Gwinnett libraries have ups and downs, but keeping current

With funding down, the Gwinnett County Public Library officials have struggled to keep up with a growing community.

Last year, the system of 15 local branches implemented a "buddy branch model" to handle $2.8 million in funding cuts from the county.

To keep each library open each day while reducing the hours from 53 to 44 per week, officials paired two nearby branches with complementary hours.

"Most customers have worked out how to get to the library or their buddy library within the new hours of operation but not all; foot traffic as well as circulation is down," said Nancy Stanbery-Kellam, executive director of GCPL. "This is discouraging because this means citizens are not able to access the collection they have invested in over the years. There will always be a direct correlation between open hours and use."

Nobody with the system was happy with the budget cuts, but slashed hours were its best plan to keep all of the branches open, she said.

"Reducing hours at all locations has taken its toll on citizens' ability to access their facilities, assistance and physical collections," Stanbery-Kellam said. "The idea of closing facilities is a drastic measure that no library wants to consider."

On the other hand, web traffic has increased dramatically. The website or "Virtualville" branch visits have risen 101 percent since 2005. Those figures are combined with the number of people visiting the facilities to get the GCPL's total number of visitors in its fiscal year (July 1 to June 30).

According to Stanbery-Kellam, 3.3 million people visited the 12 branches in 2005 compared to 3.4 million at the 15 branches in 2011, which is a 3 percent increase. These totals have not taken into account the decline in visitors for the 2012 fiscal year.

Despite hardship in the past few years, GCPL has come up with a creative way to gain additional revenue: support from readers. Shoppers can support the library system by purchasing books online from Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com and BetterWorld Books, Inc. GCPL is part of an affiliate program with each company, so every time someone buys a product from one of the companies' websites, the library system receives a percentage of the purchase.

Additionally, officials have begun efforts to add advertising, sponsorships and an endowment to its fundraising campaign.

With the funds received, the libraries continue accumulating more technology, as they have for the years past to stay up to date with visitors' needs. Guests now have the ability to self checkout, organize free web-based conferences, receive text messages for quick answers to questions, train hands-on with staff for new technology like the Kindle, Nook and iPad, and more.

Soon, the library will allow patrons to borrow laptops and use new iMac computers on location.

In 2005, GCPL pushed for more eBooks, especially reference materials. Seven years later, there aren't as many printed materials converted to digital as anticipated.

"Primarily, the reason for this is that authors, publishers and distributors are still working out their business models," Stanbery-Kellam said. "The public is still demanding print and some items are just not available in a digital format."

The library continues to grow with the county by creating new programs, including the arts, for its facilities and receiving continuous support from the community.

"As one of the untapped portals to economic development, the library has introduced Integrated Arts in the library," Stanbery-Kellam said. "We have fostered and encouraged the love of the literary, performing and visual arts through our ... Fall into the Arts series of programs. Every branch has introduced the arts into their branch programming to include displaying works of art, ballet pieces and musical performances.

"All have been well attended, giving many community members the opportunity to experience the arts when they may not otherwise have had the opportunity to do so. Generous community partnerships have made this possible."

This story is part of the 2012 annual Progress edition, "Moving Gwinnett Toward One Million." To see the complete online edition, click HERE.