Wake’s library construction program back on track

mquillin@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2014 

— Thirty squirmy toddlers and their mothers packed into a corner of the Wake Forest Community Library this week to listen to acting branch manager Louise Bishop tell the story of a child who wrote a letter to the zoo asking for a pet.

The zoo sent a giraffe. It was too tall, so back it went. Bye, giraffe! The lion that came the next day was too fierce. Bye, lion! The camel was too grumpy, the snake too scary and the monkey too naughty.

And as Bishop told this story, it became clear: This library is too small. As the pint-sized audience sang, squealed and shook noisemakers, some library patrons turned their heads to watch while others bored harder into their books or laptop screens, fighting to concentrate. In the one-room facility the size of a boutique clothing store, there is nowhere to contain the joyful noise of Thursday morning Storytime.

But like Bishop’s tale, the story of the overcrowded library will have a happy ending, now that the economy has improved enough for Wake County to begin expanding and restocking its library system again.

Recognizing the evolving but still important role a brick-and-mortar library plays in its community, the Wake County Board of Commissioners has restored funding for its libraries to pre-recession levels.

“We’re getting back on track,” said Frank Cope, director of Wake’s Community Services department, which includes its 20 libraries.

This year, construction will begin on the Northeast Regional Library, a 22,000-square-foot facility to be built near Wakefield. That will take some of the pressure off the Wake Forest library when it opens in 2015.

In the budget just approved by Wake commissioners, libraries will get $1.4 million in the next fiscal year to buy new books and $860,000 to upgrade existing libraries. The board also approved $500,000 for preliminary design work on two new libraries – in Cary and near Middle Creek High School in Apex – as well as expansion of the branch in Fuquay-Varina.

When the recession hit in 2008, the county was finishing up $35 million worth of library projects paid for with a 2003 voter-approved bond issue, and it had begun work on an additional $45 million worth that voters approved in a 2007 bond.

As tax revenues tightened, county leaders put on hold any construction that would come with additional operating costs, such as staffing. That included Northeast Regional, which is the last project to be funded with the 2003 bond funds.

Renovation and repair work was allowed to go forward, including a revamping of the Zebulon Community Library, which reopened June 7, and the county finished the Leesville Road Library, which was three-fourths of the way done when the economy soured.

Hours were cut at existing libraries, and the county slashed its book-buying budget, which caused the system’s collection to drop by hundreds of thousands of volumes as books that were lost, destroyed or outdated went unreplaced.

Last fall, the county restored operating hours and gave the system $1.4 million to buy new books, the first such infusion in years. New money for collections allows the library to buy the most current print and digital books and to add copies of popular ones to reduce patrons’ wait times.

The changing library

The investment comes as libraries in Wake County and across the nation flex to meet changing tastes. As smartphones and tablets become more ubiquitous – putting a world of information and e-books at users’ fingertips – local libraries are no less in demand, both as a resource and as a gathering place, said Ronald Bergquist, a clinical assistant professor and director of the undergraduate program at the UNC School of Information and Library Science.

“Everyone is not online,” Bergquist said.

The public library may provide the only access some people have to the Internet, where they can do research, apply for jobs or aid, find volunteer opportunities, use email or just play games. Public-access computers throughout the county’s libraries get heavy use, often staying full as long as the library is open.

But Bergquist said modern libraries serve a larger role in the social life of a place.

“One may find something interesting online, but in the public library there will always be someone, either on the staff or a patron, who will know something about the subject and will add to one’s growing appreciation of the topic,” Bergquist said. “A public library is more about community than about raw data. It is the public library that can provide an opportunity to see things unseen.”

Wake County has embraced the concept of the library as a “third place,” the third spot where people spend time, after home and work.

West Regional Library, opened in Cary in 2006, was modeled in some ways after Barnes & Noble bookstores to attract people who sometimes just want to be in a literary environment.

New libraries include quiet study rooms but also have multipurpose spaces for book club meetings, sessions on how to write college application essays, tai chi demonstrations and children’s science experiments. On Tuesday evening, a Mark Twain impersonator will perform at Cameron Village Regional Library, while teens at West Regional Library embed secret messages in handmade beaded bracelets.

An enthusiastic audience

For her Storytime, Wake Forest’s Bishop gets 30 to 60 children per session, many of them regulars who recognize “Quackers,” Bishop’s duck hand puppet, and have learned the words to all her songs. Some moms bring tote bags full of the children’s books they checked out last week to exchange for another pile.

Heather Stultz began bringing her son, Sam, now 2, about a year ago. She now also brings her daughter, Sydney, who is 15 months. Sam is an enthusiastic audience member, often walking through the crowd to get a closer look at the drawings in the book Bishop is reading.

Though she lives just a couple of minutes away from the Wake Forest branch, Stultz said she would drive a few extra miles to use Northeast Regional when it’s finished because Storytime could be held in a room away from the main section of the library.

“I’m afraid to let (the children) go because I don’t want them going over and bothering other people in the library,” she said.

Most patrons seemed unperturbed. About a dozen of them had arrived early and, when the doors opened, went straight to work. In a renovation completed last year, the branch got new carpet and paint, a new circulation desk and a refreshed layout that made more seating room for people who use the library’s free Wi-Fi to work off their own laptops. Most of those were full by 11 a.m.

Some of those people have wireless Internet at home, and any of them could log on at a McDonald’s.

“They come to the library because it’s a place for them to see each other, to learn from each other,” Bergquist said. “Libraries just inspire people to become more literate.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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