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Georgia libraries boost resources, services and hours to serve growing number of patrons

GPLS News, January 2016

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Georgia libraries boost resources, services and hours to serve growing number of patrons
Georgians value the benefits their public library cards provide. State population: 10.25 million; Georgians with library cards: 4.37 million; Georgians with PINES cards: 2.46 million

Once again proving their future is for expansion not extinction, public libraries in Fiscal Year 2015 continued to add patrons, resources, services and for the first time in seven years, hours to meet the needs of residents across the state.

"In a time when some people asked if libraries are still relevant, we were pleased to see that more than 200,000 people signed up for library cards this year," said State Librarian Julie Walker. "That's an impressive 5 percent increase in cardholders, pushing our total past 4.36 million."

Nearly 43 percent of all Georgians now hold a valid, and active, library card.

"More and more people of all ages are finding that their community libraries are evolving to match the technology of the times, continuing to offer reliable information, educational support at every level, innovative and entertaining programming and much more," Walker said.

Indeed, attendance at library programs spiked nearly 25 percent in FY2015, to 2,335,886. That eclipses the 20 percent increase in the number of programs offered. Many author events and even some children's storytimes have become so popular that libraries are having to issue tickets on a first-come, first-served basis for them.

The Hall County Library System is one whose programming has definitely "taken off" in the past year, according to Director Lisa MacKinney.

"The number of children's offerings, as well as program attendance, increased by 10 percent here," she said. "In fact, we've had to implement a stroller-parking plan and, in some cases, hand out tickets during popular summer reading events. We've also experienced great success on our gaming nights, with Minecraft play nights being particularly popular. We have increased the number of sessions at all our branches, and we still have to take registrations ahead of time to make sure we have enough computers available."

MacKinney acknowledged that it is sometimes challenging for staff members to handle registrations and pass out tickets for first entry. "But patrons seem to appreciate that we value their time and want to make sure their families have the best experience possible," she said. "No one wants to show up for an event only to be told that it's sold out, and we would rather add more programs than turn anyone away."

Overall, Georgia's libraries once again welcomed nearly 30 million visitors last year.

"In addition to welcoming their traditional walk-in patrons, libraries have begun offering so many resources than can be accessed remotely from home or office," Walker pointed out. "These virtual library visits are becoming an increasingly popular alternative for those who are unable, for whatever reason, to visit in person."

The newest addition to GALILEO, Mango Languages, is proving to be a big winner for those accessing the suite on site and remotely through Georgia's public libraries. According to Wendy Cornelisen, assistant state librarian for library innovation and collaboration, residents took more than 15,000 of Mango's online courses in just the first three months.

"While Spanish is by far the most popular language and English-as-a-second-language classes rank among the top offerings," she said, "it's surprising to see how many people are interested in Latin, especially in Hall County, and in Romanian, which has been popular at Live Oak Public Libraries. And English for Korean speakers is a top pick for the Sara Hightower Regional Library."

The soaring nationwide popularity of e-book readers, including Kindle and Nook, is especially true in Georgia, Cornelisen noted.

"As various types of resources grow in popularity," she said, "libraries must continue to stretch their budget dollars to give patrons what they want. It is essential that libraries continuously reinvent themselves for changing times and provide access to content in all forms. Library administrators are making stronger efforts to track the number of downloadable resources and e-books that they are providing, so we have a clearer picture than ever this year of their importance."

All is not rosy for libraries, however, as physical materials holdings remained stagnant at about 16.5 million in FY2015, and circulation of those materials declined by about 4 percent.

"After seven years with little to no state funding for books and other materials, Georgia's public libraries are seeing a negative impact on circulation due to the lack of new titles and of updated collections," Walker said.

"Georgia Council for Public Libraries, an advocacy group composed of library leaders from across the state, has targeted materials funding as its top priority for 2016, citing the importance of updating nonfiction collections, meeting the demand for new and popular titles and satisfying the growing requests for more and more current children's materials.

"Additionally, public libraries are facing a dilemma in how best to allocate their scarce materials funding as the demand for both print books and electronic resources, such as downloadable audio books and video, e-books and e-magazines, continues to grow.

"Demand is also up for music and movies on CD and DVD," she said, "and these competing needs are forcing librarians to make difficult choices as they strive to meet the needs and desires of the increasingly diverse communities they serve."