Staffing and collections concerns raised in discussion with Sarasota County’s director of libraries

Vacancies continue to be a problem, Sarabeth Kalajian says, and reduced county funding has resulted in less state money for new books and other materials

Sarabeth Kalajian. News Leader photo
Sarabeth Kalajian. News Leader photo

Sarasota County’s libraries not only are dealing with staffing vacancies, but they also continue to be constrained in purchasing new materials for the collections, Sarabeth Kalajian, the county’s director of libraries and historical resources, told the County Commission during her recent budget presentation.

And the county’s lower funding level for the library system over the past several years has played a role in the decline in state assistance for acquisitions, she pointed out.

During the commission’s June 22 budget workshop, Kalajian said that she was requesting 17 new full-time employees for the 2017 fiscal year in anticipation of the August 2017 opening of the Suncoast Technical College (STC) in North Port. That facility will include a new library that will be shared among students, STC staff and members of the public, Kalajian noted.

The overall increase in her budget will be 8.5 percent from FY16 to FY17, she added.

When Commissioner Christine Robinson asked how many full-time employees worked at the Venice Public Library before the County Commission ordered it closed in January because of concerns about health issues related to persistent mold in the structure, Kalajian said the number was 14.

Robinson then asked how many county employees will work in the temporary library the county is creating in Venice’s Hamilton Building. Kalajian told her, “We’re still assessing that,” as that facility will have a different level of service compared to what the regular library offered. She should know the number “in the next week or two,” she added.

The Hamilton Building will serve as the temporary library location in Venice. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
The Hamilton Building will serve as the temporary library location in Venice. Renovations are expected to be completed by late summer. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Robinson asked Kalajian to provide the figure as soon as she had it and also to give the board an update on what the other former Venice Library staff members would be doing if they were not going to be at the Hamilton Building.

When Robinson then inquired about the number of employees manning the intermediate library services within the Venice Community Center, Kalajian said the total was nine, although two of those are part-time personnel.

“So what have you done with the other employees?” Robinson asked.

Kalajian explained that her department typically has 15 to 18 vacancies, so former Venice Library employees who are not at the Venice Community Center have been helping out in other libraries.

“So you’re going to see a budget savings this year?” Robinson responded.

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

“Some of these funds are assisting in planning for the [Hamilton Building],” Kalajian told her, adding that she and her staff work with the county’s Office of Financial Management when vacancies remained unfilled, “to see if those funds can be used in another way operationally.” This year, money has gone toward the temporary services at the Venice Community Center and the Hamilton Building project, she explained.

“I would like to know exactly how much we allocated from positions to the Hamilton Building [construction],” Robinson responded, as well as how much money designated for employees was used for other purposes and what those purposes were.

Kalajian also reported that some of the former Venice Library staff members have been helping prepare for a system-wide inventory related to changes in technology. “About half of our tags that control [security and circulation] had be replaced,” Kalajian added. “That has been a huge project, so literally everyone who works in libraries has contributed to that.”

When Robinson sought clarification about whether the former Venice Library employees not working at the Venice Community Center had been assisting with that work, Kalajian then told her that they were “really, really helping with our summer program for kids and families.”

Given the number of staff vacancies her department has, Kalajian pointed out, “we have established a fairly robust system of sharing folks from library branch to library branch for the last five or six years.”

When Robinson asked whether such vacancies are common statewide, Kalajian said they are. Furthermore, Kalajian continued, “one of our biggest challenges” is the fact that part-time employees the department hires continue to look for full-time jobs, which results in “big turnover.”

She added, “We’re trying very hard to be competitive with the professional positions when those become open.”

When Robinson asked about library science programs in the state, Kalajian noted that “two great programs” exist at the University of South Florida and the University of Florida. Her department also participates in internship and field study programs to gain staffing support, Kalajian noted.

She indicated hopefulness about filling management positions through recruitment at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Orlando June 23-28.

“I would like to understand what the game plan is for handling the vacancy issue in the future,” Robinson told her. “This is not a sustainable path for our system, and we need to find one.”

Concern about collections

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo

After Robinson had completed her inquiries, Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo told Kalajian he had spent time recently with representatives of the Library Foundation for Sarasota County, who had voiced concern about the continuing decline in the acquisition of materials for the library system’s collections.

“We’ve sustained a fairly significant reduction over the past 10 years in the State Aid to Libraries grant,” Kalajian explained, noting that all of that money used to go to the collections.

And even though she and her staff try to achieve a balance between purchases of new print and digital materials, she continued, “We have to pay almost the same cost for each.”

During the Great Recession, she noted, staff used special funds and non-restricted gifts for purchases, but that is not a long-term strategy.

In September 2013, Kalajian reported to the County Commission that at the height of the economic boom, her allocation for new materials ran as high as $1.5 million per year. At the lowest level of the Great Recession, she said, it was about $300,000.

“I feel it’s appropriate to remind you, commissioners, that our state aid is predicated on the contribution in our local operating fund,” Kalajian told the board on June 22. As the county’s allocation rises or falls, the state’s aid responds in a like manner, she added.

When Caragiulo asked for clarification that she was telling them “state funding is diminished because of us,” Kalajian replied, “It’s partially that.” Another factor is funding authorized by the state Legislature that has an impact on the county’s ability to access federal grants, she said.

Linda Getzen is the president of the Library Foundation board. Image from the Foundation website
Linda Getzen is the president of the Library Foundation board. Image from the Foundation website

“That’s a huge cause for concern,” Caragiulo replied, though he added he was not certain how his fellow board members felt about the matter.

The library system is “very fortunate” in that gifts “have helped fill the gaps,” Kalajian responded.

Then Commissioner Charles Hines asked who determines which materials to add to the collection in the first place.

Library professionals across the United States review publications, and they and journals provide recommendations, Kalajian said.

In regard to best-sellers, she explained, “we can be very efficient.” For example, whenever a new James Patterson book is released, she continued, her staff knows almost exactly how many copies to purchase. “But if you want to build a really sophisticated collection in our community — that’s an expectation, and people tell us how much they appreciate the depth of our collection — you need to have people doing those reviews and those evaluations,” she said.

When Hines asked about members of the public donating books they have read that are in good condition, Kalajian pointed out that such materials are welcome. Those that staff deems it best not to keep can be sold by the Friends of the Library organizations, with proceeds going toward new acquisitions, she added. The Friends groups and other organizations also typically allocate funds each year “to help us with the collection as well,” she told the board.

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