One day, we'll tell our children—probably by telepathy through their Google brain implants—about the old days when people cut down trees, turned them into books, and had to go to a building to borrow or buy one. We walked uphill in the snow, both ways, and our reading glasses didn't even have the Internet!
The Athens-Clarke County Library is getting ready for that day.
A $6.5 million expansion—virtually completed and set to be dedicated Sunday, Apr. 7 at 4 p.m.—includes a number of new spaces and features that will help the library and its patrons transition into an era when books are electrons running through a wire or waves in the air, not ink on a page. It even has a room, empty for now, where Kathryn Ames, director of the Athens Regional Library System, hopes to house 3D printing, an emerging technology that allows people to print out three-dimensional objects, not just text or pictures.
"That's the future," Ames says. "That's on the horizon. Of course, books are still our lifeblood."
The expansion, which added more than 20,000 square feet to the formerly 63,000 square-foot library, includes 25 percent more shelf space. It also has more wireless access, more electrical outlets, more computers and more classes to teach people how to use them.
Upstairs is a 90-computer lab for adults that's almost always full of people sending emails and filling out job applications, according to Ames. The number of people using library computers continues to grow as cash-strapped patrons give up Internet service, she says. Many users are regulars who know which machines are the fastest.
"It really shows the digital divide in the community, I think," Ames says.
Downstairs are more computers for children that have more restrictive filtering software. (The library just recently unblocked Facebook.) Some are loaded with educational games for children who are too young to read. And, of course, there are still old-fashioned toys, a storytelling room and a puppet theater.
Even though e-books don't exist in physical form, you can still borrow one from the library. On its website (clarke.public.lib.ga.us), a program called Georgia Download Destination allows library members to download e-books and audio books by punching in their library card numbers.
Confounded by the newfangled technology? The library offers classes on how to email, browse the Internet and set up and operate digital devices. The reference desk is now staffed by IT professionals, in addition to librarians.
Not all the improvements are digital: The Heritage Room, where people can research local history and genealogy, is a third larger, with space to display local art, e.g., retired University of Georgia professor Bill Paul's pottery collection. Focus groups said they wanted larger meeting spaces, so the expansion includes a meeting room that can hold 300 or be partitioned into three smaller rooms. Vending machines sell sodas, snacks and (soon) office supplies like flash drives and earbuds. A gift shop offers more local art, toys and used books. The Appleton Auditorium was refurbished with new seats and a better sound system. More parking was added.
Technology is also freeing up library staff by handling menial tasks. When patrons want to check out a book, they do it themselves. When they bring it back, they drop it onto a conveyor belt that automatically sorts books into the proper bin to be put up—to the delight of children who watch through glass.
"One of my goals is to get staff out from behind the desk and interacting with the public," Ames says.
Local sales taxes and a state grant funded the expansion's construction, but they don't pay for operating expenses. Ames and board chairman Dennis Hopper asked the Athens-Clarke Commission for a small increase in funding to cover rising costs for employee benefits and higher utilities for the larger space, but the library is staffing its bigger new building with the same number of employees. They won't know until June whether they got it. A cut, on the other hand, would force them to close the East Athens, Lay Park and Pinewoods branches, they told the commission.
As they wait to hear about funding for fiscal 2014, library employees are breathing easy—literally, given all the dust in the air—now that the two-year construction project is over. They expect to get busier soon, not that patronage ever suffered.
"Actually, our usage went up this year, even with all the construction and chaos," Ames says. "I expect library use to continue to go up."