Tuesday morning, Pasco County commissioners approved a three-year plan to bolster library services, including a task to support the local workforce and to help grow the economy. Seven hours later, commissioners adopted a budget for the new fiscal year that did nothing to reverse the service and staff cuts absorbed by libraries since 2008.
It's an unfortunate juxtaposition. Commissioners realize the renewed value of the libraries, but not the value of a renewed investment in them. On the positive side, the county didn't try to shutter a branch or cut operating hours, which have been standard proposals the three prior years.
Library hours of operation are down 16 percent from 2008 and the number of people coming through the doors dropped even more so — 23 percent to 906,000 annual visits. But at least these are productive visits. Books, tapes and other items in circulation remain fairly steady at 2.4 million annually.
The trend is a continued reflection of the economy. People are going to libraries to borrow, instead of to buy, books and materials. Job-seekers are using public computers to comb on-line want ads. More significant, though, is the newly tracked statistic revealed by John Hagen of the Pasco Economic Development Council. He told commissioners the libraries produced two-thirds of the 300 leads the EDC received about people seeking to start or expand businesses in Pasco County. It's an eye-opener that helps define the library system's mission beyond customer service to being a vital part of Pasco's economic engine.
Hagen and Commissioner Henry Wilson helped draft the libraries' three-year strategic plan, which is a prerequisite to qualify for continued state library aid. They delivered the plan to commissioners Tuesday and among the highlights are:
• Embracing new technology including the idea of "technology petting zoos'' in each branch to allow patrons the hands-on opportunity to explore new gadgets; and roaming reference staffers equipped with tablets to aid the public quickly.
• Updating multimedia tools and software to offer such services as teleconferencing, video resumes and Skype job interviews.
• Shifting some services outside the physical library buildings to serve people at hospitals, shopping centers or other government locations.
Pasco County's economic development mantra is "bringing opportunities home.'' Commissioners then shouldn't overlook the opportunities their own library system presents in trying to achieve that goal.