PEPPERELL -- Lawrence Library is about to grow by four feet -- four scaly, reptilian feet. As a reward to the children involved in the library's summer reading program, the library will soon be adopting a full-grown alligator. The reward was for the children reaching a communal reading goal.
"What we did was instead of having kids count how many books they're reading, just have them count how many hours they spent reading," said Tina McEvoy, the library's assistant director.
The staff members set a goal of 200 cumulative hours, a number that Director Debra Spratt said has already well been exceeded.
Although the alligator won't be living on the premises, he will be coming for a visit on Aug. 23. Staff members don't know if he has a name yet, but are considering calling him Flat Al, after his cardboard cutout replica who goes on vacation with library patrons and gets featured in photographs in the various locations, à la the children's book "Flat Stanley."
It's no surprise that the reading goal has long since been met, said Spratt, with the increased patronage that has occurred throughout the summer. Just in the month of July, the library has issued 51 new cards to patrons. Due to a computer system upgrade, numbers were not available for earlier this year, but Spratt said that from January 2011 to January 2012, there has been a three percent increase in users.
"We have very steady foot traffic," said Spratt. "We easily get 350 to 400 people
Spratt attributes the rise in patronage to the fact that more and more people are cutting their budgets.
"It's a combination of when you have a down economy and there are more people who are staying homebound ... and all of our activities are free so it helps save budgets ... We have a great assortment of what we offer for all ages," she said.
Although there are some annually recurring programs, the activities are largely new and revolve around national themes set by the Collaborative Summer Library Program. This year's themes are all night-related: "Dream Big: Read" for children, "Own the Night" for teens and the double entendre "Between the Covers" for adults. Nearly all the activities reflect the themes.
For kids, Flat Al isn't the only critter coming to visit this summer: The library has already played host to birds of prey on July 25 and will welcome nocturnal creatures into the lobby on Aug. 23.
Adults are invited to go on "blind dates" with novels; the covers are wrapped in brown paper so that the contents are a surprise once they get home.
"They will see if it's love at first sight or if it's not going to work out," said McEvoy.
While any expenses for programming are funded by volunteer organizations such as the Friends of the Lawrence Library, the staff largely tries to keep costs low.
"We're always looking for really low-budget programming. The staff comes up with the idea and we put it together as best we can," said McEvoy.
In addition to overall increased library use, the staff has seen an enormous swell in digital downloads, such as e-books and audio books, around 300 percent within the last year. The library also has nooks for users to "try out for a ride," as Spratt said.
The diversity of the library's services is crucial to its continued success.
"A library is a lot more than just a place to have books," said Spratt. "It's about books, obviously, but in order to have a dynamic library, you have to proceed with a community center feel so people can come do a variety of things and have a place to come together."
That's what keeps bringing people back, Spratt said. And, she joked, "because we're good."
Events and programs are ongoing. A full list is posted on the library's website, lawrencelibrary.org.