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Beyond Bookmobiles: Libraries check out paths to patrons

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 29, 2018, 2:09 p.m.

Ways to bring a library closer to where people are – think bookmobiles – date back to horse-drawn carts delivering books to rural crossroads.

Children in the 1950s to ’80s visited bus-sized bookmobiles, a slice of Americana that faded under higher costs and lower attendance, although exceptions exist. Community Library Network out of a Hayden branch still runs a 36-foot-long bookmobile, visiting multiple North Idaho stops.

Along with digital inroads, regional libraries are exploring new avenues of outreach to go to people’s convenient places, with a twist on the conventional.

In 2016, Coeur d’Alene Public Library began a space-sharing project in Lake City High School’s library, transitioning after classes Monday through Thursday to serve city residents. At Spokane Valley Mall, the BookEnd opened last year as a boutique library, with a retail feel and high-demand materials.

“We thought it was a bookstore and stumbled in; that was last week,” said Josh Holman, while at the BookEnd on Jan. 18. He and son Jacob, 9, checked out books as part of a weekly visit to a nearby game store.

“We go to a card-game tournament, so the library being here is just convenient as another good thing to do with my son.”

The Spokane County Library District opened the second-level space near Macy’s eight months ago, so far attracting 30,000 visitors. Circulation has grown, the district said, from 1,800 for May 2017 and now averaging nearly 2,700 items checked out a month.

The mall outlet also has drawn new library card holders — totaling 620 in 2017 — many entering at first with intent to buy rather than borrow, said David Wyatt, the BookEnd’s library supervisor. Visitor numbers spike in busier retail seasons, such as for back-to-school shopping and the holidays.

“A lot of usage has been people in the mall discovering us,” Wyatt said. “People I’ve overheard say this is convenient, and they haven’t used a library card for years, so they renew.”

Lake City Public Library extends the life of a school space that would otherwise be closed in off hours – and because it’s in a public building – residents have easy access, said branch manager JD Smithson.

Up to 120 people per shift use branch services of Lake City, which quickly transitions into that space at the high school Monday through Thursday around 2:45 p.m., when Smithson arrives.

By 3 p.m., students and regular public library patrons can check out books, DVDs and other materials and use the school’s computers; social media sites and other internet services that are blocked during the school day are unblocked for library patrons. It stays open during the four days until 6:30 p.m.

“So the library actually never shuts down,” Smithson said. “Around 2:45 p.m., the classes that are in there leave, and then students come back in. I can get library patrons from there as well. The numbers are always up each month.”

The public library’s initial months in 2016 drew about 30 to 50 patrons per shift, but now averages 80 to 120 people. Limited summer hours tend to draw up to 30 people a shift.

Tweaking outreach

The BookEnd in Spokane Valley differs from other branches in that a majority of its collection has new and popular reads, DVDs and audiobooks, with a few classics in the mix. Items are shelved attractively near windows to grab shoppers’ attention.

As another operating switch, material from the BookEnd can’t be put on hold through the district’s online catalog. Items from the BookEnd that people might drop off at another library are returned directly to that mall location rather than circulated.

That means more available copies of sought-after titles, Wyatt said.

“We put an emphasis on newer and high-demand materials, so a lot of stuff that people don’t necessarily find on the shelf at one of our other locations, we’ll have there.”

The BookEnd often carries multiple copies of work by a best-selling authors, such as Danielle Steel or David Baldacci. There’s also a pop-culture nod, with one display of books tied to movies or TV.

Another distinction is longer hours seven days a week, like retail stores, with the BookEnd open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and 11 a.m-6 p.m Sunday. The district pays $3,000 monthly rent, a standard for any of the similar-sized mall spaces, said Jane Baker, a SCLD spokeswoman.

Visitors won’t find programs such as kids’ storytime, but the outlet has full services that include reserving material from other branches and computers for internet access.

While the Lake City Public Library keeps a collection of the system’s materials in the school’s library, Smithson regularly changes them out to refresh selections. She uses a computer system that can check out both the school’s and Lake City’s items.

“I bring at least one bin every day that can hold generally 20 to 30 books,” Smithson said. “The collection held at Lake City is a rotating collection. Every month or bimonthly, I replace the books on shelf. I have small audiobook collection, and I rotate that frequently.”

The school librarian also has some training to check out public library materials.

Smithson also couriers in requested library network items to the high school, and she often assists students with research materials for homework projects.

A majority of Lake City Public Library’s users — about 75 percent — are high school students, but residents from nearby neighborhoods regularly visit, Smithson said. Residents tell her that coming into the school, at 6101 N. Ramsey, is more convenient for them than going to the downtown branch.

“There’s a large neighborhood right behind, and it’s just a five-minute walk for a lot of people,” Smithson said. “It’s on a bike path.”

This summer, because of construction at Lake City High School, the public library will temporarily move to nearby Skyway Elementary, then return by late August or early September to the Ramsey Road site.

Mobile tradition

Community Library Network’s bookmobile continues to cover communities spread out across Kootenai County, traversing more than 7,000 miles during 2017 and reaching communities such as Athol and Harrison.

CLN’s modern bookmobile also transports materials to a few Coeur d’Alene schools, among other education facilities that lack libraries, said Karin Hall, outreach manager.

“The bookmobile started in about 1977,” Hall said. “It’s been a continuous community service since then to fill in for the places that don’t have a traditional library.”

The bookmobile holds thousands of books and other materials, on 56 shelves. More than half are children’s books.

The library uses a secondary Sprinter van for mobile delivery of a smaller selection of materials to various locations, including about 40 senior living facilities each month.

Similarly, both the Spokane County Library District and Spokane Public Library offer smaller mobile services, often sending staff to nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and group homes once a month to deliver materials to residents, recommend books and take requests.

Although there are expenses and regular mechanical work to run the larger bookmobile, Hall said CLN’s director John Hartung is a supporter of keeping the service because of its impact on schools, rural communities and residential areas without easy access to a branch.

“Without our bookmobile and other outreach services, a lot of our community would not have access to a public library because either they can’t get to a traditional library, or there isn’t one in their community,” she said.

“There are kids who live out in the country attending Kootenai schools who aren’t able to get to the library in Harrison, and seniors who never leave their facilities who would never have access to books to read, or listen to or DVDs to watch.”

As a recent example, the main bookmobile served close to 1,500 people for the month of October 2017. The service’s van service took materials to another 275 residents.

“October is a typical month for us because we’re into schools,” she said. “We do go out all year long.”

Some users are so regular they’ve befriended bookmobile drivers. A couple of Post Falls residents made Hall a quilt for Christmas. “They’re so grateful that we come.”

Snow or shine, the bookmobile heads out regularly Monday through Thursday.

“We go through snow storms and weather,” she said. “We’ve all driven in some kind of blizzard or snow conditions. We’ve done it all, even when the generator isn’t working and it’s 90 degrees. That doesn’t happen often.”

Personalized and pop-up

Packaging by design is a newer approach by Spokane Public Library for its outreach services. SPL uses a van packed with library materials to reach patrons who can’t easily access branches.

Jason Johnson, SPL community engagement manager, said recent changes mean delivering more personalized selections based on what users say they want to check out.

“Instead of bringing a giant browse selection, we’re bringing in a personalized browse for each customer. It’s allowing us to reach a much larger segment of the community just based on capacity.”

“Since we started doing that about five or six months ago, we’ve doubled the amount of outreach customers we’re reaching, just by changing the service model,” Johnson said. “Customers can give us their preferences on the type of books or specific titles they’re looking for.”

The library’s outreach service also has operated pop-up libraries periodically at different places, including at West Central Community Center.

“The location is kind of between Shadle Library and Downtown Library, but not all that close to either,” Johnson said. “So in the summertime, we did a weekly pop-up library there.”

SPL operated a traditional bookmobile starting in 1948 and still operated such a program until around the late ’80s, apparently stopping sometime by the early ’90s, he said.

Foot traffic

The county district started bookmobile service in the 1950s that continued until the program ended in 1980, an online SCLD history says. In 2014 and 2015, ballot measures taken to voters failed to pass a bond to build a new Valley library branch. The district has 10 traditional libraries.

With the BookEnd, Wyatt said the site is attracting people who don’t have a nearby library. One group included students from the project-based high school InTec, at 3830 N. Sullivan Road, taking a field trip to the mall library with teachers.

Parents signed library card applications ahead of time, and librarians in that one day set up 20 cards.

Although librarians do sometimes give directions to Barnes & Noble, when visitors really do want to buy books, Wyatt said people overall seem receptive to what they find at the BookEnd.

“We have lots of materials facing the windows, so it’s more visually appealing and hopefully grabs attention, so people say, ‘Oh, I should check that out.’”


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