Corinne Hill has been the interim director of libraries for the city of Dallas since June of last year. That, she says, will change soon enough: Either she will be made the permanent director, or the city will install someone else in that position. City Manager Mary Suhm acknowledges as much: She tells Unfair Park today that the city hired a search firm last week to find someone to fill the position, with the intention of having that national look-see finished by the end of November.
"And I'm OK with it," says Hill. "The community needs to be involved in that position. I'll apply, of course. It's a cool job, but I get what they're doing. It's important for them to do it this way. But I'm really enjoying the challenges of turning us in a different direction, which is really important, and keeping us moving forward when things aren't that great. I'm energized by it. I'm odd that way."
Hill, who came to Dallas from the Denton library system, was assistant director of resource management till the director's position came open last year. She was as good a fit as anyone: Hill had taken the lead when it came to discussing back-to-back-to-back budget cuts, telling the Library Journal during the particularly awful bloodletting of '09 that "we will remain relevant in our communities" and that "we are bigger than our budget." And she's overseen the system's transition from cash-strapped to making-due: Just this week, she says, the last of the new self-checkout stations, paid for by Friends of the Dallas Public Library and Atmos, will be installed in the branches, which will free up librarians to do something a bit more ... useful, let's say.
But there will be fewer full-timers in coming weeks: Even though City Manager Mary Suhm's proposed FY2011-12 budget reinstates around $340,000 for materials downtown (to around $2 million total, a 20-percent hike over the current budget), it's just a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what it was only a few years ago. And the budget doesn't fund 84 full-time positions at the libraries -- six at the downtown Central Library, the rest scattered amongst the neighborhood branches. It also doesn't restore operating hours, leaving most libraries dark for all but 40 hours during the week.
Hill -- who's ebullient even in a down economy and says things like, "You do what you gotta do to keep it going, man" -- says the extra money added to the materials budget is cause for cautious optimism. "But we're not living in a vacuum," she says."Library cuts are happening everywhere. I am just hopeful it's coming back."
During her tenure, Hill has attempted to transition the DPL system into the digital age: Just last week she took part in a Library Journal chat about the "The Post Recession Library: Why Technology is No Longer a Luxury," which also featured Syracue University professor R. David Lankes -- the very same prof she tried to introduce to the city council, which ditched out on a Quality of Life Committee meeting to go meet the Dallas Mavericks upon their triumphant return from Miami earlier this summer.
Says Hill, maybe libraries don't need to open early; maybe they don't need to be fully staffed, so long as the information's maintained and made available somehow.
"One of the things I think has been really interesting with this experience is that we're forced to find different ways to provide services," she says. "So, yeah, you can't reach anyone till noon, but we're online and moving toward ebooks and audio books and music you can download. You can still have access to some of our services, and we're becoming more efficient and finding ways for technology to help us. I am of the school of: It's a process, and processes open themselves up to automation, so it makes sense to take the human element out of it. We're turning ourselves in a different direction."
But, wait: Isn't the "human element" what makes libraries go great? Because otherwise, you can just dial up Google Books.
"I agree," she says, explaining that she's referring to the self-checkout stations. "By taking away this whole transaction, we're freeing up the staff so you can have an experience, because you're engaged with a staff person who is skilled and trained. They're not helping you check out. I am trying to get rid of the transaction, the retail experience. And I think there's a chance for it to be better. As we come out of this and get more money and bring back staff, moving in this direction will make for a better customer experience than what we previously had.
"And you'll still have someone to help check you out. You might have to wait a little bit, but if you're not embracing the self-check that's fine. But then the librarians and associates are on the floor, and we're trying to move away from a reference desk environment. Have you ever been to an Apple store? It's that experience. They can access the same data as they can from their desk with an iTouch. They can help you right where they are."
Fact is, says Hill, the libraries are busier than they've ever been. That's been the case nationwide since The Crash of '09.
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"Our material check-out is increasing, and program attendance is increasing," she says. "We're not going anywhere. What other business has been around since the Library of Alexandria? The reason we have this staying power is our services don't change, but we change how we deliver them. You want audio cassette? CD? Download? We're in."
We talked for a long time about a lot of things. I told her, for instance, how frustrating it is that you can't access the Texas/Dallas History & Archives Division most of the time -- and how annoying it is that cool things like manuscript collection finding guides tease things you can't actually see without going downtown to a floor that's usually closed anyway. Like, I'd love to read the newly cataloged Margo Jones letters ...
"I know," she says. "I am dying to get the entire Dallas history collection digitized. We've already started working with the University of North Texas and The Portal to Texas History. I have some really good friends who are part of that project. What's beautiful about that portal is it's findable through Google, which means anyone all over the world can hit our stuff. So I wanna do more of that -- opening our stuff to the world. But that Margo Jones thing makes me nuts. That needs to be a link. To be really dramatic, it makes me salivate the stuff that's up there we could show the world 24/7.
"But I will do whatever needs to be done to make this good, positive and work. Looking for new funding sources? Sure. We're doing that all the time. We have our partnership with Atmos and AT&T. The times are different. You do what you gotta do to keep it going, man."