Connecticut library programs grow as book-borrowing declines

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Connecticut’s libraries are increasing their focus on programs for the public, according to data from the Connecticut State Library.

Statistics representing traditional library mainstays like book-loaning and computer use either have declined or held steady since the mid-2000s, but the number of programs put on by libraries has been on the rise.

While library memberships are down more than 25 percent since the mid-2000s, the number of programs offered by libraries statewide has nearly doubled since 2001.

“We’ve been concentrating a lot on programs as a way to get people into the library,” Connecticut Library Association President Karen Jensen said.

Jensen, who is also the library director for the James Blackstone Memorial Library in Branford, said programs range from classes on basic computer skills to career workshops and free legal advice.

At the Hartford Public Library on Main Street, there are English classes for non-native speakers, free concerts, an immigration assistance office, a passport office and countless events and programs for kids and teens.

One after-school program called YOUmedia Hartford gives teens an opportunity to use high-tech gear like 3D printers, cameras and a recording studio.

YOUmedia manager Tricia George said that, in addition to providing a place for teenagers to “geek out” with art and technology, the program also serves as a social space.

“A lot of the reason people come here is to connect to mentors and to connect to other teens,” she said. “Teens are really hungry for places to go and connect face to face.”

Libraries, George said, provide that.

“It’s a vital space for adults and teens and children and everyone,” she said.

Though most libraries in the state have budgets much smaller than Hartford’s, the increase in library programs is nearly ubiquitous.

Since 2001, the number of programs put on by Connecticut public libraries has increased from about 54,000 in 2001 to 96,000 in 2015, and last year they garnered more than 2 million attendees statewide.

Eighty-nine percent of towns have seen an increase in the number of programs put on by their libraries since 2001, and 74 percent of towns have seen an increase in per-capita attendance during that time.

“I think that public libraries have definitely become more of an education and community center,” Jensen said.

Other libraries, including the Killingly Public Library and Henry Carter Hull Library in Clinton, have toured the YOUmedia Hartford facility with plans to create similar “maker spaces,” George said.

She said the Westport Public Library already has a 3D printing lab, and Jensen said the Blackstone library has one as well.

But as programs have become more popular, the use of traditional library services has declined.

The number of library memberships statewide peaked at 2 million in 2008 and has since decreased to about 1.4 million in 2015 – a drop of more than 25 percent in seven years.

Instances of library staff providing recommendations or knowledge to the public also decreased by about 20 percent from its peak in 2008, from 4 million instances to about 3.2 million in 2015.

Jensen said she thinks this decrease is a result of the 2008 recession.

“When we were in the recession, the number of borrowers and the circulation of materials you can borrow went up a lot,” she said. “Libraries were advertised as a way you can save money if you’ve been laid off.”

She said as the economy has recovered, people may have less financial incentive to use libraries.

But Jensen said the increase in the number of programs compared to other services made sense in the context of libraries’ historical purpose.

“I think we’re going to continue down this path, that we’re still a place for people to learn and access new technology and obviously to access information,” she said. “We’re really still a great equalizer for people who don’t have these resources.”

What do you think?

  • Joseph Brzezinski

    How has library funding trended over the same periods of time? Has spending on books and lending activity declined and those savings applied to new programs?
    If new programs are educational, how are they coordinated with boards of education? Are educational costs of library programs reported and included into costs of education for towns?
    Do these programs impact achievement gaps in public efucation?