Personal librarians abound at one public library

Stacy Chandler
The News & Observer

When Wake County Public Libraries staff members decided they wanted to better reach out to grown-ups, they started at storytime.

There, a captive (truly!) audience watches as their kids get joyfully immersed in books, but there’s rarely time or energy left over afterward for mom or dad to visit the other side of the library to get a little something for themselves. So the librarians started coming to them, touting the library system’s Express Book Bags program. At one storytime, parents can fill out a short form asking about favorite books and authors, not-so-favorite books and authors, preferred genres and more, and by the next storytime, a bag will be waiting with three books handpicked by librarians already checked out and ready to go.

The program was a hit, and last fall the system’s seven regional libraries rolled out Express Book Bags to all adults, with forms available online or at the main desk.

Kelly Karius, a mom of three in Apex, first heard about the program during a storytime at Eva Perry Regional Library last fall and decided the time was right to give it a try.

“I finally got my daughter sleeping through the night, so I’m able to stay up later and do something,” she said. “I’m not really a TV watcher, I’m more of a reader. And I was just kind of excited to enjoy reading again.”

She filled out the form, listing Rick Bragg, Frank McCourt, true crime writer Ann Rule and “The Secret Life of Bees” as authors and books she likes. When she picked up her bag, she found “The Glass Castle,” a memoir of an unconventional upbringing by Jeannette Walls; and Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.”

She said she was planning to request an Express Book Bag again, and you could hear a little excitement in her voice after her experience with her first one.

“It felt like somebody was giving me a gift,” she said. “It comes in a little bag, and they hand it to you, and, as a mom, you know, nobody gives YOU a gift. Rarely do you get something that’s like, ‘This is special for you, I have picked this out just for you.’ You get home and you’re all excited and, like, ‘What books did I get?’ It was nice. It was really refreshing.”

Librarians get excited about the service too, said Dan Brooks, Adult Services manager at West Regional Library in Cary.

They use a variety of sources to zero in on their picks based on the preferences listed on the form, he said, “including their own brain and those of their coworkers,” as well as online databases like Durham-based NoveList and Goodreads. And because they try to assemble the bags within just a few days, they’re also limited to books that are checked in at the time.

“It’s designed to be handpicked and ready quick,” Brooks said. “That’s sort of our new tagline for it.” But he and his fellow librarians don’t expect the busy readers using the service to get through the books quickly, or sometimes even at all. “Our measure of success … is did you find at least one of these three books appealing?”

Even with all the competition for our free time — binge-worthy TV shows, blockbuster movies, immersive video games, social media and more — Americans by and large still find time for reading.

Books still popular

In a Pew Research Center survey released in September, 73 percent of respondents said they’d read at least one book in the preceding year. That’s about the same number who’d reported reading at least one book each year since 2012.

What these readers are not always finding time for, however, is visiting their local library. But Ann Burlingame, Wake County Public Libraries deputy director, thinks programs are the key to keeping people connected to their library.

While there are plenty of book-centered programs like the Express Book Bags, that’s just the beginning. Among the Wake libraries’ offerings for adults — around 140 a week, on average, across the system’s seven regional libraries and 14 smaller branches — are music programs, craft-making, business advice, one-on-one job search assistance, yoga, tech help and more. All of the programs get people in the door and help build community. And besides, it’s hard to be inside a library and not notice, and be tempted by, all those books free for the borrowing.

One more finding from that Pew Research survey on reading habits is that more people now than in 2012 are reading on smartphones and e-readers. But only 28 percent of respondents in 2016 reported reading an e-book, so print is hardly dead.

And that’s why Wake County’s libraries, even though they have increased their e-book holdings in recent years, are continuing to stock the shelves with print books and adding programs that will entice patrons to come in and clear them out.