Public library seeing shift to technology

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 31, 2009

John Shawn Porter is a frequent visitor to the Warren County-Vicksburg Public Library, soaking up the news and views of the world in just a few clicks.

“I go on the computers almost every day,” Porter said, wrapping up another afternoon session on the library’s bank of PCs.

In the library’s video and audio book room, Chadra Kurien and Andrea Horbelt shopped the DVDs in search of the perfect title for evening viewing in between volunteer gigs with AmeriCorps. 

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They personify what library director Deb Mitchell describes as the changing profile of the average library user — younger, tech-savvy and plugged into the Veto Street facility’s electronic resources for reasons beyond the classroom and workplace.

“A lot of people who are out of jobs use our computers to look for work,” Mitchell said. “I’ve had 20 people trying to log onto it recently, and I’ve never had that happen before.”

“People have been donating more movies,” said Cathy Kinney, who works in the audiovisual room. “Even Busby Berkeley movies from the 1930s!”

Books are still checked out with enough regularity and visits to the library should at least stay on par with last year. Overall, however, patrons are trending more to the high-tech offerings, according to a recent tally by Mitchell and the library Board of Trustees.

Specifically, time logged on the library’s computers through July is on pace to surpass last fiscal year by more than 22 percent. Checkouts, including books and videos, and reference questions are lower. Also, fewer children have shown up for the Summer Library Program and other special programs this year.

The declining areas don’t figure to spell the same massive cutbacks and outright closures seen in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago during the decade. However, pending cuts in county and state funds that pay salaries and benefits and delays in needed aesthetic upgrades by county supervisors have library officials considering some cost-cutting moves during the upcoming fiscal year.

Hours Monday through Thursday may be shortened to 10 hours and two part-time employees who work primarily at night might be cut, saving the library $3,000 next year, Mitchell said. Currently, the library stays open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. those four days, which is longer than libraries in Columbus, Natchez and Purvis and as long as Pearl and Pascagoula. Saturday hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The issue comes before a vote of trustees Sept. 22, Mitchell said.

“We’ve been economizing these days,” Mitchell said. “But we’d rather be frugal on the front end than laying people off.”

Pay raises for the 10 full-timers and five part-timers are out of the question for this year due to the budget cuts and out-of-state travel by library officials is off temporarily, Mitchell said, and fewer titles have been added to the library’s collection of 2,108 adult reference titles. Orders of high-demand titles on the library’s online book distributor have been limited, Mitchell said, though confident her online shopping cart will always be heavy.

“Used to be, purchase orders were on paper. Now, I can put up to 200 titles before it says ‘no more,’” Mitchell said.

Streamlining has also spread to the library’s 7,381 VHS tapes in the library’s collection — a move borne of the recording standard’s demise in the face of compact disc technology. Mitchell said VHS tapes in circulation more than three years will be relegated to the used bookstore, The Bookmark, in a few weeks because fewer people use VHS players. Checkouts on the library’s 4,930 DVDs have been limited to three days instead of seven to ensure quicker returns.

Mitchell and fellow board members Trudy James, John Kamman, Bill Nichols, Henrietta Spates and Brenda Hawkins have asked supervisors to keep them in their plans once they determine money is back to acceptable levels — despite back-and-forth swings of about $500,000 in expected total revenue in recent budget drafts.

“Money is a big issue,” Mitchell told supervisors this week as board members observed. “We won’t stamp our foot because that’s not our style. We want to be at the top of your project list when the money comes back.”

County funding of the library totals $711,670 in the most recent budget version, about $7,600 less than this year. Population-based grant funds from the Mississippi Library Commission had reached about $82,000 before recent cuts set in, with up to 15 percent more in cuts expected next year, said Randy Sherard, attorney for the Board of Supervisors and ex-officio member of the library board.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have the level of support here,” Sherard said of the facility’s local funding.

This year, federal grants have paid for “Playaway” digital audio books, updated computer software and interlibrary loans allowing people to have books sent from other libraries regardless of branch. Another grant allowed federally-compliant doors for the disabled.

Interior work to lay carpet in the foyer and paint walls has been delayed indefinitely by the county, while front flower beds were spruced up with volunteer labor. Situated next door to the Vicksburg Fire Department and down the street from the Vicksburg Police Department, the building’s appearance became a source of concern for city officials in the recent past, though they do not fund it.

In 2007, former Mayor Laurence Leyens criticized the county’s maintenance of the library, saying it did not present a “warm, inviting environment” due to a sloppy appearance and poorly kept restrooms.

Mayor Paul Winfield — county board attorney for nearly four years before his election in June — said last week his wife, Malissa, planned to continue reading books to children as part of regular volunteering and pledge full verbal support of the library — steering clear of any hint of criticism.

“I’m for supporting the library and know their money is tight,” Winfield said.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at

By the numbers

Warren County-Vicksburg Public Library

                                     FY 2008    FY 2009 (through July)

Checkouts                     263,441        212,316

Computer sessions        20,350          21,814

Library visits                  141,520       122,288

Materials added                7,486           5,517

Program attendance         6,137           3,714

Reference questions       10,731           8,362

New patrons                      1,996           2,022