CHAPEL HILL — Sisters Stella and Karina nestled with their nanny near the library’s enchanted forest to hear the latest escapades of the Berenstain Bears.
Chapel Hill nanny Loretta Fuhs said Stella, 2, and Karina, 5, regularly visit the Chapel Hill Public Library. They love the large children’s room, with its puzzles and games, colorful murals and two “real” trees growing from floor to ceiling.
One tree has a popular reading nook at the bottom, and the girls love to climb inside, Fuhs said.
Twice a week, they come for story time, and on Friday night, there are movies. Their friends are at the library, and they even had a Fancy Nancy party with tea and sandwiches to celebrate the young super sleuth from the Nancy Clancy books.
There’s so much going on, the girls found it hard to stay in one place. Stella rolled around, fiddling with her shoes. “I want to go play,” she said. A nearby puzzle caught her eye. Her sister fidgeted, then got up, too.
“I want to get more books,” Karina said.
The children’s room is “my happy place when I’m face deep in the budget,” said library Director Susan Brown.
She gets shushed all the time for being too loud, but the library should have a “fun, funky and engaged personality,” she said.
The former Carrboro Cybrary branch manager returned to Chapel Hill in May to lead its library. Before that, she was the marketing director for the Lawrence Public Library in Kansas, where she got to explore her passion for reader services, social media and marketing.
Since the $16.2 million, 63,800-square-foot building opened in April, about 1,500 people a day have stopped by, she said. That’s roughly a 38 percent increase over last year’s average daily visitor count of 1,085 people, and it means the library could have up to 500,000 visits by June.
In the last six months, 632,456 items were checked out, more than half from the library’s youth collections, she said.
“Quite frankly, business is booming here,” she said.
The staff is now operating multiple service desks on two floors and considering how to do it more efficiently, she said. The library ended up with $248,000 extra this year, despite budget cuts last spring. They’ve restored all but six operating hours each week that were cut, she said.
They’ve also added many more programs and services, including Science in the Stacks, which explores such subjects as the science of candy. Another popular program is the American Girl Club, which teaches history and culture through the collectible dolls.
For older patrons, there are free legal and financial clinics, self-improvement courses and reading groups and a charity knitters group. The library’s next step will be taking books, reading and programs into the community. They’re looking for suggestions, Brown said.
The library already holds World Book Night, when volunteers hit the streets with free books, and they regularly set up a booth at festivals. In September, the library invited the Digital Bookmobile National Tour to bring its 74-foot digital media truck to Festifall.
You might even see a librarian at your local bar. The first cocktail series event – “To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion” – was held in September with author Philip Greene at the Crunkleton in Chapel Hill.
In the next few years, they’ll look at community partnerships as a way to reach more people, she said. They also might add a traveling library – maybe a van, since bookmobiles are expensive, Brown said. It could have books to checkout, services and program information, and maybe a carpet that rolls out for on-the-spot story times.
“I have big, wild ideas that I don’t know what to do with them,” Brown said.
The library has become a community “convener,” she said. Folks are stopping by to have lunch in the lobby, clubs and groups keep the meeting rooms full, and everywhere you turn, people are hanging out to chat, she said.
Digital media lab
The biggest success story is the new digital media lab, which offers audio and video rooms equipped with computers, a green screen and teleprompter, she said. Book it in advance, library staff said.
“Kids in that lab make claymation videos – mostly appropriate ones – teens are creating multimedia school presentations, and seniors are transferring old vinyl records of Sousa marches onto digital and they’re taking old family photos and scanning them in, and we’re teaching them how,” Brown said. “This is one of the most creative and compelling spaces in this building.”
The Teen Room also has become very popular. It offers teens their own space to read, use computers and watch movies or play games on big flat-screen TVs. Large tables have space for homework and school projects.
A slip of paper on the “Teen Art Board” at the entrance says it all: “Eat, sleep, read. Loving books since forever.”
Chapel Hill resident Mary Raitano found a relaxing chair there last week.
She’s been coming to the library for about 20 years, just before it left 523 E. Franklin St. for Pritchard Park off Estes Drive. It’s full of light now and has so much to offer, she said. Sometimes, she just likes visiting with people, she said.
“The people who work here are very accommodating to all different ages, including kids with special needs and older kids,” Raitano said.