Library shakes things up a bit
'New hours, revamped space part of effort to attract users'
The Concord Public Library is getting a makeover and plans to increase its hours after several years of cutbacks and falling circulation.
Renovations undertaken over the last 10 weeks or so include adding a "teen zone," converting office space into public meeting and work rooms, adding more computers, and combining the reference and circulation desks.
Many of the changes are meant to address problems that were identified in a 2007 needs assessment and would be absent in a new library building, which is tentatively scheduled for construction in 2018. But with circulation expected to fall 13 percent this fiscal year from 2009 levels, Library Director Patricia Immen said it was "just more and more obvious we needed to do some things here."
Plus, City Manager Tom Aspell's proposed fiscal 2012 budget includes a 6.2 percent spending increase for the library and an increase in its hours from 55 to 65 a week from Labor Day to the end of April, with smaller increases from May through August.
"Our goal," Immen said, "is to be more welcoming to the public, more accessible to the public and to continue to meet the changing needs of the community."
Stemming a trend
The library has faced considerable cuts as the city government has responded to the recession. In fiscal 2009, its budget was nearly $1.7 million, but the next year that was cut to more than $1.4 million. This year, it was nearly $1.5 million. Staffing has fallen from the equivalent of 23.6 full-time positions in 2009 to 19.6 positions this year.
Hours also were reduced. In the fiscal 2010 budget, Aspell proposed closing the Penacook branch and reducing the main branch's hours from 54.5-62.5 hours a week to 35 hours a week. In the end, the council kept the Penacook branch open and reduced the Green Street branch to 55 hours a week most of the year, and 50.5 hours from May through August.
In the current fiscal year, the number of hours remained the same but staff cuts led the library to eliminate its Sunday hours and stay open longer on Saturdays.
Immen said the reduced hours have led to reduced use of the library, as documented in statistics accompanying the city budget.
Circulation fell from more than 319,000 items checked out in 2009 to a little more than 277,000 items expected in the fiscal year ending June 30. The number of library programs rose from 195 last year to 197 this year, but the number of children and adults participating is expected to drop from nearly 5,600 to fewer than 4,000.
"The public gives us a lot of feedback on our facilities, our services, our hours, and we recognized that it was time to do some things," Immen said.
Aspell's recommended budget doesn't restore funding to pre-recession levels but does make some investments. The library budget will be discussed in detail by the city council at a June 6 public hearing.
The department is set to get a budget of $1.58 million, a 6.2 percent increase from the current year. Staffing will remain the same, and the materials budget will be decreased by a few hundred dollars, to $186,235.
But $11,400 would be spent on a self-checkout machine for the children's room on the second floor. That, together with other changes, Aspell said, will free up staff to extend hours from 55 hours a week to 65 hours a week from Labor Day to April 30. It would reopen on Sunday, from 1 to 6 p.m., and open at 10 a.m. on other days.
Hours would jump to 60 a week in May and June and 57 hours a week from July 1 through Labor Day. But the library would remain closed Sundays during those months.
Immen said no changes are planned at the Penacook branch, which opens 12 hours a week.
Chris Miller, president of the nonprofit Concord Public Library Foundation, said more hours would be good news.
"The bottom line is that clearly the library can use more funding" than it's received in past years, he said. "I think the concern about traffic volume at the library, the consensus within the foundation is that that had a lot to do with the necessity of cutting back the hours at the library. The fewer hours the library is open, the less people can use it."
New old library
The library building itself is getting improvements, too.
Immen said yesterday that work has been under way for the last 10 weeks or so, and Aspell said the work is costing about $40,000, including the new self-checkout unit. They are using money already in various city budgets and in-house work plus donations from the Concord Public Library Friends.
Among the changes: A "teen zone" has been created in a corner of the first floor, containing teen and young-adult books, and the number of public computers on the first floor has been increased from 14 to 20. Former office space on the first and second floors has been renovated into a small meeting room and a children's story room.
A basement room has been turned into a lounge area - "We're going to be more tolerant of noise down there than upstairs," Immen said - and CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes and music have been consolidated in one location. The reference and circulation desks have been combined to free up staff.
The goal, she said, is to make better use of the library's 1938 building and encourage patrons to make more use of online and other resources (the current self-checkout machine already accounts for 35 to 40 percent of checkouts, Immen said) so the staff can focus on programming and other work.
Many of the changes are in response to shortcomings identified in a 2007 report prepared for the city, which recommended moving to a new building. A task force this year submitted its final report recommending a new library on Storrs Street at an estimated cost of nearly $20 million, and money is programmed in the city's capital program to buy property in 2013 and build the library in 2018.
"That's a lot of years," Immen said, and she noted city administrators want the council members elected this November to review Concord's ambitious capital program and set priorities.
In the meantime, library leaders wanted to make improvements "in small ways," she said.
"Each year, the budget is all about trying to do the same things or more with the same resources, or decreased resources in some cases," Immen said. "I think we're always trying to be more efficient with what we have."
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)