Did you notice that boom? Oh, maybe not. These are libraries, after all. Even when they boom, they are restrained. They don't shout about their growth.

Still, libraries are booming - all over the state.Utahns bond for them, build them, then use them - at impressive rates. We're ranked eighth in the nation in library use per capita.

At the State Library Division, deputy director Douglas Abrams ticks off a list of new libraries. He begins by saying he knows he's forgetting some. He begins by saying that of the 22 counties served by state bookmobiles, about half have recently found a building to house their collections.

Wayne and Sevier County residents just did that very thing. For years, they'd shared a bookmobile with Juab County. The bookmobile can only carry half their 23,000-volume collection. So the residents met, found a space and moved the books to Bicknell where they can be read by many more people.

They still love the bookmobile. But they're inordinately proud of the library. Staffed partially by volunteers, wired through a federal technology grant, the library brings books and online references to three counties.

Abrams has visited a half dozen new libraries in the past few months. He's been to the new Hunter Library. To the remodeled Whitmore. To the new Bingham Creek. And Park. "Salt Lake County always has a library under construction," he says. By March the new Riverton branch will open.

Of course in Weber County there's a new Ogden Valley Library. The Day-Riverside is Salt Lake City's newest. There's also a new one in Helper.

Abrams went last month to the dedication of the Morgan County Library. Before that he was in Orem - "stunned" by the beauty of the children's area.

He mentions Park City. That library was in a storefront, outgrew the space and moved to the restored Miner's Hospital in 1983, outgrew that space and moved to the old high school in 1992. The city now owns the old school, and rents it to the library, two preschools and two college extension services.

This combination of services is part of a national trend, says Abrams. Colleges around the country seek to locate their outreach programs next to libraries. In Park City, the library keeps the professors' reading lists on reserve. The preschoolers regularly drop in for story hour.

His list goes on. Academy Square library in Provo should be done in two years. American Fork just had a groundbreaking. Providence, in Cache County, has a new library in a former post office.

Why the boom?

What's causing this library boom? In part, it's Utah's booming population. We've got subdivisions where we used to have alfalfa fields, explains Salt Lake County library director Eileen Longsworth.

But alfalfa aside, library use is growing faster than the population. Visitors check out more stuff. Over the past decade, Utah's per-capita average went from seven items per year to nine items checked out per year. That's nine books, tapes, videos or pieces of art for every man, woman and child - 18,065,691 items checked out from Utah libraries last year.

The most popular item is still a book, says Longsworth. Every time a John Grisham novel comes out, Salt Lake County buys 500 copies. Not amazing when you consider they serve a population of 610,000, says Longsworth.

Taxpayers get their money's worth from best sellers, she says. The average county library book goes out three times in its first year. Best sellers go out 16 times. Later they fetch a good price in a used-book sale.

According to the Bowker Annual Library Almanac (available at your local library), the public worries about libraries losing their commitment to books. Bowker says not to worry. Americans checked out an average of 8.35 books each in 1997, up from 7.97 books in 1996.

Some Utah librarians see a symbiosis between books and bytes. Many welcome new technologies as a way to get more people in the door.

When libraries started carrying videos, people didn't check out fewer books, notes Nancy Tessman, director of Salt Lake City libraries. When they started carrying CDs, neither the book nor the video circulation dropped.

In small and large towns across the state, libraries are becoming community centers, librarians will tell you. Technology is part of the reason why.

Morgan's library

On a Thursday, in Morgan, the library opens at noon. If you arrive early, you can wander into the other half of the building, to the local senior center. You can watch the seniors shoot pool, listen to an organist beat out the Beer Barrel Polka, smell the chicken they'll have for lunch.

Soon the library opens. It smells of fresh paint and new wood.

When Americans are asked to bond for a library, they vote yes 70 percent of the time. Morgan residents were no exception. They voted to raise their property taxes for this $1.7 million building.

The old library was in the courthouse, along with the senior center and other county offices. The arrangement proved convenient for elderly readers. City leaders decided to keep the new library and the new senior center together. Now the meals-on-wheels drivers extend the library's influence by bringing books, as well as dinner, to the homebound.

Today, the first patrons through the library door are two sisters intent on the Internet. Angela, 22, and Katie Pike, 16, need to read their e-mail.

Angela just got back from an LDS mission and is keeping in touch with Canadian friends. Katie's keeping in touch with the sister sitting next to her. She calls up a message from Angela - a bouquet of virtual violets.

It's their second e-mail chat this week. On their earlier visit, the sisters also checked out books: religion for Angela; Mary Higgins Clark for Katie.

Across the room from the happily typing Pike sisters, two boys scroll through the card catalog computer. Anthony Nelson and Jansen Bennett, both 8, are working on a Scout badge and need a copy of the state flag.

Jansen will also check out books. He says, "Reading is the only thing to do in the summer mostly." Each time he visits the library his mom requires him to bring home videos for the younger kids.

In the end he has 11 books, including "Clues and Suspects," "Basketball Basics," and "Scuba Diving and Snorkeling." He says, "I usually get a whole month's books when I come. But I read them in two weeks. Well, one week."

New technology

Morgan residents didn't have the Internet in their old library. Librarian Jil Boystun says she's not sorry it took awhile to get hooked up. The delay gave her a chance to hear other librarians debate their changing roles. She had time to think about how she wanted to handle the inherent conflicts.

Librarians around the world have had to think about pornography and freedom of inquiry. One of the most staunch defenders of freedom, Boston Public Library president Bernard Margolis, eventually changed his mind and installed filters on the computers in the children's area.

Boystun came to agree. Morgan has four unfiltered terminals and one, for children, filtered.

As for e-mail, the Morgan Library restricts patrons to 30 minutes on the Internet. But patrons may use the time as they wish, in research or in chat.

Most Wasatch Front libraries have tighter rules. Salt Lake City libraries don't allow e-mail or chat rooms. Yet in surveys taken for the proposed new Main Library, patrons agree: They want e-mail access at the library.

Technology raises expectations in other ways. Walter Jones, head librarian of Western history at the University of Utah, says, "People come in now expecting us to provide much more minute information." Often he can give them more. "Books and rare manuscripts are being put online. We are scanning a lot of photographs, too."

Often librarians do the research themselves.

On a typical weekday morning you can find a librarian in Weber County scanning medical journals on behalf of a woman who had a mastectomy. Her doctor gave her several options for treatment: chemotherapy, radiation or both. She wants to see the latest studies done on women with the same type of cancer and same number of affected lymph nodes.

Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, a librarian helps a restaurant owner. The owner wants a specific nutritional analysis for each of the meals on her menu. Standard reference books don't fit her formula. So the librarian gets into the USDA home page, types in the menus, and is rewarded with a suitable analysis of carbs and proteins.

Librarians' changing roles

At the Salt Lake Sprague Library, Ann Berman talks about how the job has changed. She used to spend her days buying books or answering questions about books. Now she spends time turning the machines off and on. They get stuck.

The computers have made it easy to search for key words. They've made it easy to get the latest medical information, without having to buy expensive books and journals. But in other ways, Berman says, they make her job hard.

"We have people coming in looking at the most unbelievable sexual things. I don't care what they do someplace else. But I find it uncomfortable to have it done in my sight." Today's librarian must be prepared to enforce good taste.

Another concern, says Ginny McOmber of the Sweet Library, is that anyone can put anything on the Internet. Patrons raised on reference books must learn to be less trusting of Web sites. One of the advantages of coming to the library is that librarians can direct you to the most reliable sites. The state library has its own Web site, Pioneer, (http://pioneer-library.org) that offers access to various research sources.

We expect more from our librarians and more from the libraries themselves. People want meeting rooms and study spaces, in addition to no-wait access to the Internet. They want cozy spaces for reading and brightly lit spaces for computer research. They want convenient parking, also art galleries and live music. They want, in short, a cultural center.

Nancy Tessman and members of the Salt Lake City Library Board recently visited other libraries, by way of planning for the future of the Main Library. They found something lovely about each: The simple architecture of the Phoenix Library. The warm wood in Denver.

The Vancouver Library is built in the shape of a huge seashell. Patrons enter along a narrow, Europeanlike street, filled with retail shops - coffee kiosk, magazine store, copy center. Tessman is sure Salt Lakers would love such an intimate community around their Main Library.

But how to pay for a lovely library? Ten years ago, the federal government gave money for library construction. Those grants ran out. The newest federal grants are all for technology. (Wayne County got one.)

In the past, some Utah communities had help from the state. Local legislators snagged one-time grants for their hometown libraries. A more equitable way to allot state money might be to have a state fund, librarians say. They expect such a bill to be introduced, possibly in the next session.

Meanwhile, cities and counties continue to bond, to build, to dream. Tessman calls it a renaissance. There are so many people, in so many communities, who value books and ideas and who see knowledge as the currency of the future.

Tessman, too, has a list. These are places where people are planning a library, where the renaissance will continue. She says, "Cedar City has plans, Grand County, Richfield, Brigham City has plans, Duchesne County, Grand County, Kaysville, they're talking in Lehi, Logan is looking at an expansion/remodeling, Mt. Pleasant, Richmond, Salt Lake City, Santaquin is under way, Smithfield, Summit County wants to do something, Tooele city has an architect, Uintah County, Wasatch County, Weber County is talking about a new branch . . . "

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Additional Information

Library use

How do Americans use their local libraries?

Hobby/entertainment 32%

Personal research 20%

School assignments 19%

Skills update 8%

Job search 5%

Children's programs 4%

Tutor/improve reading skills 1%

Source: Bowker Annual Library and Book Trade Alamanc