No longer limited to ink and paper, Iowa’s public libraries are spending increasing amounts of money on new technologies, such as eBooks and iPads. The number of computers in these libraries increased 76 percent from 2003 and 2012.

But it has come at a cost.

Some items – notably magazines, newspapers, compact discs and reference materials such as encyclopedias – no longer are being purchased. Library operators are expanding the percentage of their budgets spent on technology. And staff training to understand expensive technology and maintaining it is a challenge, particularly at a time when budgets are razor-thin.

“There is no profession out there that hasn’t had to grapple with changes,” Linda Roe, deputy director of the Des Moines Public Library, said. “We’ve just focused on recognizing that there are certain things the library does well and has done well forever.”

Ten years ago, in fiscal 2003, Iowa libraries spent $2.12 million – or 17 percent of the spending on collections – on audio, video and electronic, downloadable collections. Just nine years later in fiscal 2012, they spent $4.38 million, which amounted to 32 percent of their collections spending, an IowaWatch analysis of budget data for every community public library in Iowa shows.

To keep up with these changes, librarians require more up-to-date training at statewide or national conferences, something that can cost libraries more than $2,000 for the most expensive training and travel.

Yet, “when library budgets are cut, funds for training are usually the first things to go, unfortunately,” Mary Heinzman, president of the Iowa Library Association, said.

Despite all the changes, checkouts in Iowa libraries are up 10 percent in the past 10 years, visits are up 30 percent and two of every three Iowans hold a library card, according to the library association.

Public library directors throughout Iowa are quick to defend the relevance of their positions and institutions during this technological revolution.

While admitting a decrease in demand for older technologies, like archived newspapers or CDs, they still provide the new technologies, including access to the Internet and downloadable eBooks.

“Librarians have turned into the organizer – not the sole provider – of information,” Roe said.


The North Liberty Community Library is wrapping up an expansion that tripled the library’s size but also gave its leaders a chance to make some upgrades. “In anticipation of the move, we got rid of musical CDs,” Director Dee Crowner said. “We’re also switching out the Dewey Decimal system for new subject-based catalogues.”

The library is moving to a subject-based system that allows readers to browse by topic instead of the numbers-based system that has been used for 130 years. The new system was adopted from the book industry and coined BISAC, for Book Industry Standards and Communications. It appeared for the first time in a public library in Arizona in 2007.

The North Liberty public library is spending increasing amounts on eBooks and audiobooks, as well as a small collection of iPads that will be available for patrons to check out and use within the library. Crowner said this fiscal year’s budget for downloadable collections is $14,000, or $11,000 more than in fiscal year 2005, when only $3,000 was allotted for downloadable items.

The library has hosted several events teaching patrons how to check out and download eBooks onto their e-reader.

Janet Lubben, North Liberty’s technology services librarian, works one-on-one with patrons and library staff on technological questions.

“My job is to figure out how I can help people, how I can explain it to them,” Lubben said. “So the learning curve is sometimes harsh because not every library has someone in the house where they can just go to them and say, ‘we need help with this.’”

One of Lubben’s biggest struggles in her 11 years at the library has been coping with the many variations of eReaders, varying from Amazon’s Kindle to Apple’s iPad. “They’re so different,” she said.

Lubben said keeping an in-house technology services librarian is the most cost-effective way for libraries to maintain technology. Libraries without that in-house expertise can spend around $5,000 a year on technology consultants. With Lubben on board, North Liberty’s library budget calls for spending $2,000 for technology consultants.


Funding the State Library of Iowa disperses to public libraries in Iowa decreased 15 percent, or $260,442, from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2007, the result of budget cuts the state library has absorbed.

Des Moines’ public library has dealt with budget readjustments over the past decade. It has six branches. But budget cuts have meant the library couldn’t afford to run all six at the same time. Instead of closing one center altogether, library leaders came up with a solution: closing each branch for a different day of the week.

Roe said the closings have made using the branches more inconvenient for people, but that is the lesser of two evils when compared to closing one branch completely. “It took a year to come up with this solution,” she said. “These things don’t happen overnight.”

An IowaWatch review of library budgets shows that Iowa libraries spent $1,483,876 on electronic and downloadable books in 2012. That is 10.4 percent of total spending on collections. It also is more than triple what was spent on electronic books in 2003 – $476,327.

Print collections still accounted for most of the library spending in the most recently available data, but the increase has been slight, from $8.4 million in fiscal 2003 to $9.4 million in fiscal 2012.

VIEW A SLIDESHOW OF CONSTRUCTION AT THE NORTH LIBERTY PUBLIC LIBRARY: Click the arrows to the upper right to advance to the next photo. Buttons on the upper left allow you to view a certain photo in the sequence.


As people have more access to information online, librarians are acting less as the gatekeepers of information and more as connoisseurs.

“Over the past 10 years, we have seen expertise in social media and administration emerging as a major professional skill,” said Jim Elmborg, associate professor at the University of Iowa School of Information and Library Science.

“As technologies in libraries change, we have to keep changing with them.”

Elmborg stressed an important concept in the changing world of libraries, which he has dubbed “satisficing.”

“Satisficing means that the information is not perfect information, but it’s just enough. This is what people can get on their own, and a lot of people are easily satisficed,” Elmborg said.

“When quality information matters to people, like in issues of health care or legal counsel, that’s when being satisficed isn’t enough, and that’s where the librarians are coming in.”


Heinzman, who in addition to being the Iowa Library Association president is director of St. Ambrose University Library in Davenport, said funding new training remains one of the biggest challenges librarians are facing.

Credit: St. Ambrose University

These training sessions aren’t cheap. The $2,000 costs, which sometimes can be even more, include conference registration, travel, lodging, food and other expenses. Moreover, librarians said, a face-to-face training conference almost always includes a pre-conference for a smaller group with a more specific training focus before merging with the larger conference group with broader topics.

“This can get very expensive,” the UI’s Elmborg said.

Heinzman and Elmborg said traveling to conferences usually is the most expensive way to attend these workshops, but also tends to be the most effective. Webinars, which involve sitting in front of a computer screen and watching someone talk from a slideshow, are the most cost-effective at prices, at around $30 to $40, but people tend to dislike them because they are less personal, Heinzman and Elmborg said.

The Des Moines Public Library has served as a statewide host for these workshops.

“What I found … is that professional development for librarians is chaotic,” Elmborg said. “Everybody recognizes that professional development is crucial in fast moving times, but no system is in place to meet the need.”

Anne Skaden has been the director of the Kalona Public Library since 1994. She was there when the library received its first computer. She knows all about trying to stay up to date.

“I have never felt prepared,” Skaden said. “I’ve had a lot of help along the way. And one step at a time, it’s been a very doable learning process.”

Skaden took one summer research class in 1980 during which she spent only 10 minutes per day using the computers, “because they were so expensive.”


The Kalona Public Library’s 2011-12 annual report states that computers at the library were used 6,047 times and patrons connected to the wireless Internet with their own computers 1,142 times.

The library had a 70 percent increase in eBook downloads/digital circulation last fiscal year.

In October of 2011, the library acquired a subscription with WILBOR, a website through which patrons can download audiobooks and eBooks.

Credit: Danielle Wilde/IowaWatch

“EBooks are by far our biggest technological draw,” Skaden said. “And the new subscription to WILBOR is very convenient because anyone with a public library card can access it at home. We still consider that using the library because it’s one of the services we offer.”

Skaden said there was a dip in the number of hard copy books checked out over the past year. But the use of programs such as children’s activities and one-on-one training to check out eBooks from WILBOR has increased.

“People still come to the library for different reasons, and this shows that we’re still offering other things in the library, like a quiet space or children’s programs.”

Though popular, eBooks are not perfect, Skaden said. A major challenge for public libraries is having all the hard copy books available as eBooks, and vice versa. Moreover, eBook publishers publish on different eReaders, which means libraries have to keep up with what publishers are doing.

Kalona has adopted a five-year plan to replace books that get worn out and buy new books as they are published. “Our number one goal is to improve the quality of the currency of our collections,” Skaden said. “Currently, children’s books don’t translate to eBooks, but if they get worn out here in the library, which they always do, we replace them.”

For Heinzman, keeping paper-and-ink books on the shelves remains a central part of maintaining a library.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that over the last few years, there has been a conscious change from books to electronic, while we’ve never totally done away with books,” she said.

Heinzman noted how some now-extinct technologies – like VHS tapes and floppy disks – quickly came and went in the technological world.

“The equipment needed to access these formats is always changing and going away. It would be difficult to find an 8-track player anywhere. Books have always been there, that’s why print is never going away,” she said.

Want to see how your library divides its collections budget?

Scroll through the spreadsheets below to see how your local library has divided up spending on new digital collections and print books.

Source: Iowa State Data Center


Often, a library’s use of technology is based upon the community it serves, and available financial resources. “A lot of rural libraries have learned to train themselves,” Heinzman said.

Libraries in Iowa’s 135 towns with fewer than 500 people had 161,136 eBooks in 2012, data from those libraries show. Meanwhile, the state’s 135 libraries — same number as smaller towns — in towns with populations of 1,000 to 2,499 carried 595,870 eBooks, or more than three times the amount that rural libraries had, the data show.

As demand for eBooks and online resources continues to reach into new populations and as new technologies make their debut, librarians across the state are learning to walk the line between old and new.

Skaden said figuring out how to spread the budget to cover new areas is a “learning process for everyone.” But she doubted changing technologies would alter the central role libraries play in a community.

“Librarians will always be relevant,” she said.

This IowaWatch story was published by The Gazette (Cedar Rapids), Sioux City Journal, The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls), North Liberty Leader, Algona Upper Des Moines, (Detroit Free Press) and (Library Journal) and was featured on KXIC AM-800 radio.

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