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The three largest public libraries in Champaign County have experienced a decline in the number of cardholders in recent years.
There were a total of 4,681 cardholders at Rantoul Public Library in 2014. That number dropped to 4,486 in 2015 and 3,887 this year, according to Library Director Holly Thompson.
Thompson said she doesn’t know why the numbers have dropped.
It’s certainly not because of fewer services offered.
“Actually, I think we’re offering more services than we were before. More programs anyway,” she said.
Thompson said there have been no noticeable change in the ages of those using the library. But there have been changes in why people visit the library.
“In the old days, primarily (people came) for books,” Thompson said. “A large percentage are coming in (now) to use the computers.
“Cardholders can use them for free. People who don’t have a card or owe a library fine are charged $1 per half hour.”
Since 2011, the Champaign Public Library has lost more than 8,000 cardholders, dropping 21 percent from 37,710 to 29,657, according to library data.
The Urbana Free Library has lost about 1,100 cardholders in the same time period. It had 13,880 in 2011 and now has 12,762, a decrease of 8.1 percent.
Donna Pittman, director of the Champaign Public Library since July, said she does not know exactly what caused the drop. But she said one possible cause of losing 2,445 cardholders since 2015 alone is the decrease in operation hours, which went into effect in summer 2015 because of staffing cuts.
The library closes at 6 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and Pittman said she has seen families arrive around closing time on those days, only to drive away when they realize the doors will soon close.
“As a librarian, that’s a killer because you know people want to be using you, and you have to shut the door. I don’t think it’s good for the community,” Pittman said. “I think it’s better for the community the more the library is open. The more people use the library, the better off we are because it means people are getting educated.”
Historically, library usage is highest during economic downturns, when people visit for employment and educational training. The recovery from the recession in the late 2000s may be another driving factor in reduced rates, though Celeste Choate, executive director of the Urbana Free Library since April 2014, said she couldn’t make that connection because she didn’t live locally during the downturn.
Choate said the low cardholder numbers mean the library has an opportunity to reach out to more people. She said they could also be caused by college students living in Urbana who in the past have mostly used the University of Illinois facilities instead of the Urbana Free Library.
“Some of those students really take advantage of the resources that the university has, and they find that their informational and educational needs are being met on campus,” she said. “And so some of the people who live here are never going to feel they need us. What we try to do is make a lot of options available to people and then get the word out to people so they know what we have for them.”
‘We only have one spot’
In 2013, the Urbana Free Library and the Community Strategic Planning Committee found validity in Choate’s argument. According to the strategic plan they created, 34 percent of Urbana’s total population were cardholders. When subtracting the university students, 61 percent of the population were cardholders.
Choate said another trouble area for the Urbana library is transportation.
“We serve an entire community, but we only have one spot, and so we do our best to go out into the community knowing that people have (transportation) problems,” Choate said.
She said library employees go to schools and events and provide a home delivery service to those who cannot get to the library.
At the Champaign Public Library, Pittman said staff tries many techniques, such as advertising in The News-Gazette and tweeting about events, to let different age groups know what is going on.
“People are bombarded with a lot of messages, so cutting through all that and getting people’s interest is a challenge,” she said. “So we have to approach it from a number of ways.”
Essie Harris, the Champaign Public Library’s Douglass Branch manager since 2003, said the community is not as aware of the branch’s existence. It typically relies on word of mouth to alert potential patrons to its presence.
“A lot of people are surprised that we’re located over here, like they don’t know that we’re here,” Harris said. “We’re this new item that they found and that they’re excited to come to see us, and then we get more people coming in once they find out that we’re here.”
One-card families a factor
The libraries’ total number of cardholders is low compared with the total number of residents in the area. The reason is unclear.
However, Pittman said she likes to look at the number of households as opposed to total population when assessing the number of library cardholders.
“We know that in a lot of families, the family gets one card,” she said. “That way, the parent knows exactly what’s been checked out by the kids, so we have a lot of families where it’s maybe just Mom has a card or maybe it’s just Mom and Dad have a card. So that’s a big piece of the population that doesn’t have cards, then.”
According to 2010 census data, Champaign has 32,207 occupied housing units, and Urbana has 16,961.
As of this year, Champaign Public Library cardholders made up 92.1 percent of occupied housing units and 36.6 percent of the city’s total population. The Urbana Free Library’s cardholders reflect 75.2 percent of housing units and 30.9 percent of the population.
These numbers do not take into account that some households might have more than one library card, while other households might not have any.