By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
People “love” the library.
A new survey conducted for the Ocean City Free Public Library shows that it continues to have strong loyalty among its users, but that it has not yet been able to climb back to pre-pandemic levels in the number of visitors.
The survey was done in September and October of 2022 and produced more than 300 responses, the majority of them from library users who are 65 years old and up.
The results were released Monday by the library’s Board of Trustees during its monthly meeting. The consulting firm WiserLink conducted the survey as part of an update for the library’s strategic plan that covers the years 2020 to 2025.
The survey focused on a number of topics, including how often people visit the library, what are the services they most often use and are they aware of its array of in-house and online programming offered to the public.
In one key finding, the survey showed that approximately 46 percent of the respondents visit the library once per week or more, about 32 percent visit about once per month and 15 percent visit less than once per month. Approximately 7 percent of the survey participants visit only in the summer or only in the winter.
Those figures are down, however, from visitation levels in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 outbreak. In 2019, 59 percent of the library patrons said they visited at least once a week, according to Tracey Wiser, a partner in WiserLink.
Overall, the library had about 168,000 visitors in 2022, compared to 224,000 visitors in 2019, Wiser said.
In response to the pandemic, the library began holding outdoor events, increased its virtual programming, expanded its website and social media platforms and added speedy curbside pickup for patrons, among other changes.
Wiser said the survey showed that the library was not alone in having a decline in visitors. The city’s library, Historical Museum, the Fitness and Aquatic Center and the Arts Center are all housed within the Ocean City Community Center.
When asked if they use any other facilities now in the Community Center, 78 percent of the survey respondents indicated that they visit at least one other facility, and 45 percent answered that they visit at least two other facilities.
In 2019, 83 percent of the library users visited at least one other facility in the Community Center and 61 percent said they visited at least two sites.
“So, the library’s not the only one seeing reduced foot traffic,” Wiser told the Board of Trustees while summarizing the level of visitation.
For about a year, the library was forced to have abbreviated hours of operation while crowd restrictions were in place during the height of the pandemic beginning in 2020.
According to the survey, there is strong loyalty toward the library. Of the survey’s respondents, 94 percent of them said they have a library card and 99 percent said they use the library.
When asked why they visit the library, the main reason they gave is to check out books. Other top responses were to check out movies or to attend an event that was part of the library’s adult programming.
“By and large, the biggest reason for library use is the old standard of checking out books,” Wiser said.
One open-ended question in the survey was whether the library users would change anything if they could. The overwhelming majority of respondents indicated that they like the library just the way it is, according to the survey results.
“When asked if there are any other services that the respondent would like the library to provide, 83% of the surveys indicated ‘no other services’ or offered positive feedback, such as: ‘I am grateful for the wonderful library we have in OC’ and ‘The library meets my needs; the staff is wonderful,’” WiserLink reported of the results.
Other positive comments noted in the survey included: “I love the library! So thankful for all of you,” “It’s perfect; great hours, selection, and staff,” and “(The) library is the best reason for being an OC taxpayer. The entire staff is great and very well trained.”
For those who did make a request for changes, they urged the library to hold more in-person events or to add more quiet study rooms and audio-visual services for live lectures.
Other requests that appeared more than once included having bridge lessons, adding more movies, more maker spaces, day trips, outdoor book sales and in-person Spanish classes. They also suggested allowing longer borrowing times for books, adding more public parking and updating the library’s elevator.
One way the library is looking to add new attractions is with its estimated $1.3 million renovation of the second floor. The project, expected to be done later this year, will include an expansion of the Young Adults section, new furnishings, brighter lighting and more quiet space for study time as well as “maker space” for do-it-yourself types of projects.
Generally, the survey found there is a high level of awareness of most library programs. Only eight respondents indicated a lack of awareness of all programs. More than 75 percent of the respondents know about the library’s free WiFi access, audiobook availability, adult programs, children’s programs, and the computer center.
In addition, more than half of those surveyed are aware of the library’s virtual adult programs, teen programs, curbside pickup, and reading programs and clubs.
The services that offer the greatest opportunity for increased awareness are circulating Chromebooks and the readers’ advisory service, the results showed.
Fred Marcell, vice president of the Board of Trustees, characterized the survey results as “very positive” for the library overall. He wants to widely share the survey results with the public.
“How can we spin it with our advertising … to let the people know what they had to say about us?” Marcell asked the board members.
Wiser said one way the library could take advantage of the survey is to publicize the positive testimonials by the respondents in the library’s advertising or social media platforms.