While public libraries elsewhere face are seeing services drop due to budget cuts, Santa Monica’s main library is busier than ever. The library’s open architecture, large catalog, free internet access, natural lighting, café, garden spaces, and artwork draw more residents and nonresidents to the library.
“I love this library,” said Mary McNeal of Hollywood, who visits the main library two to three times a month for books, research, and movies. “I live in Hollywood but I prefer to travel to this library.”
This growth in usership has helped Santa Monica’s public libraries rank among the top 3 percent of the nation’s public libraries, according to the latest survey by the Library Journal. The survey, known as the Library Journal Index of Public Library Service 2010, is a measure of how well public libraries are serving their communities. Based on fiscal year 2008 data, more than 7,400 U.S. public libraries were ranked in four per-capita areas: number of visits, circulation rate of books and other materials, internet terminal usage, and program attendance. The Santa Monica libraries earned five stars, which is the top ranking.
“I’m not surprised to hear that,” said Tom Marshall of Topanga Canyon, who visits the main library once a week to borrow books. “It’s a big, convenient library that offers so much.”
The original main library was built in early 1965 and remodeled in the 1980s to remove asbestos. From 2003 to January 2006 the library was rebuilt to bring it up to earthquake code and to expand it to allow for more books and seating, and to provide more access to computer technology. The renovation project, which included the addition of parking spaces for the downtown area, took almost three years and $74 million. The project was recognized with several architecture, environmental, and design awards, including the 2006 Project of the Year award by the Southern California chapter of the American Public Works Association.
Since its reopening, the main library has been active and busy.
“People in the community are supportive and appreciative of the library, and there is a growing demand for library services,” said Greg Mullen, Santa Monica’s director of library systems/city librarian. “The new main library is a welcoming environment and provides a space that was missing in the community, a comfortable place where people can go to connect with others and with ideas. The City’s investment in the main library says something positive about our community.”
Circulation of books and other material at the main library is at an all-time high, up 35 percent compared to two years ago and up 126 percent from fiscal year 2006. This spike reflects the recession as well as the library’s attractive facilities.
During economic downturns the demand for the libraries’ resources can rise as more people seek free access to information, knowledge, and entertainment. Many people whose jobs have been hit by the recession are relying on the libraries to get employment or career information. At the libraries, people who are cutting back on their expenses can borrow books rather than buy them, read magazines and newspapers rather than subscribe to them, and learn how to do home repair projects themselves rather than pay for such services.
Raquel Jaffe-Day, a film costumer who lives in Santa Monica, said the recession has changed the way she uses the library. “We’ve saved a lot of money because we’re now getting a lot of DVDs from the library as opposed to renting them,” she said. She recently planned a trip by borrowing library books rather than buying travel books, and she now buys her books at the Friends of the Library bookstore, where she finds a good selection of used books and where the money she spends goes to help support the library. While she would like to see expanded library hours, she said she understands that “longer hours would mean more costs for the library, and I want the librarians here to get paid enough to stay because they are a great staff; they work so well at fixing problems and getting things back on the shelves quickly.”
In addition to limited library hours, unwanted solicitations from homeless people, insufficient study space and long checkout lines during peak periods, and long wait times for popular books on hold are some concerns expressed by library patrons.
Meeting the increased demand for library services without a significant increase in staffing has been among the libraries’ challenges. “We’re always looking at what we do, how we do it, what works, and ways to streamline our procedures,” said Mullen.
For example, the introduction of a self-checkout system and an automated system for managing computer usage by visitors have helped improve efficiency. In addition, the libraries’ reference services can now be accessed via the internet, email, or text messaging. One of the newest services offered by the libraries is a 24/7 eBook service, launched Dec. 1, which allows free download of electronic books to certain eBook devices.
A lengthy process is underway for a new library in the Virginia Avenue Park in the Pico neighborhood. This library will complement the park’s services and focus on the community’s culture, history, and needs such as programs to reduce youth violence. The library will add a fourth branch to Santa Monica’s public library system, which currently includes the Montana Avenue branch, the Fairview branch on Ocean Park Boulevard, and the Ocean Park branch on Main Street. Construction of the Pico library is expected to begin in 2013.
The libraries’ future evolution will continue to be shaped by the community’s input and by rapid technological changes in the way information is shared. “These are interesting times, and it makes it difficult to look far into the future,” said Mullen. “We need to continue our mission of providing access to information and resources. The way we provide services may change over time and will be driven by the needs of our community.”