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Charleston Business

Library Systems Looking for New Ways to Attract Borrowers

Jan 27, 2023 12:33PM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

When I was a kid, the library was my favorite place in the world. I once read a book about some kids who got accidentally locked in the library overnight, and for the rest of my childhood, that was my dream.

I proudly embraced the term “bookworm,” and spent almost every free moment with my nose in a book.

At the library I visited in my hometown of Hickory, North Carolina, books and record albums were the main items available for borrowing. But one day when I was about 10, I learned that you could also check out artwork, so I chose a small, 19th-century painting of a girl wearing a long blue dress, and I kept it on my dresser for the two weeks that I was allowed to borrow it.

My family made fun of me for many years after I returned that painting to the library, but I always thought it was special that you could get more than books from the library. 

And as it happens, my hometown library may have been ahead of its time, because more than four decades later, libraries have become much more than lending vehicles for books and music.

In South Carolina, the Richland County Library system in Columbia has become something of a one-stop shop where patrons can check out books, file for government benefits, create a resume and apply for jobs, or finish their high school diploma.

There’s even a Library of Things, where residents can check out all sorts of items using their library card. The collection includes Braille playing cards, lawnmowers, industrial sewing machines, gardening tools, video projection kit, even a ukulele. 

While many patrons check out these items for fun or to indulge in a hobby, the items are also helpful for would-be entrepreneurs, such as teens who can check out a lawnmower and make some money mowing neighbors’ lawns during the spring and summer months.

“We wanted to create opportunities for people to learn and share, specifically for entrepreneurs to be able to cultivate businesses and grow, without the worry about capital costs or investment,” said Anika Thomas, Richland County Library’s community relations manager.

Items in the Library of Things can be checked out for one week, and with some items, there’s a brief training session required, Thomas said. Kids under 18 need a parent or guardian’s permission to check out equipment such as lawnmowers.

Helping with benefits

The Richland County Library also employs full-time social workers who help patrons with everything from Medicare and Medicaid issues to veterans benefits and financial aid for college students.

The Charleston County Library System offers a telehealth program for women, in which patrons can receive preventive care, resources, and referrals related to pregnancy, mental health, cancer screenings, and more. In Charleston, the library also offers resources for people who are dealing with food insecurity or trying to find a job. 

Greenville County’s library system also has increased the types of resources available for patrons, including a seed library, where residents can take home a packet of flower or vegetable seeds along with instructions on planting the seeds and tending to the plants as they grow.

In 2022, Greenville added a Small Business Development Center to its roster of services. 

A partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration, the center offers services to local entrepreneurs at every stage of business creation and operation, from financial and marketing to grant writing and employment management. (Continued on pg. 9)

“It’s more than just sit and learn,” said Jimmy Wooten, community engagement manager. “It’s sit, learn, and experience. What do you have that’s unique to your business? Participants are able to ask those one-on-one questions.”

Patrons in Greenville can also stream or download eBooks, audiobooks, music, magazines, and movies. 

“We want people to be inspired, to discover and utilize and engage with their local library,” Wooten said. “Having access to a library card really provides access to a lot of physical materials, such as books and magazines, but for us it’s a little more, such as comics and DVDs and CDs, and even downloadable and streaming materials like movies and TV shows and music.”

Libraries are evolving in part as a survival tactic. According to a 2021 story by Publishers Weekly, library use in the United States has declined by more than 30 percent since 2010. But conversely, statistics also show that the Covid-19 pandemic brought an increase in reading, with many more Americans choosing to spend the lockdown engrossed in books.

The 2021 Freckle Report, created by London bookseller and library advocate Tim Coates, found that 87 percent of American respondents reported reading a book in 2021, compared to 81 percent in 2019.

Going fine-free

Another way that some systems are attracting patrons is by eliminating fines for lost or overdue materials as a way to open up library resources to patrons who may not have the ability to pay the fines. In South Carolina alone, libraries in Richland, Anderson, Charleston, York, Darlington, Lexington, Florence, and Fairfield counties have done away with overdue charges.

In Richland County, research found that overdue fines were responsible for less than 0.5 percent of the budget, but “the time we spend collecting fees uses up hundreds of dollars in staff,” Thomas said. “So we noted back in 2019 that taxpayers would not pay more because of the library making that change.”

Patrons in Richland County still pay a fee for lost or damaged materials, but there’s no charge for returning a book a day late – or even six months late.

Thomas said her library system has found that ending overdue fees has inspired many patrons to become more regular users of the library. 

Forty years ago, when I checked out that painting, I couldn’t have envisioned how vastly library services would expand in my adulthood, but it’s exciting to see how they’re changing, and to imagine what libraries will be like for the next generation of patrons.