NEWPORT BEACH — The Newport Beach Public Library is considering closing one of its four branches and outfitting a planned community center with everything that it offered — except the books.
At a meeting about the Balboa Peninsula's Marina Park development Wednesday, city officials unveiled plans to close the Balboa Branch — which houses 35,000 items, including books, DVD and other materials — and to dedicate a portion of the Marina Park Community Center to an "electronic library."
By eliminating books and librarians at the building, they hope to adapt to modern times and save money while providing residents services they'll actually use. In the process, they would replace the library's most iconic features with Internet connections.
"That caused me the most angst," said City Manager Dave Kiff. "People identify [book] stacks with the library."
But officials analyzed how its patrons use the branches and found that most come for a quiet place to study, to plug their laptops into work spaces and to use the Internet-connected computers. Few of them actually remove books from the shelves.
That's especially the case at the Balboa branch, said Cynthia Cowell, library services director.
"They come specifically to use the computers," she said. "We have a lot of electronic use of the library, and it's getting bigger all the time."
The new facility would have a 2,200-square-foot "Internet library" room with a central fireplace and a kiosk where patrons could order books to borrow using an online system. Some seats and tables would look out onto the bay.
"What we hope to accomplish," Cowell said, "is to create a place where people want to come and be."
If residents still want to get their book on the Peninsula, they could order it online from the other branches and pick it up at Marina Park. Instead of holding books behind a desk, the library would drop them off in individual lockers.
"A lot of people still want to touch a book, hold a book, smell it," Cowell said. "The sensory experience is still very important to many of us."
The new process would be similar to Netflix. Patrons could place orders from anywhere with an Internet connection: home, work, Marina Park, etc. The kiosk would also be equipped with video-calling software, similar to Skype. Patrons could speak face-to-(projected) face with a reference librarian who could help answer research questions and point them toward the right online resources.
Cowell said she anticipates some blow-back from people in the community, but downplayed the change in peoples' library experience.
"It's just the delivery method," she said.
When Long Beach considered closing its downtown library in 2008 and opening a similar Internet library with pick-up capabilities, many in the community fought back. Some of them were from the Long Beach Public Library Foundation.
In Newport, the Friends of the Library may not have such a strong reaction.
Speaking for herself, Nancy Acone, a Friends board member and manager of The Friends Book Store, said, "You have to be open for change in the library, because you don't want to be like the railroads and go out of business."
Presumably, it would be cheaper to run the library without trained reference librarians, but Cowell said she hasn't run the numbers yet. The City Council would have to decide what to do with the three full-time staff members at the Balboa Branch, she said, and whether closing it would eliminate additional work for other library staffers.
At older than 50 years, the Balboa branch and the adjoining fire station need to be rebuilt, city officials said. If this plan goes through, they would rebuild the station and possibly turn the library land into a park, Kiff said.