The fall and rise of libraries


Sunday January 2, 2011


Reeling over budget cuts, a dip in the city's population and shifting reading habits, the director of the Berkshire Athenaeum pondered how to continue to make his institution relevant.

He said he planned to investigate circulating audio cassettes and, perhaps, compact discs.

It was 1985, and the Pittsfield athenaeum had watched circulation of library materials decline 28 percent over the previous five years.

"Perhaps the public library may become less and less a source of books to be checked out and taken home by patrons, and more an information and referral center," then-director John Fuchs told The Eagle in October 1985.

Twenty-five years later, book circulation has dropped another 40 percent, but foot traffic has been increasing steadily for the past five years.

While circulation of all materials is up slightly at some sites, the biggest reason for optimism can be found at 8:45 each morning at the athenaeum entrances, where huddles of patrons wait to fill their minds with information in the modern world.

"Every day there are people waiting in the foyer for that door to open, and they go right to the Internet work stations," library director Ronald Latham said.

These days, access to technology has become an expectation rather than a luxury -- although it often is still priced as the latter, a tab the libraries must pick up in a time of slim budgets and tenuous fiscal futures.

"Computers in particular are expensive. It has made the cost of doing business as a library more expensive, and yet, it's more vital than ever to be connected," said Sharon Hawkes, executive director of the Lenox Library. "What's actually happened, since the age of the Internet, is library use across the country has gone up, not down."

"I would say that libraries everywhere are busier than ever," said Kathy Adams, director of the Lanesborough Library. "The only cloud on the horizon would be state and local budget cuts."

Even though the amount of items being taken out of libraries is meager compared to the circulation heyday of the 1970s, libraries' resurgence is visible in the many people utilizing services within their walls.

Computers and WiFi are still the biggest tech draws, but Berkshire County libraries are beginning their foray into e-book readers such as Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader. The Berkshire Athenaeum purchased three e-book readers from different providers, and the Lenox Library recently held an e-book reader demonstration for the public and is considering purchasing some e-book readers of its own.

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The relative novelty of the e-book readers underscores the financial risk that lurks within new technologies. Because the readers are still beset with kinks -- including the delay between page turns and the fact that not all works can be read in digital format -- there is a sense that they're not necessarily worth bankrolling fully.

Madeline Kelly, the Berkshire Athenaeum's reference services supervisor, quoted a recent New York Times column which suggested that, in five years, people will look at the current e-book readers the way they now view the Commodore 64, a computer designed in the early ‘80s for home use.

"The scary thing for us is it's expensive to make the step," Latham said. "We invested over 600 bucks [total] in the three different readers, and it's not going to be that long before those are totally obsolete."

The Central-Western Massachusetts Regional Library System (CW-MARS), an umbrella organization for libraries in the region, has allowed patrons to "borrow" downloadable books and audiobooks for several years through Overdrive Digital Library Reserve, but those e-books aren't compatible with the Kindle.

"The unfortunate thing about the way e-books are being made available is it doesn't really tie into the public library model," Latham said.

The problem of machines being made obsolete by newer iterations crops up with the popular public-access computers, as well. The ones in use in Pittsfield nowadays were purchased during 2008 renovations, and as they approach age 3, Latham said, they'll start breaking down. A full-sweep fleet replacement likely won't happen, he added, and so the aging machines will be sent to pasture only as the library can afford to trickle in new ones.

Amid the persistent financial worries inherent in the technological flux, however, there was a bit of bright news in Pittsfield when the City Council restored $50,000 in cut funding to the library's budget in June.

"Do I feel secure? No," Latham said. "Do I recognize that the city of Pittsfield, like most municipalities across the state, is facing some very difficult financial choices? Yes, they are, but one of my proudest moments was this past year when Council said, ‘We're not going to accept the mayor's recommendation; we don't think this is an appropriate budget for our library.' "

The success of the City Council's override came in a year when the athenaeum was more popular with city residents. The increased foot traffic over the past five years included a significant hike in fiscal 2010: 245,707 people visited the library from July 2009 to June 2010, an increase of about 12,000 from the previous 12-month period.

The athenaeum also notched a 1.5 percent increase in materials circulated, going from 260,315 to 264,255. The Lenox Library reported a 4.6 percent rise, from 74,311 to 77,758. More than half of that total was from books.

Book circulation also has been buoyed in recent years by the interlibrary loan, which allows patrons to order books from any library in CW-MARS.

Ever since the regional system allowed patrons to search for books at all locations, the number of items received from or lent to other libraries has burgeoned considerably -- the library brought in more than 32,000 volumes and sent out more than 19,000 in fiscal 2010.

And while a snowy day like Monday starts to make e-books look enticing, no librarian is tolling a death knell for the paper book just yet.

"I tend to doubt that [the e-book] is going to overwhelm physical books, certainly not anytime soon," Hawkes said. "You don't want to take your e-reader into the bathtub or the beach, for example, and many people are still saying there's just something about the experience of holding the physical book in your hand that they still find attractive."

To reach Amanda Korman:
(413) 496-6243


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