People streamed into a storefront on a recent summer day at an upscale Dallas mall, but they weren't drawn to a heavy discount on designer clothes. It was story sing-a-long time for babies at one of the city library's newest outposts.
The library for kids 12 and under has been wildly successful in offering unconventional access to families who might not make a trip to a traditional public library, and it's one of a growing number of strategies used by librarians nationwide to reintroduce communities to their local library.
"I think what's happening now is really that focus on convenience," said Sari Feldman, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. "How do we make the public library as convenient as Amazon, Netflix? Part of that is putting library branches in the path of customer."
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"We are very aware of the fact that our biggest advantage is that we're free, but if time is actually a commodity for people, will people be willing to spend money rather than go to a library?"
She said putting libraries in malls is one of many efforts by public libraries to become more convenient. Even at more traditional branches, libraries have built cafes, provided downloadable books or installed drive-through windows.
With about 5,000 items, including books and DVDs, the Bookmarks branch in Dallas' NorthPark Center checks out as many items as branches eight times its size, said Jo Giudice, youth services manager. She said in the two years since it opened, it's had to increase story times to 12 a week compared to the two or three at most branches.
"It's been extremely successful. Numbers have risen every month in respect to programming and book checkout," said Giudice. "We've reintroduced the library to some young families."
The American Library Association doesn't have a comprehensive list of how many libraries are in malls or shopping centers but has an informal tally of around two dozen such branches. One of those opened as far back as the 1960s, but the idea seemingly has grown in popularity in the last decade.
Some locations are arranged like traditional libraries, while others resemble a bookstore. There's also a handful of libraries with arts centers, museums and even apartment buildings.
In Wichita, Kan. there's a library in a grocery story, and a small annex opened by the Chicago Public Library to offer best-sellers to patrons in a visitor center in the city's historic Water Works Pumping Station along Michigan Avenue.
Meanwhile, traditional libraries are trying to become more convenient. Leslie Burger, executive director of New Jersey's Princeton Public Library, said her library in downtown Princeton has a cafe, a bookstore selling donated books, return boxes around town and will mail books to borrowers. This summer, it started hosting a farmer's market.
"It's really that public libraries are really in the midst of some amazing transformation," Burger said. "I think the point of all this is we have multiple generations that we're serving right now and what we're trying to do is surprise and delight our customers."
More people are visiting public libraries, with the Institute of Museum and Library Services showing an almost 20 percent increase from 1999 to 2008, even though the number of librarians remains the same and more libraries have decreased hours and flat or decreased funding.
While there was a bump in library use as the economy faltered, libraries have been seeing consistent growth over the last decade, said Larra Clark, project manager in the Library Association's office for Research and Statistics.
In the face of budget concerns, Feldman, who is also executive director of Ohio's Cuyahoga County Public Library in suburban Cleveland, said a shopping center location can be a good for people and the library system.
Opening a new location in a strip mall nine months ago, one of her branches found affordable rent because of the large number of vacant shops. And since the library is arranged like a bookstore with a self-service focus, they only need the equivalent of 2½ staffers compared to the 11 needed for a full stand-alone branch, she said.
For Bookmarks in Dallas, the owners of NorthPark paid for the mall space to be converted into a library and charge only $1 a year for rent. The library's programs are sponsored by a local energy company.
Curled up reading a book to her 4-year-old son at Bookmarks, 31-year-old Priscilla Gluckman said they came for a yoga class and stayed to read. On such visits they also usually have lunch or shop at NorthPark, which offers higher-priced storefronts like Neiman Marcus and Carolina Herrera.
Bookmarks, she said, is a nice contrast to the consumerism.
"It was just perfect. It was just a nice clean place that wasn't trying to market you something -- just a book," she said. "NorthPark is so high-end. It was so refreshing to see this little pocket of childhood."