Jackson County residents are using libraries at near pre-closure levels, but limited hours have cut into use of the libraries' computers for job seekers and researchers.

Jackson County residents are using libraries at near pre-closure levels, but limited hours have cut into use of the libraries' computers for job seekers and researchers.

Since Library Systems and Services LLC, known as LSSI, took over library operations two years ago, circulation numbers in fiscal year 2008-09 are almost what they were in 2005-06. Attendance of programs that encourage reading are 94 percent of the level they recorded before the library system shut down in 2007 amid county budget problems.

Programs for teens have not yet returned to former levels, partially hampered by limited hours and limited resources, according to LSSI officials.

All 15 branches of the Jackson County library system closed April 6, 2007, because of funding problems. After receiving a one-year extension of a federal safety net for timber-dependent counties, the county Board of Commissioners decided to reopen the libraries with a private contractor six months later.

Libraries are open for 65 percent of their former hours, according to Mark Smith, West Coast vice president for the Maryland-based LSSI, during a presentation to Jackson County commissioners Wednesday. The single biggest concern library patrons have expressed is the limited hours, particularly at the Medford branch, which is open for a total of 24 hours over four days each week.

Smith said reduced hours have meant fewer people can access computers at the libraries — a concern as more people search for jobs. Computer use is 72 percent of its previous level.

"I do believe if we had expanded hours that number would be higher," he said.

While book circulation at the libraries in 2008-09 was down only 2.3 percent compared with three years earlier, computer usage was down 28 percent. Overall operating expenses for the libraries have been cut by nearly a third.

The library system did receive a $90,000 grant to buy 110 computers and 118 monitors for the 15 locations, which Smith said could help improve usage by reducing down time.

However, Smith added, he was disappointed the county didn't receive another grant to purchase computers that would have been dedicated to job searches and financial planning. The Medford library was turned down for the Oregon State Library grant primarily because of its limited hours.

Commissioner C.W. Smith asked LSSI officials if they were coordinating with the Job Council in Jackson and Josephine counties to centralize efforts for local residents looking for work.

LSSI has had some meetings with the Job Council, Smith said, and expects to coordinate more in the future.

Mark Smith said he also hopes to expand a book talk program in which a library staff member visits local middle schools. The program augments the library's teen program and could encourage more teenagers to use the libraries.

"If we had an option of what to do next, that would be very high on the list," said Smith.

LSSI expects circulation numbers will continue to climb even with limited hours, but should level off at some point.

"Libraries everywhere have seen more people because of the economy," Smith said. "Frankly, it's cheap entertainment."

At the same time, he said, many libraries across the country have faced cutbacks in funding, or closures in some cases.

"Many, many libraries are struggling to stay open," said Smith.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.