Nearly a half million fewer people walked through the doors of Erie County’s public libraries between 2012 and 2015.
Visits dropped 13 percent – from 3.65 million to 3.17 million. Circulation plunged by 14 percent with 7 million books and materials checked out last year compared to the 8.25 million in 2012.
Yet instead of talking about closing, at least four of the 37 branches want the opposite for their aging buildings. They plan to expand, with the hope of landing a state grant to help cover the costs..
In West Seneca, the town is forging ahead with a $6 million plan to expand, one piece at a time. Renderings on an easel by the library door show how the plain, small 1965-era building will transform into a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque campus with fireplaces, a cafe, business incubator, Chamber of Commerce offices and youth center that doubles as a Town Board meeting room.
Weeks ago, Orchard Park held its first brainstorming meeting about adding room to meet demand. Programs like Lego Club, teen “Battle of the Books” trivia competition and an illustrator’s lesson in charcoal drawing don’t always have room for everyone who wants to join.
Marilla, still in its homey original 1936 building, and Amherst’s expansive Audubon made addition plans, too.
Their inspiration: Hamburg’s recent $3.6 million renovation.
“You just can’t build Grandma’s old library anymore,” said Gene Hart, a West Seneca Town Board member and a board-library liaison. “We anticipate doing what we’re doing here will double the amount of people going through the building.”
Wi-Fi and space to meet
Even though the overall numbers passing through the electric door counters are down, librarians say those who come are attracted by two interests. Technology, like free Wi-Fi, and a place to hang out.
Systemwide, demand spiked for e-materials that can be downloaded from home. No trip to the local library was needed for the 9.7 million website visits to check hours, read newspapers and comb through databases in last year, which was up from 6.7 million in 2014.
“In this day and age, technology is the leader. The library is offering that technology,” said Joy Testa Cinquino, library spokeswoman. “We certainly recognize traditional services for libraries have changed.”
Library buildings reel in patrons with Wi-Fi. The number of people logging in to the libraries’ free Wi-Fi is up 10.7 percent systemwide in the last year.
Branches also attract patrons by offering an array of creative programs. The only drawback: small, out-of-date rooms. That’s prompted some to consider expanding, using a mix of town funds and state grants.
In Marilla, a proposed $1 million, two-story addition would almost double the 3,000-square-foot library and help fix the annual problem at Christmas when so many sign up to build graham cracker houses that three sessions with 15 kids each aren’t enough.
“We are always turning people away,” said Shannonn Jakubowski, the library director who uses rolling book carts to set up displays. “We’ve gotten really creative in our use of space.”
In Amherst, where there are four libraries, the biggest is Audubon at 19,000 square feet. But even Audubon doesn’t have enough for the crowd it draws to its 100-person room and three smaller spaces where a crochet club meets and new immigrants study with English tutors.
“We are becoming a combination library-community center,” said Roseanne Butler-Smith, director of the four Amherst libraries.
After the downtown Central Library, Audubon’s 412,801 circulation count last year was the highest in the county’s 37-branch system.
Yet out of consideration for West Seneca’s dire need, it put its $2 million plan to add 6,000 square feet on hold.
“We want to expand,” said Butler-Smith, “but there’s a difference between wanting and really needing something.”
Hamburg’s larger library
Hamburg’s original circa-1966 library on Buffalo Street always seemed dark, small and stern to John Rooney when he was growing up. He remembers being scolded for pulling a book off the shelf when he was a boy.
Today, the library’s new circular addition at the back where the cafe softly plays vintage Top 40 hits reminds him of Frank Lloyd Wright’s circular Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. There’s a fireplace, wall space to display artwork and a meeting room that opens to the cafe.
“I really do like the open feel,” said Rooney.
He came from New York City with his wife, Mara, to see the exhibit of portraits by his brother Robert now on the walls.
“It’s more warm and welcoming than it used to be,” said Mara Rooney. “It’s nice that it’s open and became a gathering place.”
The 6,000-square-foot addition to the 10,000-square-foot library was spurred when the air conditioning failed in 2012, said library director Jack Edson.
“That really got the project going,” he said.
The inviting space inspired a local singer to start a “Society of Singers.” For the last few months, about a dozen come on some Thursday nights with sheet music – the country song “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Hey There” from “Pajama Game” – to perform with accompaniment from piano or guitar.
Librarians are adding programs, too, to take advantage of the big new meeting space.
Five to 15 poets come to read their work to each other in a new Poetry Club that meets on the last Monday of the month. A new cookbook club is now prepping for St. Patrick’s Day and planning for a tasting potluck of dishes from an Irish cookbook for a coming meeting.
“It’s not just books in order on a shelf,” Edson said. “We really wanted to make Hamburg a better place.”
Orchard Park’s plans
In Orchard Park, the colonial-style library with paned windows stretching from the floor to its high ceilings was the most-visited branch after the Central Library downtown last year.
While 2015’s patron door count of 195,212 dropped by 1 percent from the 197,118 of the year before, expansion may be a natural next step for a growing town: Orchard Park’s population is about 30,000 now. When the library was built in 1970, it was closer to 20,000.
“As people have gotten more digital, we have to have a reason for them to come here,” said Peggy Errington, director at Orchard Park. “We still want them to feel this is a vibrant, relevant place for the community.”
A few weeks ago, about 25 people showed up on a cold, snowy Tuesday to support the idea of an addition. Most were parents and teens who duke it out in the popular librarywide “Battle of the Books” trivia contest.
That was one of the happenings listed in Errington’s most recent 2014 report posted online: 11,705 adults and children came to 448 programs, many held in the meeting room with about a 54-person limit.
Programming is so popular, she said, there are wait lists for things like Lego Club and a recent charcoal drawing lesson with a children’s book author.
“People are left on the outside looking in,” said Errington.
Sometimes gatherings are forced into the main library space, like when the Niagara Falls primate sanctuary brought their monkeys. And late last summer, a rainstorm sent a llama, its owner and children inside for a reading of “Llama Llama Red Pajama.”
“I think at one point people construed the library to be a quiet shushing study place. We have evolved into a place where we want people to feel comfortable spending time,” Errington said.
As if to prove the point, 17-year-old Logan Sharp headed into the library on a recent afternoon from the parking lot. She was hoping to find a copy of the book she wanted from the Shadow Falls series about a teen’s quest for her supernatural self.
On a table by West Seneca’s library door, names were carefully scrawled on a dozen sign-up sheets: for the teen book club, tech toy building, Legos, button art, “teen lounge night,” a group that likes to color coloring books, bingo, a cookbook club and a kid writers and illustrators club.
As with branches across the county, door counts have dropped by 13 percent and circulation has dropped by 14 percent in the last four years. But sometimes so many people come for talks, like the one about historical breweries and taverns, that they, too, have to move events out of the 24-person room and into the library stacks, said Emily Moser, the West Seneca children’s librarian.
“I would say to anybody who says that libraries are outdated that they haven’t stepped into a library,” she said.
The proposed new design for West Seneca’s branch would redefine “library” even more. The current 7,700-square-feet would morph into 26,000 square feet with a cafe, business space, a Town Board meeting room and youth center. Outside, a fireplace and an elongated porch would invite people to lounge.
So far the town has $1.2 million in state grants for the project, estimated to cost $6 million in its current form. West Seneca will also use $1.4 million in savings coming in from its conversion of streetlights from incandescent bulbs to LED.
Another $460,000 in estimated revenue should also come in from leasing the cafe and Chamber of Commerce space.
To keep the first $400,000 in state grant funds, construction must start later this year, said Hart, the Town Board member and board-library liaison.
“If we didn’t do something proactive, the next time there were library cuts, West Seneca would be eliminated,” he said. “What we’re building is West Seneca’s front porch.”