All branches of the Mid-Columbia Libraries will have new hours starting Jan. 1 to better serve patrons.
Kyle Cox, interim director for the public library system, said the shift to most branches being open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays will better fit the demand for service, without any added expense to the library system's budget.
"It is revenue neutral," he told the library board of directors Tuesday. The library system serves the Tri-Cities and outlying communities from Kahlotus and Othello to Prosser and Benton City,
Cox said at first glance the library system would appear to be serving the public well. Check-outs are up 4 percent over a year ago, program attendance is up 19 percent and computer use is up 16 percent.
"This shows we are good at marketing," he said.
But more telling and concerning are statistics that show declines in the number of people visiting the branches and the steadily dropping number of adult cardholders, despite efforts to recruit new ones, he said.
And a growing number of inactive cardholders indicates the library branches aren't building and retaining patrons, Cox said.
"This tells us we excel at serving a shrinking group of heavy-use customers," he concluded.
The answer, Cox said, is to better meet library patrons' unmet needs, and that means adjusting hours to fit their work and lifestyle schedules.
Cox noted that demographic and census data show customer needs for services have changed as communities have changed.
For example, west Pasco has 89 percent of all parents working, so closing libraries at 5 p.m. or even 6 p.m. makes no sense, he said, noting that the trend is the same throughout the Tri-Cities
"We need to realign our model. We are a tax-funded organization. We owe it to the taxpayers to be open when most of our customers can access library services," he said.
The new schedule for all nine branches generally will have doors opening later in the mornings and staying open until at least 7 p.m. weekdays. There also will be more convenient Saturday hours.
For some branches, that will mean opening at 2 p.m. instead of 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. on weekdays.
Cox said he and staff met with branch libraries' employees to better gauge customers' needs and to get staff feedback about moving toward evening work schedules.
"It will be difficult for some staff, but they understand that this makes sense," Cox said.
The changes will add evening hours on Friday nights for Kennewick, Pasco and Prosser, which is where Cox believes a large demand for service exists. These branches now close at 5 p.m. Fridays.
In addition to adding evening hours, Cox said the new schedule for all the branches will be more consistent than the current schedule, which varies greatly from branch to branch.
The changes may require transferring some staff among branches, but it won't affect the 2012 budget. Cox said a primary goal at the start was to not incur any additional expenses.
"This is a difficult decision. It was tough for me, but it is the right decision. We owe it to the taxpayers," he said.
Board member Tom Callahan said it was a good plan, and board Chairman Gloria Garcia said the new schedule shows Cox and the staff did a lot of work to find the best solution.
No board action was necessary to adopt or implement the plan because it does not affect the budget, Cox said.
-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org