Something new to check out at the mall: library books

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Typically, people go to malls to shop and to socialize. They may meet a friend for a quick lunch and then hunt for a new outfit. But at two malls in the greater Seattle area, they can also pick up a copy of the latest bestseller, do a computer search for a new job, and listen to a Spanish- language CD - all for free.

The freebies aren't some enormous give-away by the malls, but typical library services in a not-so-typical location.

In 2001, the King County Library System, which includes Seattle and is one of the largest circulating libraries in the United States, opened its first library in a shopping mall after the owner of the popular Crossroads Mall in eastern King County contacted the library and offered space.

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The Library Connection @ Crossroads was such a success that earlier this year, another library branch opened at the Westfield Shoppingtown Southcenter.

This trend isn't confined to Washington State. Libraries in shopping malls are popping up across the US, according to Clara Bohrer, president of the Public Library Association.

These mall libraries, which in some locations may be open up to 80 hours weekly, make books, computers, and other resources accessible to those who may not consider venturing into a traditional library.

"We have large immigrant populations that are not familiar with libraries or free libraries," says Nancy Smith, an associate director of the library system. "They might never think of seeking out a library because they have no concept of the wide range of services and information offered in public libraries."

Ms. Smith points out that these mall facilities are not meant to be full-service libraries: "The goal is introduce [people] to the neat stuff libraries have and can do for them. Then perhaps once they've used the mall outlet and gotten a taste of what libraries offer, we can get them connected to their community library."

Despite the official demurral about the scope of the mall libraries, the Library Connection @ Southcenter packs 7,000 pieces of library materials into about 3,200 square feet of space.

At one of the library's entrances, visitors are greeted by a dozen computers in private, sit-down stations and a couple more at higher "bar" counters, where they can bring in a latte and sip it while they work.

Along the wall, a display featuring graphic novels aims at teen readers. There are also shelves featuring the latest novels and nonfiction - and a plasma screen showcasing a revolving selection of artwork. Overhead, a projection system continuously runs the latest headlines.

Because the library especially wants to reach out to its ethnically diverse community, the staff is bilingual and signs displaying the library system's motto - Turn to Us, the Choices Will Surprise You - is translated into seven languages.

Newspapers, CDs, and DVDs are available in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Hindi, and other languages.

The presence of the mall libraries is advertised on a local Spanish-language radio station and in the mall's food court.

The library at the Crossroads Mall has proven to be a popular place for spouses who are waiting for their mates to finish shopping, says Karen Hardiman, managing librarian of this branch. Mall employees visit during their lunch hour. And the computers, which have wireless Internet access, attract job-seekers who come in to use them in their hunt for employment.

In the children's area, which is encircled by bookshelves, kids can grab from a stack of cushions and plop down to read.

Since opening three months ago, the Library Connection @ Southcenter has signed up more than 900 new cardholders. And patrons have checked out 18,000 items - almost 12,000 of them in the past month. That compares with the 12,500 items checked out in the same time period by a nearby traditional library that's well- established in the community.

"The basic tenets of a public library haven't changed in 150 years," Ms. Hardiman says. "It's fun to hold true to those but have it look so different, so enticing."

Taking a page from retailers, librarians are finding that enticing shoppers is a tactic that also works for a library in the mall.

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