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North country libraries thriving in digital age, but budget cuts loom (VIDEO)


A woman holding seed catalogs approaches the circulation desk to inquire about gardening books. Not only is she directed to reference books, she is told of an upcoming program that promises information on how to grow plants and vegetables in the north country.

On Wednesdays, senior citizens gather to gain knowledge of computers and other electronic devices.

On other weekdays, mothers shepherd their toddlers to storytime, and students converge on the teen center to play games or just hang out after school.

Jennifer R. Duell, a tutor in the Carthage Central School District, uses the facility when helping students with their studies.

“I don’t think I would be able to tutor if I couldn’t use the library,” she said.

Yes, the public library.

No longer is it just a quiet area to read or to serve as a storehouse for books — it’s a community gathering place for lifelong learning.

In a day when the printed word is slowing fading — replaced by digitized news stories and e-books — public libraries could be collateral damage. But with the help of the North Country Library System, they are thriving.


A video about the area’s library system can be viewed at


The NCLS, which encompasses 65 public libraries in Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence and Oswego counties, has shown an increase in three of four key categories since 2001, when the organization began tracking data in those categories: patron visits, program attendance, computer users and cardholders.

“There is a perspective that libraries are tied to print,” said Stephen B. Bolton, director of the North Country Library System. “However, as things change with technology, libraries have adapted to expand their services.”


Despite that adaptation, the news for libraries isn’t all good. If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed library cuts are adopted in the next state budget, some programs could be in jeopardy.

Gov. Cuomo is proposing a 4.7 percent cut from last year’s $85.6 million library budget. The proposed reduction comes out to $4 million.

“Our main expense is staffing,” Mr. Bolton said. “Cuts in funding could mean cuts in staff and programs. We would not be able to respond to the needs of the libraries as well as we have. There is more we could be doing to help the libraries stay up to date with technology.”

Some regional libraries charge a membership fee or fees for services, but the NCLS doesn’t.

“Many of our libraries are very small and underfunded as is, so we have never wanted to have them pay for services the state should supply,” Mr. Bolton said.

Morris A. Peters, spokesman for the state Division of Budget, told the Times that the governor’s budget “maintains the core library aid.” He would not elaborate.

The state Senate and the Assembly are working on their versions of the budget. The 2015 fiscal year begins April 1.

According to a news release Tuesday from Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, the Senate’s plan, which was approved March 14, includes $8 million in increased aid for libraries, through the restoration of Gov. Cuomo’s $4 million in cuts and an additional $4 million.

“Our Central and Northern New York public libraries serve an important role, not only as centers of learning and entertainment, but also as vital community centers,” the release from Sen. Ritchie, a member of the Senate’s Select Committee on Libraries, said.

The Assembly proposal would cut aid to libraries by $2 million, according to the release.

Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, said he wants to ensure that libraries are properly funded.

“Our libraries play an important role in supporting the education of our youth and enriching our adults and communities,” he said. “The Assembly Democrats who are proposing cuts to our libraries need to compromise with our senators and restore funding to this important public service.”

In light of Gov. Cuomo’s proposed cuts, Barbara J. Wheeler, director of the Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library in Watertown, said NCLS representatives are in Albany pleading for more funding.

Mrs. Wheeler said teen programs at her library have become so popular that personnel there have had to divide the group into two age groups, adding programs for pre-teens.

At the Carthage Free Library, Dakotah R. Hall, 16, said she started coming to the library to volunteer, read books, do homework, or just have a quiet place to go when she was bored at home.

Joining the teen group, she found friendship with peers she wouldn’t normally interact with, such as home-schooled students.

“There were only three or four people at first, but as it got more attention, more and more came,” Miss Hall said.


The NCLS is rooted in the Regional Library Service Center, the first of its kind in New York state and one of the first in the nation.

Established in 1948 by state librarian Charles F. Gosnell, the regional library initially was headquartered at the Roswell P. Flower Library. The goal of the new organization was to supply books and additional library materials to other libraries and to provide advisory assistance to staff and trustees.

Books were delivered weekly to outlying libraries, except during the winter, when materials were mailed. As a service to libraries, the RLSC staff designed and printed publicity material and catalog cards. Before technological advances, each book in each library had an index card with its vital information: title, author, type of book (fiction or nonfiction), a brief description of the book, and the Dewey Decimal System number used to locate the book within the library.

In 1958, a change in state law allowed the establishment of a state-supported cooperative library system, and the NCLS was formed, with the late John B. Johnson, editor and publisher of the Watertown Daily Times, as the first president of the board of trustees.

Throughout the years, the NCLS, now in the town of Pamelia, has grown to help its members.

The system continues to fulfill its two main goals of providing a shared circulation of books and other physical materials, and to act in an advisory capacity, but its mission has expanded.

Emily M. Owen, executive director of the Canton Free Library, sees the NCLS from both sides, since she previously worked as a consultant librarian for the regional agency.

“NCLS expands the collection of libraries, which could not afford to own all the books available,” she said.

Carthage Free Library Director Linda M. McCullough said the interlibrary loan system makes hard-to-find titles or specialized items available.

The system also provides an ever-growing shared collection of e-books and audio books, downloadable for loan.

According to Mr. Bolton, the circulation of e-books nearly tripled from 2011 to 2013.

“We are expanding our collection in response to that increase,” he said.


Technology services is another growing area in the NCLS.

From helping to determine computer needs, to finding funding to purchase systems, to setting up new systems, the NCLS walks its members through the process.

“The tech support is invaluable,” said Mrs. Wheeler, of Flower Library. She noted the agency recently helped update its public-use computer system.

Meanwhile, the Carthage Free Library recently underwent an expansion and renovation project; the NCLS aided by finding grant money for the construction and roof replacement. And the Osceola Library was on the verge of losing its charter before Leona M. Chereshoski took over as director in July 2008.

With the help of the NCLS, she has turned the library around, and now it has 160 patrons in the hamlet of 227 residents.

“We couldn’t exist without NCLS,” she said.

The three public-access desktop computers and three laptops donated by a local business are a big draw to the small library, which is housed in a former church built in 1888. The regional library aided the rural member in “doing the footwork for a new Internet provider” to upgrade from a dial-up system.

Looking ahead, NCLS plans to continue to expand free services to its members as long as funding allows.

According to its five-year plan of service, the NCLS hopes to have all of its members using the integrated library system by 2016 in order “to make the regional library resources more readily and equally available to their patrons.”

The regional library also is developing a collective virtual reference service, “Ask Us,” which would be available around the clock.

Local librarians find few shortcomings with the NCLS.

“I don’t see any downside; they do everything we need them to do if they can afford it,” said Mrs. Chereshoski.

“The death of the book is overrated,” said Ms. Owen, of the Canton Free Library. “The library is busy — there definitely are more users of e-books, but regular books are going out all the time. Libraries are still about books.”

Findings by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, released in 2013, support this view.

“Many library patrons are eager to see libraries’ digital services expand, yet also feel that print books remain important in the digital age,” the report summarizes.

History and facts of the North Country Library System
Facts from the North Country Library System, which encompasses 65 public libraries in Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence and Oswego counties. Unless noted, 2012 is the most recent year for which statistics are available, and 2001 is the year the NCLS began collecting data.
• Patron visits:
2001 — 887,227
2012 — 1,239,367
• Program attendance:
2001 — 27,268
2012 — 36,615
• Computer users:
2001 — 259,636
2012 — 286,214
• Cardholders:
2001 — 116,825
2012 — 102,628*
• Cardholders at largest libraries in the past five years:
Jefferson County: Watertown — 28,699 in 2007; 27,720 in 2012.
Lewis: Lowville — 2,091 in 2007; 4,314 in 2012.
St. Lawrence: Massena — 11,055 in 2007; 11,889 in 2012.
Oswego County: Oswego — 8,530 in 2007; 10,804 in 2012.
• Programs held (including storytimes, computer classes, book clubs and family events):
2005 — 5,027
2012 — 8,915
• E-book checkouts:
2011** — 9,691
2012 — 17,853
2013 — 27,435

Public library statistics, as compiled by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in a survey of fiscal 2011 that was released this month.
• There were 1.53 billion in-person visits to public libraries, an average of more than 4.2 million a day. Although this marks an increase of 23 percent from 10 years ago (1.24 billion visits in 2001), in-person visitation has fallen by 3.9 percent since fiscal 2008 (1.5 billion).
• Attendance at library programs has increased for the eighth year, with 89 million people attending 3.81 million programs. This represents a 32 percent increase in attendance and a 47 percent rise in the number of programs since fiscal 2004.
• The number of cardholders or registered borrowers was 161,825,567 in 2006 and 171,121,080 in 2011, an increase of nearly 6 percent.

* According to NCLS Director Stephen B. Bolton, the decrease reflects the way data are being collected. The member used to renew his or her patron information sporadically or every few years; since automation of the system, the data has been updated annually.
** The year the NCLS implemented Overdrive, a lending platform.

History of the North Country Library System — which encompasses 65 public libraries in Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence and Oswego counties — and its precursor, the Regional Library Service Center (RLSC).

• April 1948: Dr. Charles Gosnell, state librarian, conducts an inspection tour of the north country. Shortly thereafter, the first New York state Regional Library Service Center (RLSC) is established. Based at the Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library on Washington Street, Watertown, the staff is tasked with delivering books and other library materials to member libraries as well as providing advisory assistance. Later in the year, RLSC moves to Cross Street.
• 1950: RLSC begins audiovisual services.
• 1953: A 7,500-square-foot, $50,000 building is constructed on Arsenal Street to house the center. The building later becomes Benny’s Steakhouse.
• 1955: A multilith machine for card duplication and print work is acquired, thus beginning print services for member libraries. The services continue today on upgraded equipment.
• 1958: State law is enacted to allow the establishment of state-supported, cooperative library systems. The North Country Library System is established and receives a provisional charter in October. An absolute charter is granted in 1963.
• 1960: Oswego County is added to the NCLS chartered area.
• 1967: The Talking Book service is established for the visually impaired. The service is now known as the New York State Talking Book and Braille Library.
• 1971: NCLS develops and implements an Outreach program to meet the library needs of disabled persons. The program continues today with more than 400 patrons.
• 1969: NCLS constructs a new, 14,725-square-foot facility just outside of Watertown on County Route 190 (Outer West Main Street).
• 1980: NCLS comes into the computer age with the purchase of an IBM 5110 to automate the payroll process, and a Mini Marc computerized cataloging system is introduced to print catalog cards and labels for new library materials.
• 1984: A multi-user personal computer system links the Flower Memorial Library in Watertown, the Ogdensburg Public Library, and the Massena Public Library for automated interlibrary loan and acquisition procedures.
• 1985: Canton, Chaumont, Lowville and Potsdam libraries are added to the automated system.
• 1988: An online circulation system from Data Research Associates is adopted, and bar codes are put on books for automated circulation.
• 1992: All libraries within the system now have computers and are able to electronically submit book orders to NCLS.
• 1994: The first NCLS matching grants for public access computers are awarded to member libraries in Canton, Carthage, Gouverneur, Norfolk, Ogdensburg, Potsdam and Theresa. From 1985 to 1998, 167 computers are placed in member libraries through grants garnered through the efforts of NCLS.
• 1997: A computer training center is established at NCLS. The Northern New York Community Foundation awards grants to 28 libraries in Jefferson and Lewis counties to provide free Internet access.
• 2003: The six-month task of migrating information from the old Data Research Associates circulation system to the new SIRSI system is completed.
• 2005: A $900,000 capital project improves the continuing education and consultant service areas at NCLS as well as replaces the roof and upgrades the heating system.
• 2006: NCLS begins to host websites for member libraries with simple templates for ease of maintenance.
• 2008: NCLS member libraries receive 150 computers and other hardware through a matching grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Northern New York Community Foundation provides the matching funds for the grant.
• 2011: The Overdrive downloadable e-books and audiobooks program is implemented.
• 2013: NCLS receives a “Holiday Match” grant from Stewart’s Shops to aid with the annual Teen Reads Tourney.
• 2014: 49 libraries are in the SIRSI circulation system, with the Crosby Pubic Library in Antwerp expected to be added this year, according to the NCLS’ five-year plan.

Source: North Country Library System
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