The Flathead County Library System took the bold step of rebranding itself as ImagineIF Libraries a year ago, and the public has responded in a big way, library officials say.
Participation in the libraries’ programs increased 32.4 percent systemwide on a year-to-date comparison over the previous year. Wi-Fi use is up 22 percent and the total number of digital-content checkouts is up 17 percent.
“It is striking when you walk through and see how much more engaged people are,” ImagineIF Assistant Library Director Connie Behe said. “Our program attendance has increased quite a bit. We’ve had a lot of positive reaction.”
The library system changed its name to ImagineIF to better reflect the diversity of what today’s libraries offer. Beyond the books and other materials available for checkout, today’s library is a place to access technology, find entertainment, learn do-it-yourself skills and make friends, according to Library Director Kim Crowley.
With that philosophy in mind, ImagineIF libraries in Kalispell, Bigfork, Columbia Falls and Marion began offering experience-based programs to teach patrons new skills that included everything from making home-cleaning products to simple hands-on construction projects.
Library patrons also have noticed the difference, Behe said. “People say now, ‘I totally get it.’
“In the children’s department, people are staying longer, doing things together,” she said. “We’ve had feedback about how comfortable it is” and how nice it is for children to be able to engage in a wide variety of hands-on activities.
A financial benefit of the rebranding has been an uptick in the donations given to the ImagineIF Library Foundation, Crowley pointed out.
An appeal letter in December 2014 drew 36 new donors for a total of $19,225 in new donations. Fifteen donors increased their contributions this year and gave a total of $3,850 more than last year.
A report of library statistics presented to the Flathead County commissioners on Tuesday by Crowley showed the use of public computers provided at ImagineIF Libraries is down 6.3 percent, reflecting a trend of fewer people relying on fixed-station computers. More library users are tapping into the free Wi-Fi for personal laptops and tablets they bring into the libraries.
The number of book checkouts decreased at all libraries except Kalispell, but the number of digital-content checkouts was up 17 percent across the board, reflecting the trend toward digital materials.
“It’s a challenge to continue to have high circulation numbers,” Behe said.
Libraries across the country saw a surge in use during the years of the national recession, but that kind of rapid growth is hard to sustain, she added. Libraries now tend to see checkout levels plateauing as the use of those facilities diversifies as it has at ImagineIF Libraries.
Building traffic was up close to 2 percent at the Kalispell library but was down 19 percent at the Bigfork library and dropped 3.7 percent at Columbia Falls. The Marion library, by comparison, had a 55 percent increase in building traffic.
ImagineIF is working toward expanding programming in Columbia Falls and Bigfork to draw more people, Behe said.
The Columbia Falls library just started a grab-and-go DVD program and remodeling has been done to streamline check-in and shelving.
ImagineIF Bigfork received a $12,400 grant from the Bigfork Community Development Foundation to help pay for upgrades to carpet and shelving plus updating and expanding space for programming and the children’s department, Crowley said.
A visible element of ImagineIF’s strategic plan has been to conduct more activities “outside the building,” Behe said, to provide public exposure for the libraries. One recent example was a date night event at Kalispell Brewing Co. ImagineIF also supplies the questions for the brewery’s weekly trivia night.
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