Candidate Q&A: The Library Trustee Candidates

Compiled by The Bedford Citizen

In its continuing coverage of Bedford’s 2017 Town Election on March 11, The Bedford Citizen is proud to present answers to our questions posed to the candidates in an effort to help you learn more about each one as you decide how to cast your vote.

In addition to these questions of the Library Trustee candidates, we posed similar questions to the candidates running unopposed. You can find those questions and answers by clicking this link.

The Bedford Citizen will post each candidate’s final statement on Monday, March 6 along with links back to all of our coverage so that you can find it in one place.

Library Trustee – Two candidates will be elected Click each candidate’s name to learn more about them

Question 1: What major challenges do you expect the Library to face during the next three years?

Rachel Field

Prior to last November, I would have categorically said that the major challenge would be to creatively reconfigure our utilization of space.  The town population is growing, and the Library needs to grow apace, to keep up with increasing usage and increasing demands.  This emerged as a priority from the community-wide survey we conducted last year, as part of developing our latest Strategic Plan.

In particular, patrons would like to have more study areas and more areas where small groups could meet.  In addition, we need more space to enhance our offerings in response to Bedford’s growing diversity, and space for new technologies that we are excited to incorporate and offer to our patrons.

I currently sit on the Board of Directors of the Library Corporation, and recently helped write the policy guidelines for the use of Corporation assets.  In fact, recognizing the magnitude and importance of the space reconfiguration issue, I proposed that we allocate Corporation funds to bring in a consultant to help us successfully grapple with this challenge.

To the above, I would add that as we respond to increased usage and demands, we can anticipate the need for an increase in staffing, as well.

But that was then.

If the administration moves forward with plans to slash non-military spending, it would mean billions less for education, the environment, science, the arts, our crumbling domestic infrastructure, social safety-net programs.  Make no mistake about it: while this is could be a boondoggle for the military and perhaps for some of the president’s cronies, “middle-America” would be in for a big dose of trickle-down attrition.  Fortunately, the Town of Bedford is fiscally sound, as is the Library, and those of us who have been long-term Library Trustees have experience in weathering a battering recession, as does Richard Callaghan, our superb Library Director.

But as a public institution, we are dependent on Town and State funding.  And if the Town is unable to meet the minimum funding increase threshold set by the Commonwealth, we would lose our State funding, and our State Accreditation, as well.

Seeking additional sources of revenue – for example applying for grants (before that funding disappears) and/or creating a campaign for bequests, or corporate donations, may help us
augment our resources and our services – but they cannot insulate us from the serious consequences should the Town prove unable meet the State mandate.

I would add one more things:  the town at large, and the Library, specifically, is concerned with maximizing energy efficiency.  Making progress on that front will surely be important.

Given that THE principal responsibility of a Trustee is to safeguard our funding – the sine-qua-non of any public institution – it pains me to say that budgetary issues may well become the top priority over the next three years.

Sarita Pillai

A 2014 report from the Aspen Institute described ‘the emerging value proposition’ of public libraries as being focused on people (diversity of patrons), place (physical space) and as a platform (for services and collections that enable patrons to acquire skills and information and to create new knowledge).  This seems at the core of likely challenges for the BFPL in the coming years.

As the Bedford community grows, BFPL is likely to see a changing demographic in its patrons.  Our community is increasing culturally and linguistically diverse and spans a very broad age spectrum.  Serving such a diversity of patrons, at different stages of life and with distinct needs, will mean keeping closely abreast of changing patron needs and being nimble and responsive to resolving challenges.  BFPL and its staff will need to provide robust, ‘traditional’ services and programming for some patrons while offering newer, technology-based offerings to a growing cadre of information literate, ‘millenial’ customers.

The expansion of the Bedford community, especially growing numbers of families with young children, will require the BFPL to increase its attention to services, staffing, and space.  Students, tutors and others require regular use of study rooms and quiet spaces throughout the library.  Standing room only talks and other drop-in programs have at times caused the library to have to turn patrons away.  Considering how to use the existing space, especially on the upper floors but, throughout the library will be an important issue in the next few years. Also, determining the best way to offer popular programming within the current space will also need consideration; for example, offering an event twice to accommodate all those interested and reducing the likelihood of turning anyone away.

It is heartening to know that the BFPL is already thoughtfully considering and planning for these challenges as evidenced by its strategic plan for 2018-2022.

Finally, there is a great opportunity for BFPL, and libraries around the country, to capitalize on a burgeoning civic sense all across our country.  At the same time, we are living in a time of rapidly changing technologies and widespread and changing uses of social media. Libraries can be critical vehicles for building the skills of its patrons and community members to be thoughtful and careful consumers of news and media, to learn how to vet their sources of information and triangulate data to fully understand the issues affecting their lives, their community, and their country.

Robin Grace Silbert

I think we are facing three major challenges, space limitations, staying current with and anticipating technological advances, and meeting the needs of an ever-changing demographic. In recent years, Bedford’s population has expanded to include more bilingual or English as a Second Language households.

It is important that we determine how best to utilize our resources to provide materials that are of interest and importance to these families as well as maintaining and growing our excellent collection. I will advocate balancing fiscal responsibility with the need to purchase future technologies while maintaining and expanding our collection.

In addition, as the population grows, how we can best utilize the current space to provide areas of quiet discourse and study, and dedicated meeting areas will become a larger consideration.

We must do all this to ensure that our library functions equally well for all residents while staying true to a library’s core function – to allow people to explore and expand, opening the world and its possibilities in a way that improves the individual and society.

Question 2: How do you envision maintaining a healthy balance between current BFPL offerings and new technologies as they become available?

Rachel Field

Given the rapid influx of new technologies, the fact is that what had been a “healthy balance” in the past has begun to shift under our feet.  Our communities, and their needs, are changing.  In response, the services and resources libraries provide; how we provide them; and the relevance of new technologies – all are evolving rather rapidly.  So our definition of that “healthy balance” is evolving as well.

Maintaining a healthy balance between current library offerings and new technologies hasn’t been a major problem in the past.  This will become a bit more complicated, as the acquisition of new devices may likely rub up against our policies, our space constraints, and possible fiscal constraints as well.

The digital collections we offer, such as Overdrive (which provides eBooks, audiobooks, and even videos), Zinio Digital Magazines, Freegal Music and Hoopla Digital (movies, TV, music and books) send their materials directly to our patrons: they take up no space, require no Circulation Desk time, and they don’t need replacement due to wear and tear. They are costly, but well worth it, and are increasingly popular, which in turn means that they give us some wiggle room to weed our collection and acquire new print materials or other media.  Yes, it’s true that while in some ways they offer efficiency, they also bring new demands on our staff: to research and select new materials, machines or systems; to learn how they function; and to provide training – in both group and one-on-one “Book a Librarian” sessions – so that our patrons may take advantage of them.  But this balance has been achieved rather comfortably.

Likewise, incorporating what some call the “Library of Things” – i.e. certain devices that we offer for use either in-house or at home – has not been a problem.  Among the many items that patrons can check out are laptops, microscopes, a Geocache GPS device, mobile Hot Spots, a telescope and streaming devices. I look forward to the Library expanding offerings such as these in the future.  They are very popular, generally not too expensive and, especially thanks to our wonderful Friends of the Bedford Library organization, have not made a dent in our budget.  In fact, if we can increase our in-house laptop and tablet loaner program, we may be able to free up some space now occupied by desktops.

There are a growing number of healthcare devices that could potentially prove very useful to patrons.  For example, in addition to sleep-tracking and fitness devices, there is a portable, FDA-approved mobile EKG heart monitor that links with an app on your smart phone, and a Bluetooth-linked blood pressure monitor, both inexpensive. Perhaps they’re junk; perhaps not.  They would have to be professionally vetted and assessed – I’d like to bring the Bedford Health Department in on this – to ensure that they would prove more useful than anxiety-provoking.  We would also be wise to have Town Counsel advise us on any potential liability concerns.  Should they be approved, we would then need to ensure that our staff is adequately trained in their use and that they, in turn, can adequately train library patrons.  You can see how this can get dicey.  Would the potential utility of such devices to our community be worth the investment in staff time?  I imagine that would be worth staff time to find out what the Health Department thinks about these devices and to explore whether they’ve been acquired, and found useful, by other libraries.  Only if they got an enthusiastic thumbs up would we then move on to the next step.

And then there is an entire category of new technologies that can upset that balance even further.  For example, as exciting as it might be set up a FabLab or Makerspace for 3-d printing… will we find – or should we make – the space, and allow the staff time, to do so?  The same is true for educational robotics such as Sphero Ball – an app-driven toy that helps teach coding and math skills; for things like Snap Circuits Lights – a building kit that can teach basic electric circuitry, and for devices such as Virtual Reality headsets.

At a minimum, in making these decisions, we need to be sure that our efforts complement but don’t duplicate what is being done in our schools; that the technologies we acquire are well vetted; that they reinforce our mission as a public library; and that they will be well utilized by our patrons.

As I’ve written before: No one can foresee what the future may bring – whether in terms of economic and demographic challenges or new technological offerings.  But if past is prologue, I do know this: over the next three years, in our swiftly evolving political, cultural, economic and technological environment, the successful balancing of patrons’ needs with the Library’s spatial and financial limits will continue to depend, as it has done, upon the fervent commitment of an outstanding group of library administrators, staff, volunteers, and Friends of the Bedford Free Public Library, as well as upon all of us who serve as Trustees, to continually take the pulse of our community, to anticipate and assess growing and changing needs, and to make informed, judicious, and ethical choices.

Sarita Pillai

The library is doing an excellent job of embracing and integrating new technologies for patron services and collections management, especially given the rapid pace at which new technologies are constantly emerging. BFPL has been strategic about its integration of technology with existing, more traditional services through the introduction of services such of, Zinio, Hoopla, Freegal music, and Overdrive, to name just a few.

Still, while there has been much attention paid nationally to the transition to digital content in schools and libraries, the Pew Foundation has reported that the majority of public library users prefer traditional print books over e-books.  Also, surprisingly, youth also prefer traditional books.  Reading remains popular and technology does not appear to be as major a threat or alternative to traditional books as once thought.

The question then becomes, technology for what? BFPL likely has a number of patrons who rely on computers in the BFPL to perform basic civic tasks such as filling out forms, getting accurate information about community initiatives, and applying for jobs. People of all socioeconomic strata believe that libraries should continue to provide this vital access.

But public library technology is not just important for information consumption, it’s important for information creation.  Public library maker spaces, for example, are appearing all over the country.  Also increasingly, libraries are offering STEM and STEAM (STEM + art integrated) activities and programming to complement what our children are learning in school.  Increased emphasis on exposing our children to the technologies and skills, knowledge and dispositions they will need to be successful in life would be a wise investment for BFPL.

Ultimately, as with any large and wide-ranging program, it is vital that the patrons be very engaged in the priority setting and ongoing evaluation of the library’s products and services. If librarians start with what the patrons say they want and not only what staff or trustees think they should have, then the BFPL will always meet users’ needs and the balance of technology offerings and their associated expenditures will always place this community’s needs first.

Robin Grace Silbert

That’s the question and one all libraries must face if they are to remain relevant. New technology is a fast-moving, multi-faceted world and as consumers, we like to have the newest with all its bells and whistles, sometimes discarding what’s serviceable and still does the job. I think we live in a world where our expectations for what we must have rather than what we need have grown exponentially. The problem is how do we manage the upkeep of our library building and equipment, pay for staff and supplies, continue to offer quality programs, maintain a well-balanced collection AND acquire new and often expensive technologies while staying within our financial means.

I believe we have to be aware of what’s out there while anticipating and assessing the needs of the community. When choosing new technologies, we have to be thoughtful and discerning, test driving before buying, balancing what we must have with what we truly need and of course, what we must give up.

Our Bedford community is fortunate that our library has been able to walk this fine line thus far. The Bedford Library Director, professional staff, and trustees have been amazing stewards and there’s much to be proud of. They have been proactive in their technological acquisitions as well as offering assistance in navigating all that is new. We are also fortunate to have an effective and generous resource in our Friends of the Bedford Public Library. Their partnership provides valuable resources that might otherwise be outside the parameters of the budget.

But the future is upon us and it will continue to be a balancing act. When I consider this juggernaut, I feel there is no easy answer. This is like the children needing new shoes and you’re already stretched thin. I think you buy the best and most serviceable you can afford and remind the children to take very good care of them.


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