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A (SHH!) BOOM : The Libraries of Orange County Are Quietly Enjoying an Unprecedented Popularity, Thanks to Change in Atmospheres

Times Staff Writer

It is a weekday afternoon, and car after car rolls up in front of a pale gray, modernistic building next to one of Irvine Heritage Park’s flowing streams.

Inside, where long lines have already formed at the checkout counters, the arriving adults and children quickly join others in the crowded aisles, sizing up the stock on the shelves.

No, this is not a shopping center experiencing a mad dash by consumers to a big sale.

This 1980s in place is a public library.

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The very latest kind.

The four-month-old Irvine Heritage Park Regional Branch Library is the newest and, with 60,000 loans a month, already the busiest library in the 27-branch Orange County Public Library system.

The $1.4-million complex--complete with skylights, soft-hued walls and woodsy decor, a reading patio and sophisticated computer technology--is a far cry from the old image of a public library as a dull, hushed, forbidding institution.

Yet Barbara Brook, principal librarian at Heritage, is amazed by the larger-than-expected turnouts, with more than 200 patrons crammed into the one-story, 18,000-square-foot facility at peak hours.

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“It’s been body-to-body here since the day we opened in June,” she says. “We registered 2,700 patrons in that first week alone. Don’t tell me libraries aren’t having some kind of boom.”

This same rush-hour crush is repeated at many other public libraries in Orange County, which has one of the most thriving suburban library networks in the United States.

It’s all part of the profound personality changes and modernization programs public libraries are undergoing to woo more users.

The surroundings are becoming more informal and, in some cases, downright trendy. Some local libraries, as a way to bolster revenues, even rent their facilities for weddings and other private receptions.

Collections are becoming more eclectic, including everything from classics to compact discs and Hollywood videocassettes.

And libraries are becoming computerized, using the latest available technology to give patrons access to more books and once hard-to-obtain research.

These changes have been happening quietly, with little publicity or fanfare.

“Too many people still take us for granted,” says Rob Richard, director of the oldest public library in the county, the Santa Ana municipal system, founded in 1891. “We don’t always get credit for the changes, no matter how favorable and meaningful they are.”

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There are 10 separate public library systems in Orange County: the 27-branch county system; seven municipal systems, most of which have their own branches, and two special districts (special district libraries), in Buena Park and Placentia. The county system not only serves the unincorporated areas, but also 16 cities.

All the local systems and county branches now belong to a cooperative network that gives library users access to public libraries throughout the county. Patrons can use their local library card--or quickly obtain card privileges--at any library in the network, whether it’s a county, municipal or district facility.

The largest system in the county is easily the 67-year-old county system, which nine years ago was a $9.7-million operation with holdings of 1 million volumes. The growth since has been dramatic: The annual budget is now $19.2 million, the number of volumes nearly 2 million.

The county system’s total annual circulation of books and other materials has increased from 4.4 million nine years ago to 7.8 million, a figure topped in the state only by the much-larger systems in Los Angeles County (12 million for the 88-branch Los Angeles County system, 9.8 million for the 62-branch Los Angeles Public Library).

According to Elizabeth Martinez Smith, head of the Orange County library system, the system’s official number of borrowers is 637,000 cardholders. That is 58% of the 1.1 million residents in the areas served by the system--one of the highest rates of library use in the nation for a large system.

The national average, the American Library Assn.'s public library division reports, is 33% for systems with populations of more than 1 million, 42% for those with 500,000 to 1 million.

One of the biggest attractions of today’s libraries is their cozier ambiance.

“Sure, the older ones had a lot of dignity, but, my, they looked and felt just like banks,” says longtime patron Esther Thompson, 76, of Huntington Beach. “I love the new ones. They’re so much friendlier, not awesome.”

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A classic example of a solemnly institutional bastion was Anaheim’s two-level, brick-and-column Carnegie-era landmark, built in 1908. It served as the city’s main library until 1963 (and is now, appropriately, home to the Anaheim Museum).

Since the 1960s, however, and especially in the past 15 years, libraries have been designed to project a far more approachable, almost folksy aura.

For example, the Huntington Beach city system’s 13-year-old, 72,000-square-foot main library, the largest in the county, has a four-tiered, pastel-colored interior with a strikingly open feeling. Outside are fountains, ponds and the sprawling grounds of Central Park.

This same, user-friendly mood is evident in the nine structures built since the mid-1970s for the county system, especially the 5-year-old San Juan Capistrano Regional Library.

The county system’s architectural showcase, this $1.8-million, 14,000-square-foot, mission-style facility (it is a block from the historic mission) is a truly serene readers’ haven, graced with alcoves, fireplaces and gazebos and courtyard ponds and fountains.

“These are real places ,” says County Librarian Smith, “where people congregate and relax and feel a little more at home.”

Although shelves are still filled with the likes of William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the National Geographic, libraries now carry much more than books and magazines. You can also find videocassette versions of films from “King Kong” to “Moonstruck” and how-to videos from Vic Braden on tennis to Jane Fonda on fitness, as well as compact discs from Dwight Yoakam and Glenn Miller to “West Side Story” and “Carmen.”

Reading tastes seem to reflect the much-discussed, leisure-minded homogeneity of the county, librarians say.

“There’s some diversity in reading tastes,” says Karen Leo, director of the city library in Orange. “But when you come right down to it, it’s pretty much mainstream and best-selling novels and biographies.”

Books and periodicals on such topics as business and real estate, technology, home improvement, consumerism, sports, travel and job patterns are also in demand.

Library collections are beginning to reflect the county’s ethnic diversity. Substantial foreign-language holdings include Spanish literature in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Stanton and La Habra; Vietnamese in Westminster; Korean in Garden Grove and Chinese in Irvine.

Santa Ana, moreover, has launched the Hispanic Bookmobile Project to reach an ethnic group that is the largest in that city, yet the most under-represented in library usage.

Computer-age technology is probably the most striking feature of the contemporary library.

The capabilities of library computer systems seem boundless to library users, who now have access to a virtual wonderland of not only quick-to-find, astonishingly detailed bibliographies, but also data banks on stock quotes, legal reports, medical research, corporate profiles and official demographics.

“I don’t have to go anywhere else. It’s all here,” says a 41-year-old hospital management consultant, a regular user of computer terminals and microfilm viewers at Irvine’s Heritage regional branch. “Everything I need--marketing studies, biographies, analytical articles--I can get, from sources I never thought possible.”

The same technology can also speed up answers to even the most obscure queries that reference librarians receive. They can find data in minutes, rather than hours, and in hundreds of once seemingly remote sources in response to such questions as: How many ounces of blood in a mouse? What is the thickness of a dollar bill? How should sauteed rattlesnake be prepared? Where are all the region’s nudist colonies?

One of Santa Ana Public Library researcher Tom Singer’s favorites was this one: “Someone asked me once, ‘Can you eat a penguin?’ ” he recalls. “Well, I found out from some of the most esoteric sources around. You can eat them--it’s a fowl, you know.”

At the same time, the computerized circulation system has made it something of a breeze to check out materials--at any public library in the county, no matter where you live.

Instead of visiting libraries outside their city, many patrons make loans via terminals through the now fully computerized inter-library network (called the Santiago Library System).

For instance, Ildiko Hill, 35, of Irvine used to shop around as a library user, stopping at county branches in Irvine’s University Park or Mission Viejo and sometimes using the UC Irvine campus library.

With the opening of the county’s Heritage Park branch this summer, Hill found her library home.

“If I want a book from somewhere else--like about fiscal management or home improvement--I can reserve it (by computer) in minutes and get it (delivered) in a day or two,” says Hill, sitting one afternoon out on the Heritage library patio, reading a Sunset magazine while her 21-month-old daughter, Katie, played with rag dolls.

One day a week, she and Katie also join in on a “mommy-and-me” storytelling session. “To me, with the computers and all that, this is a real full-service, state-of-the-art library,” Hill says. “It’s great!”

But, she adds with a laugh, “sometimes you just can’t find any parking.”

The final touch in automated loan services is to extend computerization to the catalogues, whose 3-by-5 cards have been used by generations of people hunting for books.

Huntington Beach’s central library became the first in the county to automate its catalogues in 1975. Within the past year or so, other systems--including city libraries and branches in Newport Beach, Yorba Linda, Buena Park, Placentia and Anaheim, in addition to all 27 county branches--have done the same.

And the three holdouts--the Fullerton, Orange and Santa Ana library systems--expect to eventually convert from 3-by-5 cards to computerized catalogues.

All these changes have taken place in an atmosphere of constant fiscal crisis.

Compared to police services, highways and schools, public libraries remain low on the allocations totem pole. And the passage a decade ago of Proposition 13--the sweeping state property-tax limitation measure--led to huge cuts in staff, programs, building expansion plans and operating hours (only the main city libraries in Fullerton, Santa Ana and Newport Beach are still open Sunday afternoons).

One result is the imposition by some systems of fees on certain key services, such as “on-line,” in-depth computer research and videocassette rentals. (The county system, however, still offers these services free.)

Nevertheless, Huntington Beach, which once considered opening a restaurant at its central library, remains a leader in seeking new revenue sources. The city library director, Ronald Hayden, says this is no time to be mild-mannered.

“Public institutions--including libraries--need to be innovative if they are to thrive financially,” Hayden says. “None of these innovations, we believe, is undermining the basic library mission.”

That mission, says William Griffith, director of the Anaheim Public Library since 1957, when it was still in the old brick-and-column building on Anaheim Boulevard and Broadway, “has always meant the improving of minds and lives, being the central repository for great ideas and learning that is open to everyone in the community. That role has never changed--it never should.”

At least one longtime patron agrees.

A retired aerospace manager who lives in Huntington Beach, he travels to Anaheim, Santa Ana and Irvine to borrow books and use reference services.

“All these new trappings are OK, I suppose, but I’m not too crazy about the fancier services, like those Hollywood videos,” this 67-year-old patron said one evening at the Huntington Beach central library, where he was looking for books on astronomy, plus the latest Robert Ludlum thriller.

“But I’ll tell you what it all means to me--a good book or magazine, a place to sit by yourself and to put your feet up.”

True to his word, he grabs the latest National Geographic from the magazine rack, finds a chair in a corner near a window and opens the pages slowly and quietly, to savor the words and images of faraway places.

Shhhhhh. . . .


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