Tuolumne County public library system is finding ways to expand services and programs even in the face of cuts to its annual operating budget.

Deborah Samson shared some of the accomplishments and changes she’s made since becoming the director of library services in November 2017, which included outside grants that have allowed them to purchase state-of-the-art virtual reality equipment and create a literacy program for families.

“It’s not a static place,” Samson said. “We’re changing, and we want to include everybody.”

The library and others across the country are celebrating National Library Week that lasts through Saturday, with the county Board of Supervisors approving a formal resolution at a public meeting last week.

About 30,000 people have used their Tuolumne County Library card at one of the four branches in the past three years, after a recent purge eliminated about 6,000 cardholders from their database who had been inactive prior to that.

Samson noted how the library is no longer just a place for checking out books, but somewhere to share information in many different kinds of formats.

“This is good for the library because it shows we’re not just about books anymore,” she said. “We’re having more programming and made more space available for people to meet here.”

Shelves have been rearranged for a more open layout and the book collection has been updated to reflect more modern tastes.

The library has also more than doubled the size of its DVD collection from 2,100 to 4,400 discs through donations over the past year, which Samson said has increased circulation five-fold.

About 200 electronic audio books are being checked out per month on average, whereas a year ago they didn’t even have any.

There were also 16,000 holds placed on materials over the past year that were being checked out by another person, which Samson said shows her that they could use more funding because that means all of those people have to wait.

“The staff and I really want to take on more and do more, but realistically I don’t know how that’s going to happen with the current funding,” she said. “We’re ready and willing.”

The library’s funding from the county for the current fiscal year that lasts through June 30 was nearly $1.2 million, about $60,000 less than the previous fiscal year. Revenue generated by the library was expected to be close to $69,000 over the same period.

Most of the funding, which is approved by the county Board of Supervisors each year, will be used for paying salaries and benefits to the library’s eight full-time and 12 part-time employees who operate the four branches in Sonora, Groveland, Twain Harte and Tuolumne.

Samson said the amount of hours worked by volunteers with the Friends of the Tuolumne County Library, a nonprofit fundraising group, over the past year was roughly equivalent to more than five full-time employees.

A couch with USB charging ports was recently purchased by the Friends of the Tuolumne County Library for the young adult section at the main branch on Greenley Road in Sonora.

The main branch is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, though Samson said their goal is to eventually be open more hours during the week.

“We would love the opportunity to provide more hours for the community, but the county administration would have to provide some more money for that to happen,” Samson said.

While statistics show that visits to libraries throughout the U.S. have declined significantly over the past 10-plus years, studies have found that the drop is largely due to recession-era cutbacks to staffing, hours and resources that have led to more limited access for the public.

County library employees have sought out grants in the past year to some success as a way of dealing with the waning government support.

Samson recently received a $3,000 grant from the state to purchase a dozen Oculus Go virtual reality headsets that will allow seniors to go on virtual tours beginning in May of famous museums and destinations in other parts of the world.

“A lot of our seniors can’t get out and travel because they have mobility issues,” she said. “It’s also the latest technology, so they get to be some of the first people to handle it and try it out.”

The tours will be limited to seniors this summer because of the grant’s requirements, but Samson said they plan to expand them to other age groups after that.

Gail Sorensen, the library’s literacy coordinator, also applied for and received a $25,000 grant from the state that has enabled the library to expand its adult literacy program to families.

Sorensen said the new program will provide literacy tutoring for both children and their parents, as opposed to only for people 18 and older.

“We often get calls from parents asking us if we know of any tutors for school-age children,” she said. “Schools’ budgets are tight and they may not be able to provide that additional help, so we’re hoping to fill that gap.”

The library recently added two new tutors to bring the total number to 17, all of whom are unpaid volunteers. Sorensen said they are always looking for more tutors.

They also added two databases with the grant money, one of which is an online tool for learning other languages. The other provides opinions from experts on things such as term papers for students and resumes for job seekers within 12 hours of submitting them.

Sorensen said they plan to reach out to local elementary schools to see if they know of any students who need tutoring over the summer.

Due to the cutbacks in traditional funding, Sorensen said she believes the key moving forward will be to look for alternative sources like grants.

Samson said the last time she had written an application for a grant before coming to Tuolumne County was nearly 20 years ago while working for the public library in Georgia.

One of the challenges Samson said she’s faced is replacing former Supervising Librarian Maggie Durgin, who retired in late 2017 after nearly 30 years with the library.

Anita Simpson, library operations supervisor, is the system’s longest serving employee at nearly 40 years and said she believes it has benefitted from having someone like Samson with an outside perspective.

“I’m sure everyone was unsure and uncertain at first,” she said. “Now that we’ve seen the finished product, it’s amazing what she (Samson) has accomplished.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.