The Massanutten Regional Library often helps people find answers — now it’s asking patrons for information

The main library in downtown Harrisonburg is one of seven of the Massanutten Regional Library’s locations. (File photo)

By Stephanie Spernak, contributor

Amid broad demographic changes and technological shifts, the Massanutten Regional Library system is finishing gathering public input to help guide its decisions for the next five years. 

The library system has held a series of public meetings — with its last three scheduled over the next two weeks, including one Tuesday evening in Elkton. And through July 31, it is collecting information through online surveys, which are available in English and in Spanish. People can also fill out surveys in person at each of the system’s seven locations across Harrisonburg and Rockingham and Page counties.   

So far, library director Zachary Elder said the library has received about 1,200 responses across the system, which includes the Central Library in downtown Harrisonburg and branches in Bridgewater, Broadway, Elkton, Grottoes, Luray, and Shenandoah. The system serves more than 160,000 residents across those localities. 

Elder, who took over as the library’s director in November, said he is especially eager to hear from those residents who don’t use the library system much, or at all, in order to learn how the system might better engage and serve them.  

It’s important “that everyone gets heard, especially those who are not (library) regulars,” Elder said.   

In interviews with The Citizen, Elder and Mary Golden Hughes, MRL’s director of advancement, said the most important part of the effort, which officially is known as the system’s strategic planning process, is to learn what their library means to the community and what library resources, programming and services people value most.  

MRL library patrons have access to more than 300,000 books, DVDs, audiobooks, eBooks, online learning and research tools, and other resources for free. 

The MRL system is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and therefore, Hughes said, it is “mission-based and service driven.”  

Hughes said library personnel want to understand how each branch in the MRL system differs in the type of resources and services desired by its community.  

Elder and Hughes hope as many people possible in the MRL service area “make their voices heard” through this process. 

“We need to know why people are coming or not coming,” Hughes said. 

‘What does MRL mean to you?’

While community library systems like MRL still have plenty of books, they have had to offer much more than that in the 21st century, which is evident in this planning process.  

Print surveys are available in seven different languages: Arabic, English, Kurdish, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, and Tigrinya can be completed in person at each of the system’s seven locations. 

In addition to the surveys, the library has hosted a series of public meetings at its various locations and an online meeting on July 11.  The last three in-person community meetings will be 6-8 p.m. Tuesday (July 18) at the Elkton Community Center, July 25 at the Page Public Library in Luray and at the North River Library in Bridgewater on August 1.  The meetings don’t require advance registration to attend.

Hughes said that the agenda for the public meetings will include information about the state of the library system, its vision and values, a description of the collections and services available and budget details.

Elder said participants at the community meetings are asked to share their responses to “the two big questions–what does MRL mean to you? and what one thing should we change?”  

The library has outlined 16 potential priorities, and library leaders seek to get input from community members at the public meetings about the ones they most care about. Some of the priorities have to do with the environment at each location, such as providing a “safe and welcoming physical place for pleasurable reading, viewing and listening experiences” or being welcoming to new neighbors by providing information on citizenship and learning English. 

Many priorities relate to access to information resources, including helping community members with finding relevant and accurate sources and information searching skills. And, of course, the library offers free high-speed online access, especially for those who don’t have internet at home. 

Broader priorities include: promoting democracy and civic responsibility; being a central source for community programs, services and activities; supporting young readers and students of all ages, while promoting adult literacy; as well as supporting creativity with arts, crafts, writing and audio/visual content. 

Other specific priorities include: 

  • Helping those seeking jobs to identify opportunities and skills training. 
  • Providing resources to help businesses and non-profit organizations. 
  • Promoting appreciation and understanding of heritages within the communities.
  • Offering resources to help people make decisions about health, wealth and other choices. 
  • Having access to resources for people to engage their curiosity as part of lifelong learning. 
  • Providing resources to help with exploration of local and family histories.  

At the meetings, community participants can rank all 16 priorities in order of importance to them, while survey respondents select their top five priorities. All responses will be used to help shape the strategic plan prepared for the MRL Board of Trustees, which makes key decisions, such as how to spend the library system’s funding, which was more than $2.66 million in fiscal year 2023, which ended in June.  

The trustees are expected to vote on approval of the strategic plan in November, and the priorities, objectives and specific activities adopted by the board will be announced in December. Implementation of the new plan will begin in 2024. Previous MRL strategic planning projects were conducted in 2014 and in 2004.

The Massanutten Regional Library includes books and resources in different languages and services to help immigrants prepare for the naturalization process. (Photo by Stephanie Spernak)

Changing needs for library users

Elder and Hughes said this strategic planning process is essential now because several trends are affecting public libraries and their users.  

First, Hughes said there are “demographic changes relating to age and ethnic populations in our area and we’re trying to reflect these changes through our library collections, programming and staff.”  

Nan Carmack, director of library development and networking for the Library of Virginia, provided information at the July 11 online meeting about demographic changes that are expected to affect public library operation.

According to Carmack, a significant demographic trend affecting public libraries is the aging population. Carmack described demographic data collected by Ron Hetrick and colleagues and published in 2021 report called “The Demographic Drought.”  

Carmack said Hetrick’s data show that by 2034, there will be more people in the U.S. older than 55 years than there will be people younger than 20 years old.  The effects of aging such as visual, auditory and mobility impairment are relevant to both the library’s environment and services.   

Elder said libraries have traditionally sought to provide services to people with various special needs and all age groups as part of a public library’s “best practices.” 

Like many libraries, MRL maintains an extensive special collection of large-print books and highlights new releases available in large print format.  But the library system might need new or additional resources to meet the needs of a growing population of older patrons.    

Elder said MRL would like to expand its outreach services to places such as nursing homes and senior living residences.

Hughes said an increasing percentage of the MRL service population speaks Spanish as their first or only language.  Accordingly, the system has curated special collections of Spanish-language materials in the branches. These collections — or those in other languages — might need to be expanded depending on communities’ needs, she said. 

Tax revenues are also expected to diminish with the ongoing aging of the population with potential adverse effects on library budgets for resource acquisitions, programming, and staffing.   Carmack said that lower tax revenues may mean lower salaries for library employees, which may negatively affect staff recruitment.  In this regard, Elder noted that each full-time library position in the MRL system includes $14,000-$21,000 for benefits on top of salary. 

Hughes said the state and local governments provide about 90% of MRL’s operating budget. Fundraising from private donors fills in the $200,000 budget gap that remains, Hughes said. 

Compared to the average of $35.37 that other Virginia libraries spend on operating expenditures per patron, MRL’s per capita rate is less than half that at $14.13 per patron, Elder said.  That figure would have to increase if resources and services are to expand, he said.

Also, out of the 92 public libraries in Virginia, Elder said that MRL comes in near the bottom of the list, ranking 87th, in receipt of total government funding, despite data showing that MRL returns about $8.31 to the community for every dollar it spends.  

Keeping up with the technology

The ongoing digital revolution is another dynamic trend affecting Virginia public libraries and users that Carmack said will significantly affect collections, programming, resources, services and user experiences.  

Data published in 2021, collected during the years 2014 to 2018, by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services,just prior to the onset of the COVID pandemic showed the following:

  • The percentage of libraries offering electronic collection materials increased from 80 to 90%.
  • Median per-person spending on physical materials decreased by 6%, while median per-person spending on electronic materials increased by 31%.
  • And median cost for physical items circulated increased by 11%, while median cost for e-circulation decreased by 26%.

The transition to digital resources during this period was instrumental in keeping the public in touch with libraries when locations had to close in March 2020 through much of 2021.

The MRL system has an extensive free digital collection, including resources like:

Project Gutenberg, a library of over 60,000 free eBooks in multiple languages and Librivox its audiobook companion with thousands of titles that can be listened to online, downloaded, or accessed via podcast applications.  

OverDrive, which provides access to popular and bestselling eBooks and audiobooks that include Kindle Books and thousands of titles for adults, teens and children, with titles also available in Spanish, Chinese, and Russian.  

Magzter, described as the “world’s largest newsstand” that offers a collection of more than 8,000 popular magazines, newspapers and journals. 

The online collection also includes several “A-Z” databases that contain materials and references to sources that cover a wide range of useful information for job seekers, veterans, students of all ages, citizenship materials, automobile repair, health and medical information, learning languages, consumer product reviews, and local, national and international newspapers. 

Public libraries were early to recognize the community value of shared digital resources and offered patrons free computer usage for word processing and later free wifi and access to online resources.  Some digital collections can only be used inside the library, but many others can be used at home by library patrons with internet access.  

Many public libraries are now integrating virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality technologies into their resources.

The content of these digital resources has moved beyond gaming and includes entertainment, news, immersive educational programming, and virtual travel experiences, like Google Expedition.  

Such resources are highly attractive for sharing at places like libraries because they are cutting edge but equipment like VR headsets and controllers are expensive. 

“While many MRL patrons are digitally oriented, many others are not,” Elder said. 

He said he does not see a rapid decline in use of the library’s traditional physical collections, although library staff are always available to help patrons navigate digital resources.   

The children’s section at the main library in Harrisonburg is not only a place for reading and discovery for young readers but also the focal point of programming aimed at kids. (Photo by Stephanie Spernak)

Maintaining a place to interact

Some observers have opined that public libraries are the only “truly public spaces left in America.”  Many libraries, like the MRL system, also have moved in recent years to remove additional barriers, such as late fines for returning books. 

The trend in library space usage is evolving toward creation of multiple, dedicated, and flexible space uses that meet the needs of both individuals and small groups.  Such spaces may be “zoned” for quiet, speech, or video and audio devices.  

For example, Elder said single cubicles can support patrons with telehealth appointments and want privacy for that conversation. Students might also seek more private, quiet spaces to study. Larger spaces would suit collaborative work groups where conversations and presentations could take place in person or online. 

Certain spaces can be dedicated exclusively for creative activities and for gaming and VR devices.    

And libraries are expanding their circulating physical collections beyond just books and printed materials.  This initiative, called “the library of things” is another effort to increase the value of the library to the community by providing more categories of shared resources.  

Elder said MRL is in the process of building a collection of “things” and currently offers passes to the Frontier Culture and Discovery Museums, backpacks with supplies for nature walks and a variety of puzzles.

But just about any reusable items can be acquired for sharing, such as tools, games, camping and fishing gear, telescopes, microscopes, science kits, and even cooking and baking items such as a large cake pan a person might only need to use once, Elder said. 

One thing that Elder said he doesn’t expect will change is the library’s focus on helping patrons. 

“Face-to-face contact with the library staff is important and makes patrons feel like the library is a place where they belong,” he said. And he added that since starting at MRL, “the customer service is the best I have ever seen.” 

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