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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Colfax Public Library experienced a 21 percent increase in circulation from 2020 to 2021, for a total circulation of 34,598, the highest circulation recorded in the last 20 years.
The Colfax Public Library already had a good year in 2020, but Lisa Bragg-Hurlburt, library director, said she wanted to look back in the library’s records to see how the circulation compared.
After all, years ago, people seemed to read more than they do now, she said.
Hurlburt has the records she has kept during her time as library director and also access to the records kept by the previous library director, Lisa Ludwig.
Although circulation was in the 30,000 range a few times over the last 20 years, 2021 did, indeed, turn out to have the highest circulation numbers.
Circulation was in the lower 30,000s in 2019, 2016, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2007.
In 2001, the Colfax Public Library’s circulation was 19,098, and by 2003, circulation had reached 26,069.
“I thought for sure that 15 years ago there would have been more books (checked out). Our adult readership is steady, though. We have some devoted readers,” Hurlburt said.
In 2020, circulation was 28,506.
The 2021 circulation “was the best ever” largely due to more children checking out books, Hurlburt said.
In 2021, the children’s circulation was 57 percent of the total, and 20 years ago, the children’s circulation was 35 percent of the total, she said.
Out of the total circulation of 34,598 — 19,767 were children’s materials.
“I credit our great staff here. Jolene (Albricht, youth services librarian) does a fantastic job, and she is so warm with the families,” Hurlburt said.
“I am so pleased with our quality of staff. They are all so outstanding — every one of them. To me, that’s the heart and soul of the library,” she said.
The Colfax Public Library features a children’s area that has wonderful, creative, interactive books for kids, Hurlburt said.
Parents prefer physical books for their children because they are more engaging. The books for children have now become so interactive and can help the little ones learn some complex concepts, she said.
“We have some pretty nice stuff here!” Hurlburt said.
While it might have been logical to assume the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic would have hurt the library circulation, of course, that turned out not to be true.
The Colfax Public Library sends out just as many books with the courier that people from the Colfax area have ordered from other libraries that they are returning as there are books people from other areas have ordered from the Colfax library, Hurlburt said.
During the pandemic “because we are small, we could be a little more open about letting people come in. We did not have the concern about large crowds in the same way that a larger library would,” she said.
A few people even came from Eau Claire to use the Colfax Public Library, Hurlburt said, and some of them are still continuing to visit the library in Colfax.
Hurlburt noted that Colfax does receive reimbursement for people coming from other counties to use the library in Colfax.
Dunn County also pays reimbursement to other counties for Dunn County residents who use libraries in other locations.
During the pandemic, checkouts of electronic books were “big too,” Hurlburt said.
“People really learned during the pandemic — oh, I don’t have to physically go to the library to pick up a book. From the comfort of my home, I can log into the library system, and if I have a library card, I can order e-books in perfect safety. It’s so convenient,” she said.
One of the advantages of a library card, Hurlburt noted, is that you do not have to buy the e-books you read.
Through a grant received by the Indianhead Federated Library System (IFLS), the Colfax Public Library was able to extend the range of the Wifi signal so that more people in the downtown area would be able to access the Internet, Hurlburt said.
Wifi usage went up quite a bit during the pandemic. People could log in and use the Internet, even if they did not want to come into the library, she said.
The Colfax Public Library also had hotspots for Internet usage available for checkout, too.
Although the library no longer has the hotspots because it ended up becoming rather expensive, Hurlburt said she hopes to be able to get a grant that would allow the library to offer hotspots again.
“They were in constant use,” she said.
The library also served as a point of connection between the county, the state and the local community during the pandemic.
The library was able to distribute resources to the community, such as masks, and could provide information about the pandemic, Hurlburt said.
“It’s quite the advantage to Colfax to have a library in our village,” she said.
The Colfax Public Library had an increase of 24 percent as well in checkouts from people coming to the library from the surrounding townships.
When people outside of Colfax use the library, it benefits the village. People come into town, and then while they are here, they do other things, too, such as buying gasoline, going out for lunch or stopping at the grocery store, Hurlburt said.
Dunn County provides about two-thirds of the funding for the Colfax Public Library to account for people in the surrounding townships using the library.
The Colfax Public Library is now offering story time in both the morning and afternoon on Wednesdays.
Initially, the idea was to have two sessions so that the group of children would be smaller to help with COVID safety, Hurlburt said.
With two sessions, the children receive more of a personalized experience at Story Time, so the morning and afternoon sessions will likely continue, she said.
While it is more work for Albricht because she must clean up after Story Time twice instead of once, “we enjoy giving the kids that extra attention,” Hurlburt said.
The Colfax Public Library Board approved going “fine free” at the March meeting.
Most of the libraries in the MORE (My Online Resource) system have gone fine free, Hurlburt said, noting that she was at first hesitant about “jumping in” on going fine free.
After doing some research, Hurlburt discovered libraries that have gone to not assessing fines for items returned after their due date have not been adversely affected.
What ends up happening is people return overdue items, and more people are more comfortable coming into the library, she said.
People are embarrassed about coming into the library if they have unpaid fines, and people do not want to have to worry about coming up to check out books only to discover they have a fine that has not been paid, but now, they are at the checkout counter, and they do not have any cash with them to pay the fine, Hurlburt said.
When libraries are fine free, people are more willing to take a chance with letting their children obtain library cards, she said.
So far, Hurlburt said she has received nothing but positive comments from the community about eliminating library fines.
Previously, fines were assessed at 10 cents per day per item for books while movies were 50 cents per day.
People tended to run into trouble with movies, Hurlburt noted.
“It was starting to feel like the fine system was only penalizing people of lower income. For people with means, the fines don’t bother them,” she said.
Fines also seemed to disproportionately target children.
Children do not have an income, and “they’re afraid to tell Mom and Dad,” Hurlburt said.
The Colfax Public Library collected about $700 in fines in 2021. Some years prior, when DVDs were $1 per day, the library collected about $1,500 in late fees.
The Colfax library participated in a variety of fine forgiveness initiatives, such as Food for Fines, the Fresh Start Fine Forgiveness Program, and allowing children to “read off” their fines.
Hurlburt said the fine forgiveness initiatives felt wrong, too, because people had to initiate the participation themselves.
Fines also feel especially egregious because people pay their taxes, and their tax money has already paid for the library materials, she said.
Story Time will continue on Wednesdays through May, and then the Colfax Public Library staff will begin gearing up for Summer Reading in July.
Two performers are on the schedule for Summer Reading, which has the theme of “Oceans of Possibilities.”
The first performer will be Captain Jack Sparrow on July 13 at 1 p.m. at the Colfax Fairgrounds.
Captain Jack Sparrow has visited the library before, and he brings pirate relics with him and knows about the history of pirates, Hurlburt said.
The second performance will be Kid Power With Rachel Kroog on July 20 at 1 p.m. at the Colfax Fairgrounds.
Summer Reading was held at the fairgrounds last year because of COVID safety concerns, Hurlburt said.
There is plenty of parking at the fairgrounds, and plenty of room for people to spread out — and if it rains, the audience and the performers are already under cover, she said.
The staff at the library prefer to have Summer Reading in Tower Park next to the library, because when the program is finished, people come into the library, Hurlburt noted.
On the other hand, having it at the fairgrounds last year did not hurt the circulation, she said.
The Colfax Public Library has an an adult book club that is back to meeting in person at the library, Hurlburt said.
The book club meets the third Thursday of every month at 5:30 p.m. The adult book club reads one book per month, she said.
The teen book club meets one time each week on Monday afternoons at 3:30 p.m. after school, Hurlburt said.
On May 11 at 10 a.m., Steve Russell will be in Tower Park at Story Time as The Bubbler.
Kids love soap bubbles, so Russell’s visit will be fun, Hurlburt said.
In addition, the public library will be having a thrift sale in August, she noted.
As for COVID-19, if there is another surge of the virus, “we are ready. We still have the masks and the gear — and we know what to do now,” Hurlburt said.