DUNEDIN — Though it may be small, the city's branch library gets a lot of love.

The Friends Branch Library, located at the Community Center at 1920 Pinehurst Road, is closed due to the coronavirus, but it was a topic of discussion as city commissioners reviewed a strategic plan for their two libraries Dec. 1.

"We really want it to be a great location," said Dunedin Library Director Phyllis Gorshe. "So hopefully, as we start reopening a little bit more, and as things change, we can look at it."

Small spaces such as the library that don't have adequate ventilation are recommended to be closed during the pandemic under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Commissioner John Tornga said he strongly supported the 521-square foot library. He asked Gorshe if it needs to get bigger or if more of those branches are needed.

The branch library has about anywhere from 600 to 800 visitors per month. That statistic has been pretty steady since that library's inception in 2007, Gorshe said.

Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski also addressed the branch library.

Though she was not being critical of Gorshe, because the issue is budgetary, Bujalski said she feels "we have to decide, one way or another, what we want to do with it."

She doesn't want current budget constraints to prevent city commissioners from deciding what they want from the libraries. She questioned why the city should have the branch if it is only open 16 hours a week.

"I don't know what we want. That's what I'm not clear on," she said.

What is achievable now is not the point, she said, and she wants there to be a goal for the future of the branch library and for city officials commit to it in the strategic plan for library facilities for the next three years.

"I think we determine what we want and say, OK, we can't afford it this year, but over some period of years this is what we want to see," she said, "and this is what we are working toward."

Gorshe said that the Dunedin Friends of the Library should be included in the discussions since they paid for the naming rights of the branch library.

"They are big partner in this," she said.

A survey made available to the public on the libraries in February and March generated a total of 541 responses. Thirty percent of all respondents use the branch.

According to the 2018 through 2019 usage data, there were 7,749 patron visitors to the branch library. The circulation of materials was pegged at 11,944.

Asked what would make them visit more, 122 survey respondents said a greater number of hours and 108 said a greater selection of materials.

"The people who utilize that branch library love it," Gorshe said.

She said when the branch was first opened the idea was that Dunedin High School students would use it since the school is near the community center.

"That's not the group that's using it. It's the people that live right in that community that use it," she said.

Fines slated to be eliminated

On other topics, Gorshe said the library, along with other libraries in the Pinellas Library Cooperative, will no long charge fines, effective October 2021. They will still collect fees, such as for printing, and charge for lost books.

The American Library Association says that evidence shows ending library fines results in an increase in patron usage of library resources. Data shows library fines impact lower income and diverse communities the most.

The association also says that for libraries that eliminated fines, the return rate of materials remained consistent before and after the change.

"I really think that the good will that that sends out to people, and how it includes people and makes it accessible for everyone kind of overshadows the loss of that revenue," Gorshe said. "Libraries are not in the money-making business."

Collecting fines and other related issues pertaining to fines is time-consuming, she said.

She is working on some ideas for raising revenue to offset the loss of money that fines generated.

The library's 2020 patron respond survey showed that seven out of 10 respondents use the library at least once a week. Half of all the respondents use the library's electronic resources.

Among their favorite things about the libraries, respondents said the variety of books and materials available, that they can use the library as foreign visitors, the children's library and activities and free WIFI and public computer access.

Commissioners complimented Gorshe for her oversight of the libraries.

"I can't say enough wonderful things about the library," Commissioner Jeff Gow said. "I like how diverse you are, how inclusive you are."

At the end of the discussion, City Manager Jennifer Bramley said she thinks that in any cities the two most accessed buildings for the public are their city halls and libraries.

Referring to the Dunedin libraries, she said 30,000 patrons per year is a substantial customer base. The main library is at 223 Douglas Ave.

Bramley also said Gorshe is well-respected in the state for her work at the library, adding that she appreciates the efforts Gorshe and her staff do to put the facilities at the forefront of libraries in the area.

"And I do think if there is room to grow, that we should look at those ways to grow to serve our residents and our visitors as well," Bramley said.