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Jeffco libraries see increased demand with no money to expand

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By AJ Vicens

Fifteen minutes before the Columbine Library opened June 26, roughly a dozen customers stood outside waiting. As soon as the doors opened, the people flooded inside, occupying computers, picking up materials or perusing the shelves.

"That's how it always is," said one man as he read a newspaper while waiting for one of the computers to be free.

The morning rush is the rule rather than the exception at most Jeffco public libraries, according to library administrators. Demand for library services has been increasing for several years, but there is no money to build new libraries to meet the increased need.

"Over the last several years, our circulation has been increasing in double digits," said Ann Cress, deputy executive director of the Jeffco Public Library System. "Of course, that's going to create a strain on our resources and the buildings themselves. They're running at capacity right now."

The Jeffco library system is made up of 10 libraries throughout the county, a bookmobile and the traveling children's library. The system's annual operating budget is more than $26 million and comes primarily from a dedicated mill levy county residents pay that was approved by voters in the mid-1980s.

"Since then, the library's grown tremendously," said Mary Jane Lowe, Columbine Library's acting manager.

A key reason for the recent demand is the economy, as some people have had to cut back on going to the movies or paying for home Internet access. Movies and the Internet are available at no cost at the library.

"People are feeling the stress of the economy," Lowe said. "Everybody's tightening their belt."

In fact, library administrators are increasing their bandwidth capabilities to handle the increasing demands on online capabilities, both for services people access from home and Internet use at the libraries.

"I use the library to get business information," said a man waiting to use a computer at the Columbine Library. He didn't want to be named but said the Columbine Library needs more computers to handle the increase in use.

"I've been coming here for at least five or six years," he said. "They could probably use more computers. Most of the people I see on there seem to be looking for jobs."

Lowe confirmed that job seekers are more prevalent these days at library computers.

"At least on a weekly basis, I'm helping someone trying to find a job," Lowe said, "whether they're applying for the job online or they're online trying to file for unemployment."

In a recent case at the Belmar Library in Lakewood, Lowe helped an 80-year-old woman apply for work over the Internet.

"She had been retired but now needed to go back to work," Lowe said.

Cress said the library system would like to ask voters for more tax funds at some point, "but not right now. It's not a good time."

In the meantime, library administrators will turn to more automated, technology-based services to increase capabilities without increasing the number of employees or the number of buildings.

For example, most libraries have installed self-checkout stations for patrons where they can check out items more quickly without relying on staff. Lowe said the library has also added more classes on job searches and has partnered with the Jefferson County Workforce Center.

Cress said if the library system had more money, there definitely would be another large library in South Jeffco.

"There's no doubt that another facility is needed in (South Jeffco)," Cress said. "We know it would be used." The library district owns land near South Kipling Street and West Belleview Avenue near the Fehringer Ranch development but doesn't have the several million dollars it would take to construct a building. It would also take 26 full-time employees to run a new library, which would be a significant cost, Cress said.

Library patrons Kelly Bergman and her daughters Madison and Molly underscore Cress' claims of increasing demands.

Bergman has brought her daughters to the Columbine Library since Madison, 6, was born.

"I want them to know about the library," Bergman said as she helped her daughters select a few books. She said she wants her daughters to know how to use the library and would teach them more about what's available — books, CDs/DVDs and online resources for education.

"They just need to know what's here and what's available," Bergman said. "They'll use this place for a long time."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.