Library officials have opened seven new libraries, turned old reading rooms into computer labs and Internet stations and even introduced e-books to the collections.
The progress, however, may soon slow. The sputtering economy is catching up with the 34-branch Fresno County Public Library system and, in a major cost-cutting effort, officials are looking to put new construction on hold, reduce hours, and for the first time in recent memory, lay off staff.
"We do need to make some savings," said county librarian Laurel Prysiazny, who is in her first year at the helm of the county library system. "We can't continue to keep expenditures where they're at, given our revenues."
A "restructuring plan" that Prysiazny intends to give the Board of Supervisors next month isn't finished, so details of her cost-cutting strategy remain uncertain. But Prysiazny says she will make cuts as invisible to the public as possible. She also says there are ways to improve services through efficiencies.
Several challenges await, however.
Nearly 80 part-time temporary library employees were recently let go and an untold number of the roughly 280 full-time workers will be laid off in coming months due to sagging library revenues, Prysiazny says.
Meanwhile, library use only grows as patrons check out more books, participate in more programs and spend more time at computers many using libraries as de facto job centers as they try to weather the tough economy.
The system counts about 275,000 card-carriers, and patrons on average are checking out more than they did three years ago, library data show.
officials, who plan to protest the layoffs, say losing library staff and their expertise will inevitably hurt service.
For years, the county library system has been largely immune to cutbacks seen in other public programs. A 1999 voter-approved sales tax, Measure B, assured libraries their own, secure pot of funds.
But declining sales tax revenues have begun to show on the balance sheets. So have declining property tax revenues, part of which are dedicated to libraries. Together, the two taxes make up nearly 90% of the system's roughly $24 million annual budget. In the past three years, those revenues have fallen 13%.
The governor's budget proposal presents another potential pitfall. According to county estimates, local libraries stand to lose $725,000 in state funds, much of it funding a partnership that allows Fresno County to share materials with nine other library systems in the Central Valley.
Without that funding, Prysiazny says, county libraries will likely start charging patrons who use materials from outside the system.
'A shame' to cut hours
In another likely cost-savings move, the Central Library in downtown Fresno will see its evening hours scaled back, Prysiazny says. Attendance at night is sparse, she explains.
But that plan doesn't sit well with everyone.
"This is one of the only libraries open late," said Linda Carrillo, who lives near Central Library and sometimes is there until its 9 p.m. closing time to do her homework from Fresno City College. "It'd be a shame to see hours cut."
No libraries will be closed, Prysiazny says, and few, if any other, libraries will see reduced hours under her pending plan. The bulk of the saving, she explains, will come by shifting employee workloads and locations.
"Libraries 10 years ago required more intervention from a librarian. People are a lot more empowered and information-savvy today," she said.
The biggest threat to the library system will come next year, when voters are expected to decide whether to extend Measure B. The sales tax measure sunsets in 2013.
"I can't imagine how the public would deal with [losing Measure B] when they're so actively utilizing library services," said Nancy Kast, president of Friends of the Fresno County Public Library.
Kast says her biggest priority is making sure Measure B continues.
Fewer hardships here
Library systems like Fresno County's that have taxes dedicated to their operations have made out much better in recent years than library systems that rely more heavily on city, county or state funding.
"When times are tough, often library services will be cut to fund other services," said Danis Kreimeier, librarian for Napa City-County Library and former president of the California Library Association. "Having dedicated funds helps provide stability."
Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, whose district has seen several new libraries built in recent years, hasn't heard the details of Prysiazny's restructuring plan. But he doesn't expect to see the hardships here that library systems elsewhere have faced.
"We've been fortunate so far," he said. "The people in Fresno have been pretty generous with the libraries."