By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It's a weekday afternoon at the Groesbeck library, and youngsters are picking out videos in the children's section while a businessman peruses books on CD and an older woman asks about DVD movies.
"I like this," 5-year-old Michael Cunningham declares, holding up a Johnny Tremain video that mom Joyce is borrowing for him for the third time.
Shelves of books take up most of the floor space here, as at other branches of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, but audiovisual offerings make up a large - and growing - chunk of the library's circulation. It's a trend library officials are watching closely as they decide where to spend their limited budget.
The system posted its biggest circulation ever last month solely on the strength of its new-media collections, including DVDs, videotapes, music CDs, and books on CD and cassette.
These materials make up just 13 percent of the library's 5.7 million holdings but accounted for 41 percent of the 1,287,710 items checked out in July.
While audiovisual circulation is up 6 percent so far this year, the number of books checked out is down 2 percent.
Audiovisual materials are popular with library patrons nationwide, according to Luis Herrera, president of the national Public Library Association.
"Libraries have tried to provide a variety of not only information but also recreational resources for a long time," he said. "It works as a wonderful way to attract your users."
The hot format of the moment is the book on CD, said Herrera, who is also director of the Pasadena, Calif., Public Library.
Audiobooks are what keep Joseph Hart, 56, of Colerain Township coming back to the Groesbeck branch. He used to be an infrequent visitor. But now, he comes to stock up on drama and suspense titles for business trips.
"A lot of people don't know (audiobooks) are here," Hart said.
DVDs are also gaining favor.
Both formats actually cost less than many books and circulate more often, making them a cost-effective investment, according to Kimber Fender, executive director of the Cincinnati library. Books on CD are costlier, but that makes them especially valuable to library patrons, Fender said.
"That's kind of the premise of the public library, that you pay for an item one time and it can be used many times," she said.
Library Trustee Charles Lind-berg has a different take, although he knows he's in the minority.
"I've always looked at a library as serving two functions - promoting literacy and serving as a research tool," he said. Audiovisual material "doesn't fit into either of those categories.
"We could operate a theater out here and show movies free, and I'm sure we'd get a lot of people. But it doesn't agree with my idea of what the library's function should be," Lindberg said.
What's the balance?
The idea of libraries carrying formats other than books is hardly new. The Cincinnati library took its first foray into multimedia almost a century ago, Fender said, when it began carrying slides that were viewed through a gadget called a stereoscope.
Still, deciding how much to spend on audiovisual materials is a delicate balancing act.
"That's one of the reasons we're doing the strategic plan," library Trustee Tara Khoury said. "What that right balance is is something that I think we're striving to understand."
The state, which supplies 95 percent of the system's money, cut funding for libraries in 2002 and is holding it flat at that reduced level in 2003 and 2004.
Book and audiovisual purchases accounted for $8.3 million of the library's $50 million budget last year, and 15 percent of that went to audiovisual items. That's up from 12 percent of the new-materials budget five years earlier.
Still, some patrons think the library needs to step up its audiovisual efforts.
"So many of the movies I want to watch they don't have," Pat Creighton, 59, of Colerain said. She asked for 1985's All That Jazz but was told the library's video was damaged.
That's unfortunate because the library doesn't buy CDs and DVDs just to entertain its patrons, Fender said. The library's collection preserves a slice of modern America for posterity.
"We're building a long-term collection as a cultural record," Fender said.
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