Library shifts emphasis from books to live programming

Readership is down. Book borrowing is off. But in other ways, business has never been better at public libraries, and Wilton is no exception.

The library has shifted from a repository of books on loan to a community cultural resource center complete with high-profile lectures and musical performances, said Elaine Tai-Lauria, executive director.

Tai-Lauria made her comments about the state of the library following the appearance of an online article in the Connecticut Mirror that suggested library memberships are down more than 25% since the mid-2000s. However, the number of programs offered by libraries statewide has nearly doubled since 2001.

“We’ve been concentrating a lot on programs as a way to get people into the library,” Connecticut Library Association President Karen Jensen said in the article, and Tai-Lauria agreed there is a paradigm shift in library offerings.

“We cover a wide range of programs, from the computers and software training, which we’re hoping to expand, to a terrific music series, a jazz series,” Tai-Lauria said.

It’s true book readership is down, but the library is still packing people in for other, less tangible services, such as streaming video and streaming audio, she said.

“Readership is down from a few years ago, but it’s part of the change we see in libraries. People want libraries to offer more in the quality of life in the community, and that means programming,” she said.

Since 2001, the number of programs put on by Connecticut public libraries has increased from about 54,000 in 2001 to 96,000 in 2015, according to the Connecticut Mirror. Last year libraries attracted more than 2 million attendees statewide.

Eighty-nine percent of towns have seen an increase in the number of programs put on by their libraries since 2001, according to the Mirror, and 74% of towns have seen an increase in per-capita attendance during that time.

The number of library memberships statewide peaked at 2 million in 2008, the year the recession struck, and has since decreased to about 1.4 million in 2015, a drop of more than 25% in seven years.

In Wilton specifically, the library offers more than 1,000 programs a year, and attendance is 20,000 per year. There are about 269,000 visitors a year, and circulation is more than a quarter-million a year, said Janet Crystal, marketing director for the library.

Program growth is what the library had in mind when it expanded its facilities in 2005.

“The Wilton Library is a gathering place for the community, a social and cultural center,” Crystal said. “We accomplish that with some of the programs we offer.”

One of those programs is a health and wellness program.

In the fall, there will be a number of initiatives launched, including those that serve seniors.

“Libraries are more interactive. People expect that. It’s keeping up with the technology,” Crystal said.