WHEN YOU WALK IN, it’s all right there – chart-topping CDs, new release DVDs, and New York Times bestsellers in print or audiobook. Down the hall a fire glows, and people lounging in overstuffed chairs around the hearth are thumbing through the latest issues of Newsweek and Real Simple. Across the way, students and professionals are hunched over their laptops, surfing the Internet while sipping macchiatos purchased from a coffee kiosk.

It’s a scene from a typical mega-bookstore. But if you live in San Jose, Calif., this is actually your neighborhood public library.

Libraries like this aren’t simply the wave of the future: They’re already a reality all over the country, says Susan Hildreth, president of the National Public Library Association. So it’s only natural to assume that Dallas, a city that prides itself on trendsetting, would be in this premier category.

Yet all it takes is one visit to the Preston Royal branch to see that we’re behind the curve. The building was built in the 1970s, and though the arch-patterned roof might have been considered trendy architecture three decades ago, now it just looks, well, old.

And that’s just aesthetic. The selection could use some updates as well. The video shelf is heavy on the VHS format, and visitors are more likely to find classic films rather than recent flicks. A bookshelf stocked with new releases is a nice idea, but its contents are a far cry from the fresh titles on a bookstore’s display table.

Yet library folks don’t seem particularly perturbed by this.

“We’re not in competition with bookstores at all,” says Preston Royal branch manager Sharon Martin. “Besides, we have information they don’t. We have years worth of free information they don’t.”

Still, even those who would rather not see libraries turn into pseudo-bookstores are keen to point out that not all is well with Dallas libraries.

“In our society, there is just not a safer, more welcoming place to be, and everything is free,” says Karen Peterson, a frequent user of the Preston Royal branch. “But it’s not like a community center where you can talk, and it just makes sense that the library should be the community center of the neighborhood.”

So why don’t neighborhood residents – even the ones who use the libraries regularly – see them as neighborhood hubs?

Part of the answer – as with most things involving city government – is money.

Over the last five budget cycles, the library’s piece of the general fund pie has remained the same – roughly 2.8 percent – despite the fact that four new branch libraries will have opened before the end of fiscal year 2007.

Despite this, Dallas Public Library director Laurie Evans doesn’t consider her department to be treading water. She believes the libraries are “well-positioned” and “sit very comfortably in terms of our budget.”

But just last year after she was hired, Evans told a Dallas Morning News reporter the library was “at bare bones in terms of service and what we can provide.” Evans says the quote was taken out of context: She wasn’t referring to the article’s mention of preliminary city budget numbers showing that $880,000 would have to be cut from the library coffers. Instead, Evans says, she was arguing that you can’t throw money at materials without providing funds for extra staff members to process and shelve those materials.

Yet in the same breath, Evans says she doesn’t see a need for hiring additional librarians or expanding materials.

“I’m not asking for more. I’m pleased with where we’re headed,” she says.

This can’t be music to the ears of library employees such as Tim Bullard, branch manager at the Walnut Hill library. Unlike many branch libraries, which have a “Friends” group comprised of neighborhood residents who raise money for their local library, Walnut Hill – built in 1961, making it Dallas’ oldest branch – has no such benefactor.

And it shows. The library has no landscaping. Worn wood shows through paint.

“We can’t do some of the things that other branches can, like providing refreshments. And there’s not a lot of beautification here,” Bullard says.

A new branch is being built nearby and is expected to be ready by the spring of 2008.

“Until then, we are being very patient for our new facility,” Bullard says. “And we’ll see how that affects things once we have a new building. Maybe we’ll be able to get a Friends group. I’d really like to have one because I know it would be a help.”

If situations such as Bullard’s are representative of the norm, then it’s clear our branches could use some changes. But if the people driving our libraries are perfectly satisfied with the status quo, will we ever get to San Jose?

We haven’t always lagged behind the curve. In fact, in the ‘70s, Dallas was among the vanguard of the nation’s libraries, says Michael V. Hazel, who chronicled the library’s first 100 years in his book, “The Dallas Public Library: Celebrating a Century of Service 1901-2001.” Its branch-circulations were among the highest in the country, and the system was one of the first in the United States to launch a computerized catalog. But the economic downturn of the late ‘80s and ‘90s slashed millions of dollars from the library’s budget, crippling its ability to keep up with the latest trends, let alone set them.

Even at the turn of the century, when Hazel was completing his book, Dallas librarians were concerned the city would impose further cost-cutting measures, but Hazel’s sense is that dollars have remained fairly stable since then.

“That certainly doesn’t mean they have all the money they need to operate,” he says.

That’s not what you might expect from one of the largest municipal library systems in the nation. And, in fact, it’s a far cry from other Texas library systems.

Take, for instance, Houston’s Harris County Public Libraries, which have the highest circulation rate in the state. Five years ago, director Catherine Park and her staff began referring to library patrons as “customers” and stocking shelves at each branch with bestsellers, popular children’s books and new release DVDs. Harris County also turns over its collection at the highest rate in the state (Dallas has the lowest), and therefore has endured some criticism from the hey-that-book-wasn’t-worn-out-yet camp.

“We just don’t have the space to never throw them away,” Park says. “That’s part of our high circulation. You don’t keep old and worn things on the shelf because they distract from the relevant collection.”

Today’s libraries find they have to cater to two major groups, the first being people who solely want quick and easy access to library materials. In Harris County, cardholders can simply request places? It’s a subject Evans is reluctant to discuss. She prefers to refer to them as one of the city’s “best-kept secrets,” believing that if she and her staff can get people in the door once, they’ll return.

But she admits the libraries need some updates. Her current pet project is turning downtown’s Central library into an “urban center” with a downstairs café, a gallery space for local artists, and wireless headsets that allow librarians to move freely among aisles of books instead of being chained to a desk – all of which should become reality within a year, Evans says.

And in the interest of giving credit where it’s due, our neighborhood branches have taken some small steps toward modernizing our libraries or, at the very least, creating community in them. Preston Royal is the only branch to host meetings for the Poetry Society of Texas, and it now has a knitting group. Walnut Hill will have a performing arts theater at its new location. And free WiFi is now offered at all branches.

But it will take more than WiFi to catch up, and there can’t be a librarian in Dallas who wouldn’t prefer to stop relying on the generosity of his or her Friends board or, in Bullard’s case, hoping to eventually have one.

Evans even acknowledges she wouldn’t turn down more money, though she makes clear she’s not asking for a budget increase. But “in a perfect world,” Evans says she would like to modernize buildings at least every 20 years, stock the branches with bestsellers that are flying off the shelves like hotcakes, install the latest technology sooner rather than later, and hire more staff to implement all of this.

“We’d phase in things faster at some of our older locations. We wouldn’t be as tied to our older locations. We wouldn’t be as tied to or dependent on passage of the bond to do things we want to do long-term.” Evans says.

That said, the most recent bond election gave her hope that Dallas residents are rallying behind the libraries. In 2003, voters approved $55 million to build four new branches and replace four others, the largest proposition in the history of Dallas libraries and the highest vote-getter on the ballot. Rodney Schlosser, chair of the Dallas library board, cites this as proof the city may be on the verge of moving its branch libraries into the 21st century.

“If we continue to invest at the pace we’ve been investing since the beginning of this decade, then Dallas’ opportunity is really unlimited,” Schlosser says. “We are on the right trajectory now, and we have momentum.”

Evans points to the recently opened Hampton-Illinois branch in Oak Cliff, a library attached to an elementary school, as an example of the innovation these bond dollars can accomplish. Dallas isn’t alone in the joint library-school concept, she says, but “we’re few and far between.” The same goes for the small performing arts theaters added to this location and three other new and renovated branches. Though Dallas isn’t one of the premier systems in the country now, “I like to think that we’re turning the corner to get there,” Evans says.

It may take a sprint to get up to speed with other systems. Hazel cites Denver in his book as a city that underwent a similar economic downturn in the 1980s, yet never reduced its library budgets, and even passed a $91.6 million bond proposition in 1990. Today, Denver’s cutting-edge practices include audiobooks, movies and library podcasts that can be downloaded from its website.

Passage of the $46 million library proposition on Dallas’ Nov. 7 bond election would be a step in the right direction. Schlosser admits that even with this funding, there would still be gaps (the library’s original recommendation was closer to $74 million), but it would help reverse the recession of the previous two decades.

That may be a small miracle in a state that ranks 40th in the percentage of income it provides to libraries or, as Hazel says, in a city that has always prided itself on keeping taxes low.

“As a result there never was quite enough money to go around. The library was one of the departments that suffered as a result,” he says.

Another department that took a substantial hit after the economic downturn was the parks, but concerned citizens across the city have banded together over the last few years to get budget dollars passed, not to mention a $343 million proposition on this month’s ballot. Park activists are calling it a renaissance.

Will libraries be next?

It’s a question that persuades Evans to break from toeing the eternal optimist line, even if just for a moment.

“Oh goodness, I hope so,” she exhales.

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