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CONCORD / PENACOOK

Library use declines by 11 percent

'Reason unclear, given slow economy'

Fewer people are checking out fewer items from the Concord Public Library this fall, and officials aren't sure why.

There were 12 percent fewer books, DVDs and other items checked out of the library's two branches in September than in September 2009, and there was a nearly 11 percent drop in October from a year before. That's compared with a nearly 5 percent drop in July and an increase of more than 2 percent in August circulation, year-over-year.

The number of people walking through the door has also fallen, down nearly 11 percent in September from a year before and nearly 12 percent in October, according to data collected by the library.

"The staff and I continue to monitor the usage of the library, and there are a variety of things that we think are affecting our statistics," said Library Director Pat Immen.

But at the end of the day, she said, "we have not been able to come up with an explanation for why there's such a significant difference between this September and September a year ago."

The declining library use in Concord comes as the 21st Century Library Task Force prepares to issue its final report and recommendations to the city council. The report is expected to be submitted in December or January, Immen said.

A preliminary report from the task force last December identified Storrs Street as the first site choice for a new, 40,000-square-foot library building.

Libraries across the nation have seen more people using their services in recent years due to the recession, the American Library Association said earlier this year in its annual "State of America's Libraries" report.

In Concord, the library's main and Penacook branches saw attendance rise nearly 4 percent in fiscal 2009 from fiscal 2008, and circulation was up nearly 3 percent.

But attendance was down nearly 8 percent in fiscal 2010, which ended at the end of June, and circulation was down about 7 percent from a year before.

Immen pointed to a number of possible causes for declining use, including decreased staffing and hours, more use of online resources, and less money available to purchase new materials.

But the double-digit percentage drops in circulation and attendance the last two months have come as the main library branch remained open 55 hours a week, the same as last year. The library operates 50.5 hours a week during the summer, through Labor Day.

The change, Immen said, has been that the library is now open for a full day Saturday, rather than staying open Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons.

That consolidation was made because of reduced staffing, she said.

"They did have a big attendance on Sunday, I understand," said Paula Miner, chairwoman of the library's board of trustees.

But Miner said there are likely many factors, not just one, behind the decline, which she described as a "disturbing trend." She said library trustees will study the problem and want to gather feedback from the public on library use.

"If we could discern the problem, believe me, we would do anything in our power to rectify it because the library's important," Miner said. "Even in this technological world, it's still important."

The decline in use has been steeper at the small Penacook branch than at the main branch on Green Street, though Immen noted that since fewer people use the Penacook branch overall, changes would appear larger when put in terms of percentages.

Circulation was down 39 percent at the Penacook branch in September from a year before and down 30 percent in October, after falling 26 percent each in July and August from the same month in 2009.

At the main library, circulation fell 4 percent in July and rose 3 percent in August before dropping 11 percent in September and 10 percent in October from a year before.

The public libraries in Manchester and Portsmouth haven't seen the same declines.

From January through October, circulation is up 4.5 percent and attendance is up 2.5 percent at the Manchester City Library compared with the same time period last year, said director Denise van Zanten.

"We're still seeing monthly increases on a regular basis," she said, noting that the library's hours haven't changed and "we're still buying lots of new materials."

At the Portsmouth Public Library, "2010 was a big growth year for us, and 2011 so far has been just about flat," said director Mary Ann List. "We're neither increasing greatly or decreasing greatly."

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)

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