with technology and outreach. Another substantial chunk would go toward deferred maintenance.
Of all our longstanding institutions, libraries seem to me to be among the most adept at adapting. Gaze into the crystal ball, how will the CALS 20 or 50 years in the future look different?
I’d be presumptuous to assert much. I do think books aren’t going away; they’re just going to be in different formats. Even though people are going to continue to read, they’re going to read printed materials in fewer instances.
Because the library has evolved, it’s been respected in a lot of quarters for transcending many things that otherwise divide us, socioeconomically or politically. Because of that, it has a lot of credibility and that allows it to be a source of information on a whole number of fronts.
We handed out over 175,000 meals during the pandemic, along with a lot of other allies, to help deal with the shutdown of schools and nutrition programs. I think libraries are going to continue to be seen as community resources that fit whatever challenge comes along. I think that’s one of the things libraries are particularly good at because they’re close to the street and they hear things. We were one of the first, probably 25 or 30 libraries in the country, to hire a social worker.
Job: Executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System
From: Nashville (Howard County)
Reading: Jonathan Alter’s “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life,” Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery By Another Name.”