These are busy days for public libraries. Use of all services is increasing. Directors of some of the state’s larger library systems believe the troubling economy is fueling the surge. People are looking for public Internet access, magazines and newspapers in addition to books and DVDs as ways of stretching budgets.
“Business is brisk. The numbers for high-speed Internet access have grown, and I don’t see that slacking off,” said Steve McCartney, director of the Meridian-Lauderdale County Public Library. “Use of traditional reading materials is up 25% to 30%; that’s recreational reading and everything. I don’t think people are buying as many books.”
Space in the 45-year old facility is at a premium with no room to add to the library’s 14 computers. Demand has led to time limits for users. The demand for the children’s section is at a critical level, too.
“We see folks from all income levels,” McCartney said. “We believe that a well-stocked, well-run library is part of the economic development of a community.”
Director Judy McNeese sees a lot of people using the online service to search for jobs at the Dixie Regional Library System’s main branch in Pontotoc. “I’d say 95% of those online are job searching,” she said of use of the branch’s 19 computers. “We’ve had furniture plant closings and people are looking for something to do even as they look toward the Toyota plant opening.”
The system has eight branch libraries and all are reporting rising use of technology and reading materials. “A lot of people are not taking newspapers and magazines at home. Plus they bring what they have here and swap them out,” McNeese said. “We also have tremendous use of the fax and photo copier machines. Think about a small town and no office supply store.”
McNeese says much of the library’s reimbursement funds come from the use of these machines at a time when fines for overdue materials are minimal and operating costs are rising. One of the Dixie system branches doesn’t even charge fines anymore. McCartney says the Meridian-Lauderdale system has an increase in the number of items not returned and hired a collection agency to help recover $30,000 in unpaid fines.
Stretching staff, resources
“The increased use of services is stretching our staff and resources. We’ve started staying open until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays,” McNeese said. “The utilities are killing us. We’re just getting by. It’s budget time and I’m not optimistic about much being added to our budget.”
The Columbus-Lowndes Public Library is experiencing budget woes, too. Director Sharon Whitten says the system is strained to keep up with increased use because it is presently short of staff due to funding issues.
“If we receive an increase in our fiscal year 2008-2009 proposed budget, we plan to have night hours to help our patrons who have a problem getting to the library before we close at 6 p.m.,” she said. “The computer usage has been up due to unemployment in the Golden Triangle area. Patrons are coming in searching the web for jobs and making applications online.”
Computer use has increased 10% this year in the Jackson-Hinds Library System. In fiscal year 2006-2007, a total of 283,287 people used Internet computers in the system.
“The Internet has drawn in a great number of people,” says Director Carolyn McCallum. “The Internet computers at all 15 locations are used frequently. You cannot have enough Internet terminals in the library. I just look at it as another aspect of service.”
The system also installed wireless connections in 11 branches last year to allow visitors to work off their own laptops. Since then, it has seen the number of those users grow, too.
Carolyn Russell, assistant director of the Laurel-Jones County Library, doesn’t have statistics but is trying to document the increased flow of patrons at the Laurel and Ellisville branches. The system would like to hire two more staff members if the budget allowed.
“We attribute the increase to high gasoline prices. People can’t go out of town and they’re finding things to do that are cheaper,” she said. “They’re checking out more books and movies, using the magazines and newspapers.”
The Laurel branch added more computers last year for a total of 10, but users still wait in line to get on them.
Library within a library?
The Meridian-Lauderdale system has a service that helps conserve gas. It is its “mailbrary,” and it has become a very popular service. Director Steve McCartney calls it a library within a library.
“Our books by mail program initially targeted home bound readers but it has become popular with others, including business men and students,” he said. “We have about 17,000 paper back books. Users set up an account, order online, and we ship at no cost to them.”
Books can be returned by mail at the patron’s expense, or dropped off at several drop box locations around town. The return boxes are emptied each morning. McCartney says retailers at box locations like the service, too, as it brings traffic to their businesses.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.