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Good circulation . . .

Internet helps libraries, despite predictions it would spell the end

Library directors remember the talk, not long ago, of technology rendering libraries obsolete. But statistics show that the opposite has occurred.

Over the past decade, library circulation has climbed, driven partly by demand for audiovisual materials and enabled by the Internet, which has allowed patrons to easily scan catalogs from home and request interlibrary loans with a few mouse clicks.

In Woburn, for example, circulation jumped 59 percent between fiscal 1996 and 2006, while interlibrary loans -- to and from other libraries on a local network, as well as across the state and around the world -- grew by 5,000 percent, according to the library's records.

"Everyone thought we were going to go the way of the dinosaur," said Woburn Library director Kathleen O'Doherty, whose library hums with technology-driven activity: Laptop users picking up WiFi near the limestone fireplace, patrons at the front desk collecting materials they reserved online, tourists poring over genealogical materials they learned about on the Web. Technology, O'Doherty said, has made libraries "much more vibrant and alive."

Statewide, total circulation rose 25 percent from fiscal 1996 through 2006, and interlibrary loans grew nearly 400 percent, according to the state Board of Library Commissioners. Although book circulation dipped slightly across the state, it grew considerably at many area libraries. Meanwhile, nearly every library in the region has seen substantial audiovisual growth, and interlibrary lending everywhere has soared.

Area directors say they have also seen growth in ways not measured by circulation, like use of public computers and attendance at library programs. "We're busier than ever," said Beth Mazin, assistant director of Andover's Memorial Hall Library. "Our library is jammed with people."

The growth has come at a price. The interlibrary surge has coincided with fuel-cost increases, and the packing and unpacking of delivery bins has placed new demands on local staff. Library directors, trying to cater to patrons, have stretched book budgets to buy DVDs, audiobooks, and other materials. Although local funding has grown in many communities, state aid to libraries has not climbed back to its pre-2003 levels, when a budget crisis prompted lawmakers to cut funding by 24 percent.

Libraries have largely met the demand without additional hours or staff. From 1996 through 2006, total operating hours statewide grew less than 4 percent, and staffing -- measured in noncustodial full-time-equivalent hours -- increased less than 10 percent, according to state figures.

The Internet has made patrons more aware of available items and formats -- many come in having browsed online retailers as well as library catalogs -- and increased their expectations of finding them at the library, whether it's downloadable audiobooks or foreign-language editions, said Dora St. Martin, director of Lowell's Pollard Memorial Library.

"The old days of buying a best-selling book and saying, 'OK, we have the book,' are really gone," she said.

The Web has also contributed to an expectation of instant service, she said. "The world has speeded up."

Interlibrary lending costs more than $2 an item for delivery and processing, said Gregory Pronevitz, regional administrator for the Northeast Massachusetts Regional Library System, which coordinates transfers for a region that spans a region from the New Hampshire border to communities west of Route 3. Knowing the service is popular, libraries "are spending a lot of time and energy to make this work," he said.

Local administrators agreed. "It eats up resources, but the patrons love it," Mazin said. It's one of the main things "that keeps people coming back to the library, because they can wake up at 2 a.m. in their pajamas, if they can't sleep, and they can go to their computer and put holds on five titles."

Most local libraries belong to a fee-based network, such as the Minuteman Library Network or the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium, which provides a shared online catalog for members. A patron searching for a title -- either from a home computer or a library terminal -- sees all holdings for the network, not just the local library, and can place requests to have materials delivered to a local library. Patrons can also search beyond the network on the statewide Virtual Catalog.

"Interlibrary loan has grown because it's so easy," said Lori Hodgson, director of the Burlington Public Library. In the past, a patron seeking an item from another library would have to make a formal request at the circulation desk. The Internet has led patrons to see the networkwide catalog as a local resource. "They just place the reserve, and then the book gets here for them."

Or, to judge by the hundreds of interlibrary materials arriving in Burlington each day, the DVD, audiobook, or CD, as well as the book. On a recent afternoon, the materials waiting for patron pickup included Eminem's "Encore" CD, sent from Haverhill; the audiocassette version of Thomas Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," from Sudbury; and the fourth season of "Smallville" on DVD, from Merrimac.

Patrons agree the Web has made libraries easier to use. "It's so much more convenient," said Mina Shan of Burlington, who regularly requests DVDs online. Shan moved from London 3 1/2 years ago; in England, she paid to rent DVDs from her local library and could not reserve them online. In Burlington, movies are free and can be checked out for seven days. "It's fantastic," she said.

Although catalog and hold services are provided by the member networks, delivery is handled by the state's six regional systems; that work is performed locally by the Northeast and the Metrowest regional systems. Public libraries automatically belong to the free systems, which also offer planning services and database subscriptions. Staff at the local libraries process the materials for collection by regional drivers, who transport thousands of crates each week.

To keep up with delivery demand, the regional systems have had to cut services and in some cases reduce staff in other areas.

Delivery costs are "squeezing our budget to the breaking point," then-president Leslie Schoenherr wrote in last year's annual report for Metrowest, which includes many of the inner suburbs north and northwest of Boston. In fiscal year 2006, roughly 40 percent of the region's $1.3 million budget went to delivering materials among local libraries; by comparison, the same service represented about 15 percent of the budget three years earlier, said Sunny Vandermark, Metrowest's regional administrator.

Libraries have adopted measures aimed at managing delivery costs and making popular materials more available for local patrons.

In 2005, Minuteman froze the ability to request audiovisual materials online, then restored it but required that new feature films be requested and collected in person at the originating library. Andover implemented a $1 rental fee for new movies three years ago, causing a 30 percent drop in video circulation in one year. That had a spillover effect on book circulation, Mazin said, because DVDs draw patrons through the doors.

Not that fiction and nonfiction titles are collecting dust. In Boxborough, print circulation rose nearly 50 percent from fiscal 1999 through 2006.

"People are going out with armloads of books," library director Maureen Strapko said. "Reading's not out of fashion by any means."

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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