Library branch usage surges

Folks in southern Mecklenburg are using their five public library branches more – at some spots, a lot more.

Compared to this time last year, business at the branches is up: from a six percent increase at the Carmel branch to 29 percent at the Steele Creek facility. The numbers are from a recent count across Mecklenburg of library materials checked out.

The sagging economy is a big factor, librarians say. But growth in the area also plays a part.

“Nationally, during economic downturns, there is always an increase in traffic at public libraries,” said Matthews Branch Library Manager Michael Lambert. “We have a lot of people coming in to use the computers, work on resumes and search for jobs online.”

Popular materials also include books on writing resumes and prep books for professional exams and certifications. Technology workshops that cover programs such as Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint and skills such as posting items on Craigslist, an online classified site, are always full, Lambert said. Some have waiting lists.

With family budgets tightening, the library's children's books and DVDs are popular. Children's programs are full almost as soon as registration begins.

“We're free entertainment, but we also provide resources a lot of people are coming to use,” Lambert said.

The influx of new residents to the Steele Creek area also has played a role in giving that branch the highest upswing in traffic in the public library system, said Sandy Stratton, children's manager for the Steele Creek Branch Library. “It's a lot of new card holders. Every month, when we register for new (children's) programs, we're seeing new faces.”

The Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County also recently asked residents how they can improve services.

Mecklenburg County residents said last week they would use their public library branches even more if the organization continues to make them modern, convenient, comfortable spaces.

Officials held a series of meetings to gather the public's input on – and test responses to – new ideas.

The library is developing a master plan for upgrading facilities over the next 10 to 20 years. Mecklenburg's library board hopes to present a master plan to county commissioners by March 2009.

Many residents suggested the library create more services to allow them to borrow and return books without visiting the branch. Others said more people would use the library if branches were designed better.

For example, some suggested privacy could be improved by separating children's and adult areas. They also said patrons would have an easier time discovering new books if they were displayed flat, not stacked, so their covers could easily be seen.

Tara Flanagan, circulation department manager for the University City Regional branch, said patrons have responded well to self-checkout machines installed there a little over a year ago.

Similar to machines in grocery stores, the library self-checkout machines allow patrons to borrow materials by passing the items over a scanner. If the patron has any outstanding fines, he or she can immediately pay by swiping a credit card.

South County Regional on Rea and Pineville-Matthews roads recently got self-checkout machines. As of September, more than 30 percent of all materials at South County were borrowed through the express machines.

“People really like them a lot,” Flanagan said. “They let people get through the lines faster.”

Library officials said patrons also have responded well to “coffee carts” placed at the South County and University City regional branches. An earlier study found patrons wanted to be able to purchase snacks and beverages nearby, as they can in bookstores. Area residents said last week they would enjoy having more nontraditional services, like those being offered by libraries in other cities.

For example:

Contra Costa County, Calif., has an automated kiosk at one of its rapid transit stations. More than 500 items are available, according to Laura Isenstein, president and principle consultant of Providence Associates of Cottonwood, Ariz.

The library has contracted with Providence Associates to help develop the master plan.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., public lockers make after-hours pickups possible. Patrons select their books online, then use a pin code to open the locker at any time of day.

Other cities are experimenting with different kinds of seating and more meeting spaces.

“People look to the public library in their area as their community living room,” Isenstein said. “They're wanting comfortable places to go to sit and read and attend programs that the library might be offering.”

Staff Writer Karen Sullivan contributed.