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Long checkout lines at the Medford library attest to its popularity but underscore the limited hours it operates under a private company.

In the three months since Maryland-based Library Systems and Services LLC took over management of Jackson County's 15-branch system, patrons have had to make some adjustments. But they generally give thumbs-up to the new service.

"I'm just happy the libraries are back," said Medford mother Brooke Breazeale.

Libraries closed for six months in 2007 because of a shortfall in county coffers. After a one-year extension of a $23 million federal timber subsidy, branches began reopening Oct. 24 under LSSI at half the hours and half the cost.

With an additional financial boost from local communities, seven of the 15 libraries have added hours, bringing them up to 69 percent of their previous levels.

In comparing December 2007 to December 2006, the number of items checked out countywide is down 20 percent, but the amount of materials checked out per hour is up — 72 compared to 61 the year before.

At the Medford branch, customers borrowed 44,777 items in December 2006 and 33,295 last month. However, 343 items were checked out each hour last December compared to 263 the year before.

Medford commanded 41 percent of the entire county circulation numbers in December 2006, but that slipped to 37 percent last month.

"I think that what we're seeing is people using the libraries more during the hours they are open," said Mark Smith, transition team leader for LSSI.

Because the Medford branch is open only 24 hours compared to 46 previously, more customers are using it at any given time — particularly on Saturdays.

Smith said his company is looking at purchasing more self-service machines in attempt to alleviate the wait in line.

He said LSSI is looking at a way for customers who've placed materials on hold to check them out through self-service.

He said patrons often go to another branch when the Medford library is closed on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Central Point and Talent branches are open on Thursday and Friday and Ashland is open Sunday. Smith said he hasn't compiled statistics to see how strong the trend is.

"Customers like to go around and use multiple libraries," he said.

Ashland is the only community that is actually logging greater overall circulation numbers, up 8 percent last month from the year before. Talent's circulation dropped by 3 percent. Both communities have made significant contributions to increase hours.

Ashland now commands 27 percent of the total county circulation in December, up from 21 percent in December 2006.

Prospect, which is open only one day a week, has seen a significant drop in circulation — 88 percent.

Internet usage is down countywide, posting 51 percent of previous levels.

Library patrons said they find the service they receive from LSSI on par with what they experienced while libraries were under county management.

For Breazeale, the libraries are an important place to bring her daughter, 3-year-old Ryelee. She said she's disappointed, though, that the story times are held at night rather than during the day.

Though Breazeale lives in Medford, she said she finds the Central Point branch less intimidating and easier to use than the Central Library. "I just felt more comfortable here," she said.

Central Point resident Mary Anderson said the operation is about the same, but the workers behind the counters have all changed. "That was kind of a shock," she said. "I'm concerned about that."

Anderson said she couldn't detect much of a difference in the overall operation, but added, "I liked the way it was run before."

Mike Slethen, a 49-year-old Central Point resident, said he found no fault with the operation of the library but thought the branch would benefit from being open on weekends.

LSSI has changed several programs and added an extra children's story time and an adult winter reading program. It has expanded "Hot Off the Press," in which best-sellers are displayed and checked out on a first-come, first-served basis. The service is available in Ashland, Medford, Talent, Eagle Point, Central Point, Jacksonville, White City and Rogue River. Customers can still add their name to a list to check out these best-sellers, but LSSI has vowed to try to keep some available at all times.

The outreach to the homebound also has changed. Instead of periodically dropping off materials, LSSI now ships them through the mail.

Ella Fitzimmons said she misses the person who used to deliver the books to her and was worried initially about the change. However, she appreciates the convenience of the new postal delivery system.

"So far, it has worked out splendidly," said the 79-year-old Medford woman, who is legally blind.

She said she discovered that the service had started up again when library workers contacted her recently and asked if she was still interested in receiving books. "They were just marvelous," she said.

Using a large magnifying glass with a light on it, Fitzimmons is able to read the large-type books offered at the library. She also has problems hearing, so she uses the books on tape as well.

Fitzimmons returned five books and two books on tape last week. She said she just turned the address card over on the package.

Smith said large-print books sent to the blind are shipped free of charge by the U.S. Postal Service.

Fitzimmons said she would encourage anyone who has similar sight problems to take advantage of the program.

"Everybody is eligible if they can't see well," she said.

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

Library patrons wait in line at the Central Library in Medford. - Jim Craven