Children's books don't have a very long shelf life at Sequoya Library, says youth librarian Karen Lucas.

"I can't tell you the last time I saw 'Where the Wild Things Are' or 'Knuffle Bunny' or 'Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,'" Lucas says. "We have such a great neighborhood of readers."

Sequoya has the largest circulation of children's materials in the city. That's thanks in part to a $27,500 grant the library received to bulk up its collection — one of 27 such grants awarded to libraries by the Madison Community Foundation in 2008 and 2009.

A few years ago, many local libraries purchased similar fare: 20 copies of the latest John Grisham novel or popular new movie. But libraries throughout the South Central Library System swap materials daily, making such duplication unnecessary.

As a condition of the foundation's grants, each library chose a specific subject area, like ecology, music, sustainable living or small business. Then each library expanded its collection in a focused way, investing in multi-episode film collections or large, costly books that were unaffordable before.

"It was a phenomenal project," says Tom Linfield, a grantmaker at Madison Community Foundation. "The libraries loved it. We really encouraged them not only to keep fundraising, but think about programming."

The Dane County Library Collections grant began with 12 libraries in 2008, extending to all 27, including the county bookmobile, in 2009. Libraries received $742,500 in total, drawn from the foundation's $1.3 million in unrestricted funds.

Individual grants were at first $25,000 each, but the foundation added an extra $2,500 to cover the costs of culling other materials and adding each item to the catalog. Materials purchased, from large print books to DVDs, games, novels and nonfiction, are in circulation now across the seven-county South Central Library System.

"The issue for some of the libraries was space," Linfield says. "Monroe Street chose audio books because they can't keep them on the shelves — audio books have just gone wild. The Dane County Bookmobile picked large print; they deal with huge elderly populations."

Margie Navarre Saaf, borrower services manager for Madison Public Library, helped choose a focus on film and film history when she worked at the Lakeview Branch. Librarians there chose Bollywood movies and Criterion Collection classics, hosting film nights with catchy titles like "A Sure Cure for Film Fest Withdrawal."

"It was an opportunity to get some unique titles," Saaf says. "There were speciality collections of films outside our budget ... but because of the grant we were able to get them."

Lakeview also bought some games, a slight overlap with DeForest's focus. Librarians frequently checked a shared online catalog to prevent duplication and selected materials using data on how often a book or film had been used over recent years.

The grant "gave us an opportunity to help with the younger clientele," Saaf says. "We wanted them in the library, but we also wanted something for them to do other than hanging out at the Internet."

At Sequoya, a spotlight on "the art of the picture book" led to art programs where kids learn to draw like "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" author Eric Carle or Denise Fleming, author/illustrator of "Time to Sleep" and "The First Day of Winter."

Oregon Public Library, which focused on food and nutrition, has hosted an adult summer reading program called "Find Your Inner Chef" and featured monthly recipes online. In Verona, librarian Susan Hedrick helped choose a focus on art and architecture. (She now works in Waunakee, where the focus was on Wisconsin history and culture.)

"In Verona's case, we had a brand new library so we had lots of shelf space," Hedrick says. "When you think of art and architecture books, you think big and beautiful and expensive. … We were able to buy so many art and architecture books, things that would've been beyond our budget. We bought books, we bought videos … everything from how to paint watercolors up to beautiful documentaries about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. And the wonderful thing about South Central is with the shared catalog, those were available to everybody in Dane County and beyond."

Though most of the purchasing is now complete, many libraries are continuing to emphasize their area of focus. Waunakee might highlight a Wisconsin and Minnesota-made film like "Fishin' for Tradition: The Lutefisk Saga"; Monona Library, which focused on health and wellness, is building an endowment to continue its collection.

"People have such personal ties to libraries," Linfield says. "We're so used to going to our local ones, but it's a pretty exciting way to look at the county. A nice thing to do on a weekend could be just to drive out to visit these different libraries. Because they were asked to choose these different subjects, they were really asked to embrace their individuality."

Dane County libraries

  • Belleville: performing arts
  • Black Earth: literacy enhancement
  • Cambridge: agriculture
  • Dane County Bookmobile: large print books
  • Deerfield: sports and fitness
  • DeForest: gaming
  • E.D. Locke (McFarland): crafts & hobbies
  • Marshall: music
  • Mazomanie: home & garden
  • Monona: health & wellness
  • Middleton: foreign language
  • Mount Horeb: popular science
  • Oregon: food & nutrition
  • Rosemary Garfoot (Cross Plains): ecology
  • Stoughton: life transitions
  • Sun Prairie: world cultures
  • Verona: art & architecture
  • Waunakee: Wisconsin

Madison libraries

  • Madison Central: small business
  • Hawthorne: pop culture
  • Alicia Ashman: graphic novels & anime
  • Lakeview: film & film history
  • Meadowridge: strong families
  • Monroe Street: audio books
  • Pinney: sustainable living
  • Sequoya: art of the picture book
  • South Madison: education & employment

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