Wake County libraries hope to turn the page on recession

mquillin@newsobserver.comFebruary 24, 2013 

Since 2009, the Wake County Public Library system has put the construction of new facilities on hold, trimmed operating hours and slashed its book-buying budget.

While the county was able to avoid closing any of its 20 branches during the economic downturn, three years of austerity have taken a toll: the number of books in the libraries’ collection is down more than a quarter of a million volumes from 2009.

During the past year, book circulation has dropped more than 7 percent and the number of people using the libraries is off by nearly 5 percent, reversing a decade-long trend of consistent growth.

With county revenues expected to rise a bit this year, there are hopes the busiest public library system in the state is about to start a new chapter. As budget discussions begin this spring, the county board of commissioners will consider whether to restart its building program through the sale of already-approved bonds and, if so, which projects to undertake. If there is enough money, officials might also restore some or all of the library operating hours, or fund the purchase of more books.

The county won’t be able to do it all, says Frank Cope, director of Wake County Community Services, a sprawling department that includes public libraries.

It was Cope who proposed closing the Southeast Regional Library in Garner in 2009 and, when that met with cries of protest, suggested shutting the Athens Drive and Duraleigh branches to meet required budget cuts. Those branches, too, had their supporters.

“Those were not politically viable solutions for the commissioners,” Cope said, so he saved money by closing the libraries earlier on Friday evenings and at other times when they tended to see less traffic. Across all the branches, he trimmed a total of 55 hours a week.

Cuts to the book budget were more drastic, and they were amplified by the halt in the construction of new libraries, which had been opening at a rate of about one a year. With the opening of each new library came an infusion of tens of thousands of new books, which stocked the shelves of the new facility and immediately began circulating throughout the system.

In 2009, Wake County libraries spent $2.8 million buying books.

In the current fiscal year, they will spend a little more than half that, $1,426,000. Through wear and tear, loss and the weeding-out of titles that rarely get checked out, the system’s collection has dropped from about 1.8 million books in December 2009 to about 1.5 million now.

“It’s noticeable,” said Jean Ells, manager of the Cameron Village Regional Library, which circulates about a million books a year. In part to disguise the loss, library workers removed some racks of shelving and replaced them with lounge seating to accommodate the increasing number of people who like to spend hours here at a time.

Throughout the adult non-fiction section upstairs, the bottom shelves are empty, and the cookbooks, gardening guides, biographies, political critiques and art-history tomes all have plenty of breathing space, with each shelf only about half full.

Patrons will also notice that it takes longer – sometimes much longer – to get a popular book than it did a few years ago, because while the libraries still buy the same titles that are selling well in book stores, they buy fewer of them.

Wake County has 16 copies of “American Sniper,” the Chris Kyle book that was at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List on Friday. Eighty-one library patrons were waiting for their chances to read the book Friday night, according to the library’s online reservation system.

With its mission emphasis on childhood literacy, the libraries have made fewer cuts in its children’s collection than in the adults’.

“You have to make tough choices,” Ells said. “If John Grisham has a new book out, we’re going to buy it. But where we used to buy maybe 100 copies, now we’re going to buy 10.”

At this point, Cope said, he’s more inclined to ask for money to reinstate the lost operating hours as opposed to buying more books.

That’s partly because he doesn’t know yet whether commissioners will decide to restart the libraries’ capital improvement plan, which includes the construction or expansion of several new branches. The last new one to open was Leesville Community Library, in October 2009. It was already under construction when the recession hit.

At its recent retreat, where it heard updates from communities across the county, the board of commissioners heard several pleas for library improvements. As the county was refining the library system in the 1980s, it went to a decentralized model, with a series of large regional libraries and smaller community branches. Nearly everyone in Wake County is within a 15-minute drive of a library building.

“If you’re a town and you don’t have a library, you want one,” said David Cooke, Wake County manager. “If you’re a town and you have a small library, you want a bigger one. People see a library as a very positive asset.”

With successful library bond issues in 2003 and 2007, the county could have afforded to build new libraries even during the recession, Cooke says, including the planned Northeast Regional library, in the Wakefield area. Northeast was the last major project to be paid for out of the 2003 bond issue that funded $35 million in library facilities, and though the design had been completed, it was put on hold.

“Construction is only part of the cost of a new library,” Cooke said. “Once you build it, you have to pay the operating costs,” and the county decided not to take on that expense.

That library would likely be the first to go up if the country resumes construction. By selling bonds approved in 2007, the county could also build new or expanded libraries in Garner, Cary, Fuquay-Varina or Wake Forest.

In the longer term, as libraries continue to evolve, the county will have to decide how it wants to use the buildings. With 12.1 million books going in and out of its branches, Wake County libraries have the highest circulation of any system in the state. The next busiest is the Charlotte Meckleburg Library, which circulated 5.5 million books last year.

But Wake’s branches also are heavily used for children’s programs, job training, meetings, public computer access, tutoring, research and as a comfortable place to hang out, not unlike a coffee shop. Until recently, Cameron Village actually had a coffee kiosk.

As more people begin to do their reading through book downloads, it’s not clear how much demand there will be for a place that serves as custodian of paper versions.

Carol Cutler-White, chair of the Wake County Library Commission, the citizens’ advisory board, believes there always will be a place for libraries.

“I love libraries,” she said, adding that her group would like to see the capital improvement plan restarted, all the operating hours reinstated and the book budget restored to its pre-recession level, though she knows that’s unrealistic.

“Libraries serve vital functions,” she said. “They contribute to economic development, to literacy, to a sense of community. They’re part of what makes this place attractive.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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