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Sundre library's circulation numbers soar past pre-pandemic levels

“Each week feels increasingly busy, in many ways reminiscent of pre-COVID years,” says Sundre library manager Joy Willihnganz

SUNDRE – Although the number of memberships remains below pre-COVID averages, the circulation of items loaned by the Sundre Municipal Library has once again substantially surpassed numbers dating prior to 2020.

This was among the highlights presented to council on Nov. 20 during a regular meeting attended by library manager Joy Willihnganz.

Over the past year, council heard that staff has not only endeavoured to fulfill the library’s many traditional and familiar roles, but also been increasingly surprised by the number of occasions they’ve been asked to play other roles to help residents.

Such tasks include for example providing assistance locating and downloading application forms for federal government home-efficiency upgrade rebate programs, helping navigate government websites to obtain appropriate forms pertaining to issues of child custody, and even helping a diabetic to reset an inaccessible iPhone so they could take their blood sugar levels through an app to be submitted to their doctor in real-time.

“Some of these moments have even required staff communicate with government officials or Apple representatives that the customer has on the other line on their phone at the moment,” she said.   

“Experiences like these serve as powerful reminders that rural libraries are relevant, necessary, and they make a positive difference for more than just the library members.

“We often wonder, has the library become the last place to go for people; if you can’t get help at the library, where can you go? The great news is that library staff love a good challenge."

Efforts to monitor and evaluate unfolding trends are always ongoing as part of library staff’s mission to meet the various needs of the community, she said.

“People are using the library. Each week feels increasingly busy, in many ways reminiscent of pre-COVID years,” she said, adding that 2019 served as a sort of gauge for what “normal” was once like.

Gaps in library services and delivery that occurred as a result of pandemic-related public health measures did have an impact on library users and there was a subsequent decline in the number of memberships, she said.

“We have not yet returned to those pre-pandemic membership levels, but they’re building back and we continue to see many users accessing services not requiring a library membership,” she said.

But while memberships have not yet fully recovered, patrons who do have a card seem to be borrowing more material than ever before.

“We continue to see our circulation trending upward for all resource types,” she said, adding year-to-date circulation statistics indicated the library would for the second time in a row surpass the previous year’s total checkout.

In 2019, she said the year had ended with a little more than 37,000 checkouts.

“As of mid-November, we had surpassed 47,000 checkouts,” she said. “So, our circulation has fully recovered to pre-COVID levels and increased 27 per cent.”

In 2022, a little more than 1,000 library members checked out nearly 52,300 items.

The number of people participating in programs this past year was also up over last year, but still lower than pre-pandemic totals, she said, adding momentum does seem to be building back up.

Staff strive to provide a welcoming and inclusive space with access to a variety of resources that foster opportunities for lifelong learning, and the library is among the few places left that a person can walk into without being expected to spend money, she said.

Looking ahead to the coming year and the budget that was recently approved by the library’s board, the manager told council, “We find ourselves in a unique situation. We anticipate our income to be approximately four per cent higher than last year’s budget with a marginal decrease in expenses.

“This situation is an anomaly brought about by the convergence of two specific events,” she said.

First, the provincial government had increased the 2023 operating grant per capita rates for municipal and inter-municipal boards as well as the regional library board system while also providing a base grant.

“These changes resulted in a notable increase to our funding for 2023, and we’re hopeful it will continue in 2024,” she said.

And secondly, although some expenses have increased at the library over the year, the cost of payroll was down due to recent staff changes and varying levels of employee experience reflected by lower positions on the salary grid, she said.

The library has six staff members who are supported by the help of 31 volunteers under the governing guidance of the board of directors.

The 2024 budget forecasts total revenues of $240,150 and total expenses of $232,150.

As staff make their way up the salary grid, that gap will largely be narrowed down by 2025, when revenues are estimated to come in at $250,514 compared with expenses of $247,043.

Coun. Owen Petersen sought to confirm if the library works alongside the Greenwood Neighbourhood Place Society on potential referrals for requests such as assistance with job applications.

“We do and wherever we can we refer to GNP,” said Willihnganz, adding the relationship is reciprocal and that the society also sometimes refers inquiries to the library, which can help job-seekers build a resume by providing access to an e-program that offers a template to craft a CV with proper formatting.

“We have some tools like that,” she said.

Mayor Richard Warnock asked about a project that the library had undertaken to redesign the layout of the public computer area and how that effort panned out.

Before those renovations, there were 16 computers to start, said Willihnganz.

“We did go down to eight computers,” she said.

However, when the library had 16 computers, they were mostly just being used after school by students playing games, which COVID essentially put an end to, she said.

“With the eight computers, we seldom have a lineup,” she said, adding the machines are put to use by both adults and youth, who also often need to print documents or resumes.

So while the computers are being used, there has not yet been an over-demand leaving the library shorthanded, and the redesigned space has also served to open up and facilitate the flow of patrons through the main entrance area to access the stacks, she said.

Council carried a motion accepting the report for information.

Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel joined Mountain View Publishing in 2015 after working for the Vulcan Advocate since 2007, and graduated among the top of his class from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology's journalism program in 2006.
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