Steamboat’s Bud Werner Memorial Library adapts to its role in the digital age
April 7, 2013
Steamboat Springs — This is not your stereotypical library.
There's no bespectacled book warden shushing patrons and protecting hundreds of books from thousands of hands.
No, as you walk into Bud Werner Memorial Library, there's a din of activity: the shudder and cha-chinging of the cash register at the MountainBrew library cafe, its drinks and snacks fueling schoolwork and rabid media consumption, and the various harmonies of childhood shrieks coming from a brightly colored, playground-like children's library.
At the circulation desk, library patrons smile and joke in voices of everyday volume. There's no shushing here. Upstairs is a quiet, self-policed area of readers and researchers stationed at desks, almost all of which are full.
At Steamboat's downtown library, the 22 full-time staff members are no silent gatekeepers of words. Their palace is like an extended living room, a place somewhere in between school, home and work.
Recommended Stories For You
Kim Shales, a local ski instructor who is studying to become a certified teacher, tutors an aspiring ski cross racer four hours each day in the library. She said his test scores go down if they try to study anywhere else.
"It's so inviting to come here," she said. "It's such a welcoming place."
She recalled an instance when she and her student, both exhausted from skiing that morning, smelled popcorn and followed their noses to one of the upstairs conference rooms where a college professor was leading a discussion about Shakespeare. They sat in on the program, taking a break from their usual studies and giving her student the opportunity to sit in on a college lecture and read "The Tempest."
"Knowledge is there at your fingertips," she said. "That couldn't have happened anywhere else."
Built, used by Steamboat
Library culture certainly has changed since Bud Werner Memorial Library officials broke ground on the state-of-the-art, 21,000-square-foot expansion that has worn under thousands of footsteps since the new facility opened in September 2008.
But a warm, naturally lit, welcoming and interactive building wasn't the only change.
A global shift was occurring at the same time, one that would affect everyone from the genealogical researchers rifling through reference rooms to the springy-legged children eager for story-time.
The digital revolution came in many forms.
Research projects now can be done online, and genealogical efforts are as easy as ever from any living room. Amazon.com has nearly every book — and seemingly everything else — purchasable with the click of a button. People now carry mobile reading devices with them wherever they go.
Then why in November 2005 did East Routt Library District voters approve an $11.4 million bond issue to build the new library?
Library Director Chris Painter, who has run the library since the days of the Dewey decimal system and typewriters, said no one ever has told her the new building was a mistake.
The proof is in the numbers.
Just like public libraries across the country, circulation and visitation are on the rise.
Each of the East Routt Library District residents (which totaled 17,406 people at last count) visits Bud Werner Memorial Library an average of 21.3 times per year. The national average, last measured in 2010, is 5.3 library visits per person per year.
There were 100,000 more visits to the Steamboat library in 2012 than in 2007, before the new library opened.
And the justification for the $12.5 million, 4 1/2-year-old expansion built primarily with voter-approved funds keeps reaffirming itself to Painter.
"You know what the model of a virtual library is, is Amazon," she said. "You never physically go to Amazon's warehouse. You just do everything online and look for everyone online, then acquire it online.
"The concept of a virtual library is the same as Amazon, and I think a couple huge missing pieces of that are community. I had a really strong, strong desire and really strong wish to plan a facility that was absolutely beautiful and harmonious so people wanted to come here and spend time.
"I have been continually amazed at how many people come here to spend time on a beautiful afternoon. It's having a physical place to go, to read, to study, to work, to meet with people, particularly in the rural nature of our geography."
Just before a crowded, musical story-time session, area residents Ali Kovach and Kelley Schwab served their 2-year-olds snacks and watched them jump around the children's library.
Kovach said she goes back and forth between reading books in paper and digital form. She has a Kindle but only recently discovered the library had an e-book checkout option for her device. Still, the women said they weren't library regulars until they had kids.
"A lot of it doesn't revolve around books when we're here," Schwab said. "They play on the computers; they jump on the bean bags."
The moms address librarians by name as the stampede to the story-time room begins.
It's an example of the library's dramatic increase in programming, which now features about 45 programs per month for children and teens.
With Adult Programs Coordinator Jennie Lay booking everything from author talks to documentary film screenings, the library offered 147 programs for adults in 2012. In 2007, before the new building opened, that number was exactly one.
"I think people still need a place to come," said Youth Services Librarian Sarah Kostin, who has worked at the library for almost a decade. "We need a community gathering place. I think this building is the smartest thing we ever did."
The library receives its funding from a mill levy, which provides $2.2 million per year in property tax revenues. The remaining $100,000 of the library's about $2.3 million annual budget comes from fees (late charges, copies and room rentals), used book sales, grants and donations. The bond issues payment is $900,000 per year, and Painter said the library is looking at the possibility of refinancing the loan to take advantage of lower interest rates.
A resident of the East Routt Library District currently pays $27 each year for every $100,000 in assessed property value. Eight of those dollars will disappear after 2025, when the bond issue is paid off.
But even after visits and checkouts increased in just the first few months of the new building's opening (checkouts were up 44 percent in the first five months), Painter heard doubts about the future of brick-and-mortar libraries.
"I hear libraries were going away, and 'I'm going to get everything online.' I couldn't see it because we were so busy," Painter said. "I know from experience, you can't get everything you want online. Even if you could, you'd have to pay for it.
"People still come here to check out books. These broad-brush statements that libraries are going away … that's a huge generalization.
"We're kind of shifting away from the physical building. Technology to us is not a threat. We embrace it, and we feel like it's really important to be technologically savvy and to look at our digital services and enhance them."
If you can't judge a book by its cover, then you can't judge a library's digital services by its shelves of books.
Bud Werner Memorial Library, along with the Marmot Library Network consortium of 22 Western Slope libraries, has taken the digital revolution by storm.
The transition to digital began early for the Steamboat Springs library. The card catalog system — once housed on cards arranged in sets of drawers — was eliminated in 1993. A text-based computer took its place, and the library introduced its first public computer in 1995.
Now, the entire catalog is housed at http://www.steamboatlibrary.org, and books and media are searchable at the library via public computers open to the browser-based catalog.
Books are given radio frequency receivers for easy digital checkout, and Painter said half of all checked-out items are nonprint media, including DVDs and audiobooks.
Reference Librarian Jaclyn Kuusinen said Bud Werner Memorial Library and its peers in the Marmot Library Network are on the cutting edge, following on the heels of the Douglas County Libraries model — a nationally renowned pioneering practice of purchasing e-books directly from publishers.
But not every library in Colorado is as far along.
"Three years ago, e-books were all new and scary," Durango Public Library Director Andy White told the Durango Herald in late March. "Now, they're not new, but they're still scary."
Jimmy Thomas, executive director of the Marmot Library Network, said the Marmot consortium has a "gem" in Bud Werner Memorial Library's digital decorum.
"Your library has people that have rolled up their sleeves, that have embraced the e-book technology," Thomas said. "The folks … at Bud Werner Memorial Library have really sunk their teeth into it. They've made it seem like it's not scary, and that's not typical."
After introducing e-books in 2010, Kuusinen said the response from patrons was almost immediate. There were 450 downloads in 2010, a number that since has grown by about 15 times.
"We're not a dusty, old museum of books anymore," Kuusinen said. "It's an exciting place to be."
Online at http://www.steamboatlibrary.org is the organization's entire catalog. Using the platform Overdrive, an online e-book distribution program used by public libraries across the country, the library has a catalog of more than 5,000 e-books comprising a shared catalog of Marmot Library Network e-books, additional titles that Bud Werner Memorial Library purchased on its own and several e-books purchased directly from independent publishers.
In 2012, there were nearly 7,000 checkouts of e-books, which can be done through most e-readers, including the Amazon Kindle.
But there could have been more.
The e-book-public library relationship is precarious at best. What are known as the Big Six publishers — Hatchette Book Group USA, HarperCollins Publishers, MacMillan, Penguin Group, Simon & Schuster and Random House — are hesitant to sell e-books to libraries.
Random House and HarperCollins are the only two to allow such sales for new titles. The former has taken popular titles and increased the prices of e-books to eight times that of hardcover copies while the latter limits some e-books to 26 checkouts before the library must repurchase the book, according to Forbes Magazine. Hatchette sells some older titles through Overdrive but doubled its e-book prices in the fall.
The rest don't sell to the nation's public library systems.
From the library's perspective, it's frustrating. E-books essentially function like hardcovers in that they can be lent to only one person at a time and must returned before another person checks them out.
However, as publishers argue, e-books don't wear out, meaning e-books can be lent an infinite number of times as opposed to physical books, which sometimes need to be repurchased because of wear and tear.
Publishers also are concerned that the ease of checking out e-books from public libraries will deter people from buying e-books.
"We think people should get reading materials in whatever way they want," Painter said. "We're about creating a culture of reading and access."
The percentage of checked out items that are e-books still is relatively small (about 2 percent), but no matter how much that number rises in coming years, Thomas said the brick-and-mortar library is here to stay.
"No matter how many ways the e-books get downloaded and read, you still want a place to have community connection," Thomas said.
Turning the page
Libraries like Bud Werner want to move forward with their digital platforms, providing not only e-books for digital checkout but also movies and TV shows in a streaming format similar to what is offered by companies like Netflix and Amazon.
Such a system would work similarly to checking out a physical copy of the movie or show.
But while it looks and acts just like a physical checkout, distribution companies don't see it that way.
The barriers exist on levels far above Bud Werner Memorial Library's control, and the frustrating part, Kuusinen said, is when the demand is there but libraries are unable to cater to it.
But make no mistake: Analog and print materials still are a significant part of the library's existence.
Kuusinen said periodicals — newspapers and magazines — are a medium that never seems to go out of style.
In just a few days, the library's latest issues of periodicals are worn, curled and well-read. The cushy chairs next to the periodicals racks are filled with people who come in just to sit and quietly read the Sunday paper while overlooking the Yampa River.
And there are plenty of other resources the Big Six publishers can't garnish. Extremely popular are the local archives and information that can't be found anywhere else. Kuusinen and library staff are working on digitally archiving all cemetery records complete with photos and searchable versions of obituaries from the Steamboat Pilot & Today as well as digitizing archives of local newspapers to the degree that copyright laws allow.
And despite all of the changes in the way people consume media, 182,000 books were checked out in 2012 from the Steamboat library, and children and their families line up to fill the sunny story-time room several days each week.
To Kostin, whose job is to proliferate a love of words and reading in the youngest generation, the introduction of new mediums doesn't change the content.
Radio didn't kill newspapers, and TV didn't kill radio. E-books and books will still live together under the same roof in Steamboat Springs.
"I think we get scared of things replacing things," Kostin said. "But we just get fuller and fuller."
To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@ExploreSteamboat.com