Use of Jackson’s flagship library continues to slide, two years after it was temporarily closed by the state fire marshal.
Last year, 45,663 people visited the Welty branch, down from 63,045 in 2010 and 107,566 in 2000. In 1998, the library attracted 152,470 visitors.
In October 2017, the Eudora Welty Library was shut down by the fire marshal, after numerous code violations were detected there.
Days later, the downtown Jackson branch reopened, but with the second floor closed to patrons and hours scaled back at the behest of the state.
The closure, coupled with the state’s decision to shut off the second floor to patrons and mandate reduced hours of operation, has likely contributed to library’s recent decline in usage. However, numbers had already been falling over the last two decades.
Jackson-Hinds Library System Executive Director Patty Furr credits the decline, in part, to the closure of the second floor.
“It has cut off access to a huge amount of library space and compressed our patrons into a limited space downstairs,” she said. “We understand the reason for the fire marshal’s decision, but it has … negatively impacted the use of the library by the public.”
Welty’s second floor houses the branch’s reference, large-print, non-fiction and biography collections. Combined, those collections boast a little more than 50,000 items.
It also is where most of the study space at the North State Street branch was located.
“We would regularly have 50-60 persons per day upstairs studying for major tests like the nursing exams, the MCAT or LSAT, as well as doing research in the book collections,” she said.
“The upstairs was always quiet as a tomb and absorbed the crush of persons, which you see downstairs at peak hours.”
Furr said students are no longer able to browse the collection and must search for references via the online card catalog.
Once patrons find a title via the catalog, a library employee is dispatched to the second floor to retrieve it.
“It is so much harder to try and find the books via our online catalog and you cannot easily evaluate whether (a book) will help you from a cataloging record alone,” she said.
Furr also points to the reduced hours of operation. Per the fire marshal, the library is now open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Previously, the branch was open until 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and was open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
The cutbacks were required due to increased risks of fire due to missing ceiling tiles on the second floor, which would allow for quicker spread of smoke.
“We also have to keep a fire watch due to the increased risk, so our guard checks the building (once per hour) to make sure a fire is not smoldering in any areas of the building upstairs and downstairs,” Furr said.
The fire marshal cited several safety concerns at the time, including the lack of fire sprinklers on the second floor, a fire escape that had been closed off and an elevator with no phone system to allow users to alert library officials if problems arose.
The marshal’s office also cited the prevalence of black mold. However, tests conducted prior to the closing of the second floor revealed that mold had not impacted public spaces.
Meanwhile, costs for maintaining the branch have not substantially decreased. Furr did not have the exact operating budget for the branch.
“We still have to maintain the climate control to preserve the book collection; we still pay for the fire and security alarm systems; we still have to staff the space covering all the hours we are currently open,” she said. “We did not have staff assigned upstairs when the library closed on October 5, 2017.”
The temperature must be maintained at 72 degrees year-round to prevent moisture from getting into the books. Lights are also on at all times, even after hours, to aid the police during walk-throughs.
“This was a request from the police after one walk through on which I accompanied them,” Furr explained. “It is so much more difficult to search the building if you have to try and flip on light switches.”
Currently, the branch has as many as 10 people per shift on duty. That includes two individuals and one to two shelf workers at the circulation desk, two people at the computer lab, and one person each in the technology teaching lab, the children’s department, the autism center and the book sale area. One security guard is also on duty, but that person is employed by a third-party company, Furr explained.
“This is roughly the same staff that we have always had at Welty,” she said.
Welty has been located at its current location since 1986. The 45,000-square-foot facility was formerly a Sears department store.
Prior to that, the downtown library was located in the nearby Jackson Municipal Library building, which is approximately 26,000-square-feet.
Moving back to the municipal library building is not an option, in part, because of its smaller size.
Since opening, the library’s book collection has grown to approximately 112,000 titles. In addition, the library today houses a 44-seat computer lab, a technology lab and Autism center.
Welty is also home to Jackson-Hinds IT department, which serves all 13 branches.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has proposed moving Welty to the Metrocenter Mall. However, those plans had not been discussed with the Jackson-Hinds library staff and is not supported by several Jackson City Council members.
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) would also like the facility, which is located across the street from the Two Mississippi Museums.
No concrete plans for the branch have been finalized.
According to a Pew Research Center poll cited by the Atlantic magazine, between 2012 and 2015, library patronage decreased 8.3 percent, with just 44 percent of Americans having visited a library within the past 12 months, compared to 53 percent of those polled in 2012.