Monday, November 20, 2006

Today’s library: Community hub

Bookworms no longer the only patrons

It now takes the average, Internet-capable library patron under one minute to search for an audio book copy of a book on Compact Disc (less than 30 seconds if you’re “Search” savvy), locate which library has it in stock and have it shipped to the nearest branch within the Monroe County Library System for the sum of 50 cents or pick it up at the library for free.

“Computers cracked open the Monroe County Library System,” says Patricia Uttaro, director of the Ogden Farmers’ Library. “In the days of the card catalogue, you could only see what was owned by the library in which you were standing.”

Erected in place of the card catalogue is CARLweb 5.2, the searchable, computerized library database, which consolidates the entire Monroe County Library System (MCLS) collection in a single format. The bulky drawers and index cards are not the only aspect of the library to have become antiquated in the march of technological progress.

Microfilm has been eclipsed by the microprocessor, which reads and stores millions of bytes (bits of information translated into binary code) in a computer chip the size of a fingernail. Journal, newspaper and magazine articles from all over the world now can be accessed within seconds through online databases, available in even the smallest local library.

Still, there is more at stake for the quaint local library than a technological upgrade. In the last decade, and the past few years especially, the library has been revolutionized. DVD and audio book collections have skyrocketed across the board. And patronage, on the rise nearly every year for the past decade, shows no sign of slowing.

“Libraries are different from what they used to be,” says Claire Talbot, Children’s Library Assistant at the Chili Public Library. “They used to be real quiet places. Now they’re like community hub.”

At the Chili branch, for example, you can get a cup of coffee, research your genealogy, take a class on knitting, pick up the latest DVD release, home school your child, ogle the fish aquarium, check your email, stage a puppet show, learn how to do your taxes, play chess, catch a jazz concert (in the summer), surf the Internet, and, if you’re so inclined, read a book.

“Public libraries are no longer quiet, dusty places overseen by a stern librarian whose primary job is to shush people,” says Patricia Uttaro.

Children and teens, especially, have become target demographics for an institution that once suffered from its reputation as formidably un-youthful.

“Out of a population of 9,651, 5.6% are teenagers,” says Sandra Shaw, director of the Holley Community Free Library, of the town of Holley. “Studies show that this age group is the least active in libraries, but need libraries the most.”

Holley has since done its part to correct this disparity with the addition of a young adult reading room to the library facilities, and a program of reading groups specific to teenagers.

Other libraries have already addressed this demographic, and it’s not unusual to see puppet theaters in the children’s space, and manga (Japanese comic books) among the young adult novels and non-fiction books. A few libraries go even further in their efforts to appeal to youth culture.

At the Seymour Library in Brockport, newly built at East Avenue in 1996, the children’s room is designed with explicit reference to the child’s perspective. Angles abound on the ceiling which swoops down, leaving a portion of the room difficult to access by the taller adults, who are forced to kneel, squat or sit. The tables and chairs are in miniature, and the windows are at the sight-level of a child two or three feet tall.

Bigger, better, faster, more
As their collections expand exponentially, many libraries have had to move to a larger facility sometime within the last ten years - echoing construction of the Bausch & Lomb Building in downtown Rochester, which helped share the burden of the Rundel Memorial Library across the street. Ogden Farmers’ Library relocated in 1992; Brockport’s Seymour in 1996; Chili Public in 1998; Hamlin Public in 2000 - and Newman-Riga doubled its square footage in 1989 with the addition of a new wing.

With more available materials, more square footage, and more activities than ever before, libraries have thrown open their doors to welcome the public en masse. Though the written word - whether in a book or magazine, on paper or digitized - remains the main attraction of the library, according to Hamlin Public Library Director Adrienne Lattin, the bookworm is not the only patron anymore. Researchers need to make room for the slew of Internet gamers, school project coordinators, basket weavers and homeschoolers.

“Even though we’re not even 10 years old, we’ve already outgrown our space,” says Chili Library Director Jennifer Ries-Taggart. “It’s unbelievable.”

The Chili Public Library saw over 165,000 people pass through its doors in 2005, with a circulation count of nearly 308,000 items. To put that in context, notes Ries-Taggart, the population of Chili peaked just shy of 28,000 at the time of the 2000 census.

Since the Hamlin Public Library relocated to a large space in 2000, their circulation and patronage increased over 400 percent.

In 2005, the Ogden Farmers’ Library saw a circulation of over 235,000 items - indicative of the 62 percent increase in patronage since 2000 - which goes a long way to debunk the myth that people are no longer reading.

“I hear reports all the time that people aren’t reading anymore,” said Sally Snow, director of the Parma Public Library, “but I don’t think anyone has told the publishing industry that. No one seems to have told our customers either, judging by our growing circulation numbers.”

As town libraries expand to accommodate growth in population and increased demand, patrons still cannot get enough. From Parma to Riga to Brockport the cry is the same: more books and movies; bigger, better and faster computers; and longer hours of operation.

“Surveys have shown that patrons are favorable toward the staff and service,” says Sally Snow, “but they want more new titles in all formats and more hours, especially on weekends.”

The library patron(s) of today
Expect to find fewer and fewer individual readers at the library, according to Patricia Uttaro. She has seen the crowd at Ogden Farmers’ Library transformed from sparse and noiseless to buzzing with activity.

“Entire families drop by to work on the computers, browse for books or movies, or attend one of our many programs; groups of students work together on cooperative projects; genealogy researchers compare notes; or scout troops work on badge requirements,” says Uttaro.

Brockport Middle School student Ashley Gurgel frequents the Brockport Seymour Library in search of a quiet place to study, she says, though admits that she may as often be found thumbing the pages of a novel or surfing the Internet. Her family has yet to tie into the world wide web at home, she says, and the library’s impressive collection of young adult fiction books offers infinite access to stories and plots.

“Public libraries bridge the gap for those who don’t own a home PC,” says Chili’s Ries-Taggart, signaling what may be the major draw for the institution today.

Libraries provide computers and Internet for those without access at home; books for those who cannot afford or choose not to purchase them; audio and video for those with no other means to discover a new film or a style of music they have never heard; and, more and more, a non-retail space for people to gather without prejudice to age, race, creed, class or interests.

Chili resident Rose Zolnierowski and grandson, Kyle Dion, trek in twice a week for up to three hours at a time and set up camp in the plush multicolored comfort of the children’s section at the Chili Public Library. Often they team up for a session of interactive learning at the computer station, or band together with other patrons to perform a puppet show.

When she isn’t spending time with her grandson, Rose and her husband visit the library for a cup of coffee and a quiet evening of reading.

The library is the only public institution that actively appeals to the entire community from toddlers to seniors and during all business hours, according to Adrienne Lattin. It knows how to adapt to its population, and, according to the numbers, it is succeeding.

Note: Statistics on Library patronage and circulation provided by Jeff Baker of the Monroe County Library System.

Next Week: Part two - Adapting the resources of community libraries.

No comments: