LAWRENCEVILLE - As library officials debated how best to weather a financial crisis, local residents clung to signs that said, "A computer lab does not equal a library."
But in Lilburn, Snellville and Dacula, the shelves of books will be replaced by rows of computers.
In a split vote Tuesday, the Gwinnett County Public Library's Board of Trustees decided to create a regional approach to service - leaving three libraries open 43 hours a week, nine branches open 35 hours and converting three to labs.
"The branches are not closing down," system spokeswoman Michelle Long said Wednesday of the benefits of the new scheme, which is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1.
Community libraries will function the same as the three regional libraries - Collins Hill, Five Forks and Suwanee, which Long said were chosen because of access to major thoroughfares and high usage - but will have reduced hours.
The labs, though, will only have book access through holds, a situation that brought some Dacula residents to tears, even though their branch's closure was reversed.
"A library is supposed to provide books," Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said Wednesday. "That's a serious change."
Beaudreau, who banded together with political foes to try to stop the Dacula library closure, said he wasn't happy with the outcome this week. He said he is considering solutions for the county government to take as well as possible state legislation.
Members of the Dacula business community have said they will file a lawsuit within a week.
But Long said library staff recommended the regional library option - among five choices offered to the board - to close a funding shortfall of $4 million while fulfilling the No. 1 request from library users of computer access.
Other options included not opening the new Hamilton Mill branch, which is under construction, but keeping the other 14 open 38 hours a week; opening all 15 branches 35 hours a week; creating regions based on commission districts; and having 12 branches and three labs with further reduced hours. All five options, Long said, would require layoffs.
In the option chosen, all of the labs will continue to have a librarian available, and library officials said they would offer classes at the labs. But there will be no story time or children's programming. Long said a special collection could be housed in the three-year-old Dacula branch, which is the largest of the three designated to become a lab.
Long, as well as library board members, stressed that the situation would be temporary, although community members seemed to believe the change would not be reversed.
Library board members also adopted some changes to the fee structure, including blocking check-outs after $15 in fines, instead of the current $25, charging for computer use guest cards for people who do not have library cards and charging $20 for use of community rooms.
While Board member Phillip Saxton asked for a doubling of late fees from 20 cents a day to 40 cents, Long said library staff did not agree with the proposal because the county's fines are already the highest in the area and could discourage people from returning late materials.