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Originally published January 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 4, 2007 at 2:22 PM

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Quiet libraries morphing into busy community hubs

Kerri Stark, a doctoral student at Seattle Pacific University, tutors an eighth-grade client in a small study room at the Bellevue Regional...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Kerri Stark, a doctoral student at Seattle Pacific University, tutors an eighth-grade client in a small study room at the Bellevue Regional Library.

On the same floor that evening, a teenage girl snacks in a pseudo-café area.

One floor up, students Peter Liu and Livvy Hermanto read textbooks for their Bellevue Community College classes while casually talking.

The two friends visit the library almost every day looking for a quiet place to study. But many times, they confessed, their study sessions turn into just hanging out.

"Relax and chat ... that happens," Liu said.

It's business as usual at the library — but it's a new type of business.

The quiet buildings once devoted solely to reading and research have become busy community hubs.

Meeting of the minds


More than 10,000 librarians, publishers and bookworms from around the world will attend the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting Jan. 19-24 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. Winners of the Newbery and Caldecott medals for books will be announced.

More information about the Meeting is at www.ala.org/mw07 .

Patrons check e-mail, watch Internet video clips, use free Wi-Fi and construct PowerPoint presentations.

"Libraries aren't quiet anymore," said Chapple Langemack, managing librarian at the Bellevue library.

Indeed, today's libraries are morphing into the new town halls. It's a change spurred by technology and the need to stay relevant.

The King County Library System and Seattle Public Library are embracing this change and pursuing, within most of their branches, the "Third Place" concept — an idea that people like to hang out at a location other than work or home.

"I guess it is all about understanding what people need and want, and responding to it," said Bill Ptacek, director of the county library system. "Having a library that is relevant to the lives of the people it serves, next to retail or other public institutions that also address people's lifestyles."

In Seattle, city libraries revamped and redesigned their buildings under the campaign "Libraries for All" to balance quiet study areas with sections for group use or just for hanging out. The changes began after voters approved a $196.4 million bond measure in 1998.

"I think it's a common trend nationwide," said Andra Addison, communications director for Seattle Public Library.

Busy libraries


Bellevue Regional Library

• More than 900,000 visitors a year

• 1,165,628 items checked out in 2005

Seattle Central Library

• 1.9 million visitors in 2005

• More than 1 million items in its collection

King County Library System

• More than 10 million visits a year throughout its 43 branches in King County

Seattle Public Library

• Almost 3 million visits at its 24 neighborhood branches

Source: King County Library System and Seattle Public Library

But it's a trend libraries must follow, Addison added, "or our doors won't be open."

Change and challenge

When the new Bellevue Regional opened in 1993, staff members increasingly noticed that people weren't just picking up materials and heading home.

"They began to stay," Ptacek said.

Since then, KCLS has planned its new libraries not just as book depots but as gathering places. Space once used for stacks of books is being reduced to make room for people to sit, meet and socialize. The Bellevue Library's carpeted floors, cushioned chairs and ample study areas invite people to relax and stick around.

Seattle Public Library aims to have a branch in every neighborhood in Seattle in the next few years. Deborah Jacobs, head of Seattle libraries, said that with this building boom libraries will be able to build on the Third Place concept by adding more space for computers and lounging areas.

"Any new library that's been built, it's designed to be welcoming," Jacobs said. "Any new library will have a different sense. We'll get rid of reference and checkout desks and have more staff wandering around helping customers."

But with more patrons coming in, librarians are facing a new challenge: policing people.

People complain about noise in the library, or people sleeping, stinking up the place or watching pornography on the Internet, Langemack said.

"That is a real conundrum, to try to accommodate everybody ... none of us trained to be policemen," she added.

Soon after KCLS began allowing food at its libraries four years ago, a vending and coffee machine were installed at the Bellevue site, along with chairs and tables for a little eating area. The new snack-friendly policy was an effort to accommodate the increasing number of people spending more time at the library, Ptacek said

It took weeks for Langemack to get used to people eating at her library, she said; she had to restrain herself from telling people to take their food outside.

A place to go

In the aftermath of December's windstorm, the library became more than just a place to hang out. Several King County libraries, including Bellevue, were transformed from casual gathering spots to vital makeshift shelters.

"We were crazy busy, about 4,000 people a day," Langemack said. "People were literally lined up sitting along the floors. Every outlet had a cellphone or laptop plugged into it ... also electric razors and wheelchairs."

Groups of people seek out the library, too.

From ghost hunters to the League of Women Voters, public meeting rooms at the Bellevue Library hosted more than 500 different groups in 2005. In one recent month, 304 meetings occurred.

"You don't have those common gathering places in society like we used to," said Michael Eisenberg, a professor and dean emeritus at the University of Washington's School of Information. "Town halls or town centers, many communities don't have them. The library provides that function."

Internet use and other media are a big draw.

Those who can't afford the Internet at home come to the Bellevue Library to use one of the 108 computers available.

"In a society where we're worried about the digital divide, libraries can level the playing field," Eisenberg said.

That leveling also occurs with DVDs, CDs and other forms of entertainment, Eisenberg said.

"There's a shift from academics to the library being a form of entertainment," said Barbra Barkus, who has worked at the Bellevue Library for more than 27 years.

A few days before "The Da Vinci Code" came out on DVD, 884 people had already placed requests for the 101 copies KCLS ordered.

The system's collection of DVDs numbered 103,785 titles as of November 2006.

Circulation growth

The libraries' efforts are bearing fruit in the form of more users.

Since implementing its "Libraries for All" campaign, Seattle Public Library has seen a spike of more than 50 percent in circulation.

Systemwide at KCLS, attendance is up and circulation grows by more than 6 percent a year.

In the past five years, KCLS has opened two branches, in the Crossroads and Southcenter malls, that were designed as places for patrons to just hang out — complete with neon-light signs, comfortable seats and computers.

The two branches, called Library Connections, look more like bookstores than libraries.

"We have been working on the arrangement of our libraries, the signage and the manner in which we 'market' our collection and services," Ptacek said. "The Crossroads or Southcenter Library Connections are good examples of the direction we are going in."

Back in Bellevue, the downtown library remains the biggest example of the KCLS efforts.

"A woman one time stopped me and said, 'My God, it's like a mall here,' " Langemack said.

Manuel Valdes: mvaldes@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305.

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