Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) data shows circulation, which was growing before the pandemic, has rebounded since restrictions were lifted but has yet to get back where it once was.
The Northern Light looked at circulation, internet use and cardholder data in Whatcom County to see the pandemic’s effect on library usage and compared Birch Bay, Blaine and overall county data to assess Birch Bay’s need for more library services.
Overall, WCLS had about 49,550 active patrons as of April 26. Excluding Bellingham, that is 36.6 percent of the county’s 2020 population.
WCLS physical circulation peaked in 2019 when over 1.9 million library items were checked out. The next highest was in 2012 at over 1.8 million. Circulation dipped in 2015 and 2016 to nearly 1.6 million, but the biggest drop-off was in 2020. Physical circulation dropped to 1 million; the lowest it’s been in over 15 years. It then jumped to nearly 1.5 million in 2021.
Corresponding with the pandemic and subsequent dip in physical circulation, digital circulation peaked in 2020. WCLS saw 568,353 eBooks, eAudiobooks and other online resources checked out, which was a 28 percent increase. Electronic circulation dipped to 492,614 in 2021, but remained higher than previous years before the pandemic.
Free public WiFi is available from the parking lot of both Blaine and Birch Bay locations, but logins may have been affected by the pandemic. In 2020 and 2021, Blaine saw 6,549 and 8,885 total sessions respectively, while Birch Bay saw 1,359 and 2,972. Blaine saw 10,270 sessions in 2019 from inside the library and parking lot. Birch Bay’s WiFi began in spring 2020.
In 2016, WCLS began making plans to build a library in Birch Bay. With a population of 8,413 at the time and forecasted to be 12,822 by 2036, the area needed library services more than the weekly bookmobile visits.
According to WCLS, one industry benchmark for public library square footage calls for one square foot per capita. Based on Birch Bay’s 2020 population, the original proposed 7,600-square-foot library project would have provided 0.7 square feet per capita. This was determined to be the largest possible on the site, but failed to get full support from the community.
WCLS data shows Birch Bay is underserved compared to other areas in the county. Birch Bay has a population of 10,115 residents and grew by 20.2 percent in the last decade, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Birch Bay has 3,270 active patrons, which is 32.3 percent of its population. Those patrons accounted for about 5.3 percent of the library system’s circulation.
The Blaine Public Library and weekly bookmobile in Birch Bay service the area. The Blaine library offers 31,465 items and is open 55 hours per week, while the WCLS bookmobile visits Birch Bay four hours per week and has 6,176 items.
In eastern Whatcom County, two libraries serve a population of 8,853. The Deming library, with 28,332 items, is open 55 hours per week, and the North Fork location, with 15,207 items, is open 43 hours per week.
Birch Bay patrons were below average in the number of items each patron checked out in 2021, with 24.1 items. WCLS’s average is 30. WCLS attributed the low average to the bookmobile only being available four hours per week. However, the Blaine, Birch Bay and Custer area as a whole is below the average as well, at nearly 27 items checked out per person in 2021. Altogether, Blaine, Birch Bay and Custer library users accounted for 15 percent of WCLS’s total circulation in 2021.
WCLS has taken steps toward a 1,500-square-foot remodel of the site’s existing building, the historic Vogt family home. It won’t meet the industry benchmark, but will provide increased service to the area.
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