It doesn’t matter which of the new Scenic Regional Library branches he’s in, Director Steve Campbell walks around like a kid in a candy store, practically bouncing as he points out the features — living-room style seating areas with fireplaces, café areas where people can buy K-cups for $1 and use the Keurig machine to brew their selection of coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and booths and private study areas.
“Our children’s areas have been hugely popular,” Campbell remarked, noting they look more like something you would find at The Magic House than a public library.
“We have one of these in every branch,” he said, motioning to the Clever Touch screen tablet where a couple of children were interacting with a story. “Up to 10 different fingers can touch them at the same time . . . There are 1,000 or more literacy games loaded on them, and the kids love those.”
Every branch also has a magnetic wall of tubes and gears where children can configure various designs, pretend play pieces like a bank or grocery store, oversized foam blocks and train/Lego tables.
For teenagers, every Scenic branch now has a teen area with an X-box that has been loaded with games for them to play and comfortable seating. The color featured on the floor and walls at each branch are also the high school colors for that particular town, Campbell noted.
There also are two outside patios at every branch, one for adults and another where children can do crafts and hold story time on nice days. This year each library will receive an outdoor musical feature to encourage more children to use the space.
“It’s amazing that we can offer so much to the public that we couldn’t before, and they are really appreciating it,” said Campbell. “I never expected this much usage and growth.”
Double the Space Leads to Double-Digit Traffic, Use
Since passing a tax levy increase in April 2014, Scenic Regional Library has been working to renovate or build new libraries for each of its branches. Last year, six existing libraries more than doubled their space and one brand new facility was added:
A new 7,000-square-foot library was opened in Wright City May 21;
The Owensville branch went from 2,500 to 6,800 square feet;
New Haven, from 1,500 to 5,000 square feet;
Sullivan, from 3,000 to 10,000 square feet;
St. Clair, from 4,500 to 9,100 square feet;
Pacific, from 4,500 to 10,000 square feet; and
Warrenton, from 9,000 to 12,000 square feet.
(A new headquarters library under construction in Union is expected to open later this year. When it’s completed, it will have 23,000 square feet, compared to the 13,200 at the old facility, said Campbell.)
The new or renovated libraries began opening last May, and in the four months that followed each opening, traffic and use of the materials skyrocketed compared to the same period a year earlier.
“The libraries six new branches in St. Clair, Warrenton, Owensville, New Haven, Pacific and Sullivan saw a 32.56 percent increase in visitors and a 21.65 percent increase in checkouts during the first four months they were open,” said Cambpell.
If you include the new Wright City branch, the numbers are even better: a 38.17 percent increase in checkouts and 57.23 percent increase in visitors.
“That’s eye-popping,” Campbell remarked.
He initially thought those numbers might taper off as time went by, but so far that hasn’t been the case. He chalks that up to having more inviting and welcoming facilities which allow for better programming and use of the space for things like meetings and studying.
“The libraries are just so different now,” said Campbell. “They used to be spaces where you crammed as many books as possible. It was all about the books. Now it’s more about technology, activities for children and programming.
“Before, our libraries really didn’t have space for any of that. We were still built on that 1950s model. Now we are built on a modern library model,” he said. “We are really a community center now. During the winter when it’s bad weather out, people bring their kids here to play in our children’s play area. Groups can use our meeting rooms, kids come after school to use our study rooms, lawyers come here to do depositions, tutors use our study rooms. Before they had to sit at a table in the middle of the library.”
When the new libraries were being designed, there was some concern that they were going to be too modern looking to appeal to patrons, but Campbell felt strongly that a modern aesthetic was necessary.
“We wanted people to think of libraries differently, and the way to do that is to make them look differently than when they think of a library,” he said. “Now when they come in, they see it’s not what you envision of a library at all. It’s meeting rooms, it’s places to drink coffee and sit by a fireplace, it’s play areas for kids.
This library design has been described as a “bookstore model,” but that makes Campbell chuckle a little.
“Now those bookstores are dying, but the libraries are still around,” he said. “So I call this a modern library model, because we’re still going.”
Historically, the per capita use of libraries has been lower in rural areas, like Franklin County, when compared to suburban and urban areas, said Campbell, and the argument has been that was due to lower socioeconomic levels or education levels in rural areas. However, he felt it was due to inferior buildings.
“If you would have compared suburban libriaries to what we had before, the buildings didn’t make you want to come in and sit down and hang out,” said Campbell. “Now that we have these buildings that I consider equal if not better in a lot of ways, I think our per capita usage will be closer if not better than surburban and urban libraries.”
The numbers reflect that. Campbell noted that there were 200 to 300 people at each of the grand openings, which is especially impressive when you consider the size of the towns.
“A lot of our towns are so small, that the library is like the community center, a place where people meet,” he said, adding that in some towns the library is the only place to apply for a passport or have something notorized.
The libraries also provide people with free access to computers and the internet, which helps them create resumes and apply for jobs, he said.
“The shocking thing to me was when Wright City opened, I thought most patrons were going to be people who already had cards and were using the Warrenton branch, but within the first three months, we issued 800 new cards, and there are only 3,100 people in the town.”
The double-digit increase in traffic and use at all of the new Scenic Regional libraries is proof that packaging matters, said Campbell. But the problem with the previous libraries wasn’t just that they were unattractive, he said; it was that they were not functional.
They didn’t allow the space to offer the kind of services and programming that today’s libraries need. Now they do.
All of the new Scenic Regional library buildings were designed by JEMA, an architecture and design firm in St. Louis. They have a similar look, even the renovated spaces, but each is unique, said Campbell.
Every Scenic library now has a modern meeting room that features 16 floor ports for power and data, a projector, TV and large screen. In addition to tables and chairs, there also is a sink and counter area.
The door is located off the library lobby so groups can use the meeting room after hours and still have access to the library bathrooms.
Inside the libraries, there are standing power outlets next to all of the seating areas where people can plug in various devices. There is a wider variety of seating options — from sofas and chairs, to booths, to individual pod-like chairs to study rooms designed for two to three people, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
There are self-checkout areas (except in New Haven) where patrons can check out and renew materials or register for programs.
The café areas provide a Keurig where people can brew their own hot drink. They can bring their own K-cup or purchase one from the library for $1.
“We sold 1,800 cups of coffee in the first six months,” said Campbell. “We aren’t making any money off of it, but it’s a service.”
Outside, the improvements include parking lots with 30 to 45 spaces. Previously, most of the branches only offered on-street parking. There also is a drive-up book return slot so people don’t have to get out of their cars to return materials.
All of the libraries added some new books to their collections, but most only added a few hundred. The Sullivan library, which more than tripled its space, did add more and the Wright City branch, which was an entirely new library, added 11,000 books.
Most of the library collections were in good shape before the renovation or construction so they didn’t need to add much more.
Staffing, Future Growth
Although all of the libraries more than doubled in size, the staff size remained about the same, said Campbell, noting a couple of exceptions.
“Usage is up 71 percent at New Haven, and 88 percent at Sullivan, so we added some part-time staff there,” he said.
The self-checkout feature at the libraries that many patrons are using frees up the library staff to help people with services, like using the computers, helping them open an email account or scan something, or programming.
“We had 13,000 people attend the adult programs last year,” said Campbell, “so our usage is changing and skyrocketing.”
The seven new or expanded libraries have put Scenic Regional in a good position for decades to come, but if a few areas continue to see the amount of growth they have, there could be a need for improvements and possibly even a new library or two.
“The Wright City and Warrenton branches would be the two that need to eventually be expanded because of growth, if the pace continues,” said Campbell. “And we have room to do that.
“The next two biggest towns we have with less than 2,000 people are Gerald and Marthasville, and I can envision if growth continues in Warren County the way it is right now, in 10 or 15 years, we could have a branch in Marthasville for sure,” he said.