Carol Scott, librarian for the Fair Haven Free Library, knows a little something about multitasking.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Scott was busy scanning materials, advising patrons where they could find specific books or DVDs, and answering the phone.
“It’s a really busy place,” Scott said. “During the last four years we’ve seen significant increases in circulation. The library is much busier.”
In an age when books can be downloaded onto a nine inch, 1.5 pound iPad without even leaving the comfort on one’s house, it may surprise people to learn that public libraries are thriving and busier than ever.
According to the American Library Association, in the 2009 fiscal year, public libraries had 1.59 billion visits, an increase of nearly 6 percent from the previous year. And the number of materials loaned to patrons has increased more than 26 percent during the last decade. Those trends extend beyond large metropolitan library systems and include smaller libraries, like many of those in the region.
Joanne Van Meter, librarian for the Wells Library, said usage by adult patrons has increased 67 percent in the last year while use by children has increased 225 percent during the same time.
Librarians in Fair Haven, Castleton, and Pawlet, Vt. have all reported increased patronage and libraries like in Whitehall and Granville and Benson, Vt. say usage is holding steady.
“We just had our annual report and when I calculated our circulation and the number of people using the library for other things, both were way up. It kind of surprised me,” said Jan Jones, director of the Castleton Free Library.
ArdyceBresett, director of the Pember Library, is reporting similar trends.
“There has been quite a rise in people getting new cards; it’s people that are new to the area or people getting them for their kids,” Bresett said.
Jones, who has worked at the Castleton library for the last 29 years, said she can’t attribute the increase to a single factor, but said technology—which some people have falsely speculated would be the death knell to libraries—has played a big role.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes but I think the biggest impact has come from everything electronic. The electronics have drawn in more people.”
In a region where high speed Internet access remains inaccessible to many, people have turned to libraries for refuge from their technological doldrums.
“People can afford to buy their own computers, but they can’t afford Internet, or theirs is a lot slower than ours,” Bresett said. She thinks the poor economy plays in as well, because people come to the library to complete job applications, which many big companies now require to be done online, as well as filing unemployment or searching for health-related information.
The Pember has even cut back on its reference system, because those books are expensive and not necessarily as up-to-date as the Internet.
Scott said the library’s computers are always being used and many people bring their laptops and handheld devices to take advantage of the Wi-Fi.
Librarian Jackie Lussier said the Benson Public Library got Wi-Fi about a year ago.
“Quite a few people use it. Basically they’re using it off their devices in the cars,” Lussier said.
Many of the libraries are embracing technology as a means of getting more people through the doors.
Jones said the library has tried to beef up its online and Facebook presence and patrons can download books onto their e-readers, take online courses and even learn a foreign language.
Beth Kashner, the Pawlet Library director, said the same of her library, which is working on becoming more automated.
“This time of year it’s really important to have internet. “We offer Listen Up! Vermont, which is a free program for downloading books and online non-accredited college courses with membership,” Kashner said.
But even with the increased use of technology, librarians report that the circulation of traditional materials has increased as well.
“People are still reading books,” said Karen Gordon, director of the Whitehall Free Library.
Many libraries also have materials that are still used but hard to find, like VHS tapes.
“That’s the nice thing about public libraries, we keep formats that the public still uses,” Jones said.
Programming has also drawn people in. Children’s story-telling remains popular and some libraries have added literacy programs as well as guest speakers, book clubs and craft activities.
And some of those programs extend into the community, like the Friends of the Castleton Library’s widely popular Science Pub series and the Pember Library’s First Friday series.
“The library outside the wall — that has increased. The idea of life-long learning is a big thing for people today.”
In communities like Castleton, Granville and Fair Haven, libraries have become social and cultural centers for the community. Kashner said her library strives to provide more than just books and is always coming up with new services.
“Our library is also a community center; we have ballet, kids kung-fu, story time, art classes, hullaballoo, Lego club, adult bone builders, exercise and yoga,” she said.
The economy, Van Meter believes, has led parents to choose free entertainment at the library for their kids rather than costly alternatives.
“Families can come for programming; there’s summer reading and holiday programs,” she said.
And all the libraries, even those with limited funding, try to keep a regular stream of new material coming in.
“I get new books about every six weeks. As a librarian I see community need and look for best sellers,” Van Meter said. Kashner tries to get the latest books every three months and Bresett said hers come in about once a month.