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Library visits jump in 2022, still half of pre-COVID levels

The Greater Sudbury Public Library system received 315,000 in-person visits in 2022, which is an 81% jump from the previous year, but roughly half the pre-pandemic base year of 2019
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Greater Sudbury Public LIbrary CEO Brian Harding is seen in the South End Public Library, which is the city’s most-visited library.

In the debate regarding whether the city should proceed with the Junction East Cultural Hub library/art gallery project, some people have been dusting off outdated ideas about libraries.

Sudbury.com met with Greater Sudbury Public Library CEO Brian Harding at the South End Library recently to gather greater clarity on what the library system consists of, what the future might hold and how many people currently use it.

The South End Library opened in 2012 and better exemplifies the direction modern libraries are taking than the 70-year-old main downtown branch does, Harding said. 

This, he added, has contributed to the South End Library becoming the most-visited library in the city’s 13-building system, counting approximately 57,000 visits in 2022. 

The main downtown branch saw 44,000 in-person visits, while the system as a whole received 315,000 visits. This is an 81 per cent jump from the 174,000 visits recorded during full pandemic conditions in 2021, with restrictions having been lifted by the second quarter of 2022.

“This is really positive news for us, because when those conditions were lifted people were coming back to us, and we have a role to play,” Harding said. 

“There was concern that people were going to redesign their lives (during the pandemic), and because libraries were closed for parts of that, people weren’t going to come back to a library.

Although the in-person visits jump is good news, Harding clarified that they’re still not fully recovered from the pandemic. The pre-pandemic baseline year of 2019 saw the library system receive more than twice as many visits, at 655,800.

The South End Library receives more visits than the main downtown branch despite it being smaller in size, Harding said, describing it “more attractive” and “a much more welcoming place for people to come.”

Librairies are competing for people’s attention, he said, and people “don’t want to go into a space that feels cramped and claustrophobic and stuffy and old. They like to go into spaces where they feel more inspired.”

In the event the Junction East Cultural Hub proceeds and replaces the downtown library, Harding estimates that downtown use will increase by 100 per cent. 

“I feel confident some of our services will increase by more than that,” he said. “By going to the new planned facility, we’re going to be able to deliver a lot more programming, we’ll have more facility to do that and better resources to deliver.”

This rough estimate draws from various data, including what other municipalities experienced when they constructed new central libraries. In Halifax, Harding noted their new central library resulted in a 300 per cent jump in programming and attendance.

As for the notion libraries are strictly book depositories, Harding noted that libraries are “still very much about books,” but that their underlying direction is to provide shared resources.

“Historically, books have been one of those really important shared resources,” he said, adding that this is still very much the case, though they have diversified to better meet people’s needs.

Last year saw approximately 500,000 physical items borrowed from city libraries and 168,000 digital items borrowed — a 27 per cent total increase over 2021. In 2019, 829,413 items were borrowed.

Most of the items borrowed have been books, although DVDs and laptops were also popular. The library system also lends out provincial parks passes, board games and other things the community might make use of.

The library also lends out 18 Wi-Fi hotspots, which Harding said have been particularly popular. Last year saw the items checked out 473 times and carry an average hold list of 33 people.

Collections is a core service, Harding said, noting that services and access to space are other pillars.

Various educational services are available, and access to public washrooms, which the Downtown Sudbury Business Improvement Area has been pushing for, is a service libraries provide.

Various spaces are available for rent free of charge throughout the municipal library system. At the South End Library, there are three study rooms used for 2,700 hours last year.

“We know that our users need access to space, and they need access to the infrastructure that comes along with that space,” Harding said.

“There’s probably even unmet demand,” he said, describing them as an “effectively maximized resource” he’s striving to have available in greater numbers throughout the system.

Harding joined library board chair Michael Bellmore in presenting the library’s proposed 2023 budget to city council members earlier this week, alongside other service partners.

In addition to highlighting a municipal operating budget request increase of 7.4 per cent, their presentation focused on their dedication to adapting to community needs. 

During the pandemic, staff supported priority areas of the city, libraries printed 2,000 vaccination certificates per month and hosted 30 vaccination clinics which administered 1,200 vaccines.

“One of the things that we do is try to make our services as desirable for our community, as relevant to our community as possible,” Harding told Sudbury.com. 

“As long as our community has needs, and they’re needs the library has the ability to support, there will be a need for public libraries.”

Sudbury.com connected with Harding last year to discuss the differences between the current downtown library and the proposed Junction East Cultural Hub. For that story, click here.

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.