Form and function: Library growth certain, but role undefined

By EMILY LE COZ / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A study of the Lee County Library shows it lagging behind peers in terms of its book collection and computer access and recommends its downtown building more than double in size.
Results of the nearly year-long study were revealed at a public hearing Monday at the library where roughly 35 participants listened to the findings and debated the agency’s future.
Core to the discussion was the role computers play in the library’s 21st century mission. Currently, about half of the library’s 800 daily patrons come for free Internet access and use of the roughly 40 computer terminals.
Hired library consultant Anders Dahlgren recommended expanding that to 100 computer terminals. He also said the facility needs six to eight times more parking space, about 100 more seats for readers, a larger children’s area, small study rooms and a 600-person auditorium.
In all, the city-county library would require a 91,200-square-foot facility on a nearly six acre site. That’s compared to the roughly 38,000 square feet it currently occupies on a 2 acre site.
Community participants Lewis Whitfield and Jim High both suggested moving the computers out of the current facility into a separate location that the library could rent at a low cost. The move would free up space in the existing building and possibly prevent having to construct an addition or an entirely new facility.
“The computer users have no other purpose for being here other than using the computers,” High said. “They cause more of a problem and take up most of the parking.”
Others insisted computers remain in the main library facility, saying they are an integral component of the agency’s future.
“I wasn’t around in the 60s,” said Gordon Fellows, one of the group’s younger participants, “but I can imagine that building a library today without computers would be like building a library in the 60s without books.”
‘What is a library?’
The study helps community members plot the library’s growth needs, but before growth can occur, the community must decide exactly what role the library serves, said participant Bob Schwartz.
“What is a library?” Schwartz asked. “We need to talk about that.”
Many said the digital age has fundamentally changed the way a library serves its people. High argued that it has almost rendered the industry obsolete, saying people require only the Internet to obtain books, videos and information.
Others agreed, but said not everyone can afford Internet access or the devices on which to view the materials.
Dahlgren agreed technology has changed the library’s delivery methods but not its central mission as the “great equalizer” of information access. He also said that libraries provide not only information but entertainment – whether via computers or books or videos.
“Otherwise, why would we have romance novels,” he asked.
The current library, on the corner of Jefferson and Madison streets, is almost 40 years old and wasn’t built for the computer age. It also lacks sufficient parking – only about 45 spaces.
Using funds raised by the Friends of the Lee County Library, and a Mississippi Library Commission grant, the library board hired Dahlgren earlier this year to conduct the study.
Dahlgren, who is based in northern Illinois, began his work early this year with interviews, site visits, peer reviews, statistical research and focus groups.
The study cost about $30,000.
Library Director Jan Willis said it could take years before the library has enough funds to act on any of the study’s recommendations. But he said it’s good to have a starting point.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.