Charleston County residents desperate for public access to technology regularly fill the computer stations at Charleston County's 16 public libraries. But almost all of those buildings were constructed before people knew what the Internet was.
The buildings likely will be renovated, and in some cases torn down and replaced, after a key County Council committee voted 8-0 in favor of allowing a $103 million library referendum on the November ballot. Library leaders now will refine their plans and cost estimates before returning to the committee in June with a proposal on specifically how the referendum question will be worded on the ballot.
Janet Segal, chairwoman of the library's Board of Trustees, said county voters last approved a referendum for new library facilities in 1986. That money was used to build four of the five regional libraries and the main library on Calhoun Street.
Library and county leaders have spent the past two years working on a library capital improvement plan, she said. "This is not something we came up with overnight."
Under the plan, all buildings would get technology upgrades, a new library would be built in the northern part of Mount Pleasant, and four libraries would be torn down and rebuilt. Buildings that would be torn down are the Cooper River Memorial branch in North Charleston, and the James Island, St. Paul's/Hollywood and West Ashley branches.
"Everybody would get something," Segal said.
Councilman Dickie Schweers said he's not yet sure if he will support the referendum. But he supports it being on the ballot so voters can decide.
Keith Bustraan, the county's chief financial officer, said that if approved, the plan would cost an owner of a $100,000 home about $17.60 per year for the next 20 years.
Segal said the upgraded and new buildings will have more computers, e-readers, tablets and other technologies for patrons. And they also will have automated check-out and inventory systems.
Not only are most of the current buildings hopelessly out-of-date, Segal said. But they simply aren't large enough to meet the local need. The county's population has grown 27 percent since the last referendum 28 years ago, she said.
Segal said library leaders soon will set up public meetings on the plan. They will use the feedback they get to tweak the plan before they submit the final language for the referendum question.
And she's hopeful voters ultimately will show up at the polls and support it.
County libraries are used a great deal, and they have a huge amount of public support, she said. About 80 percent of county residents have an active library cards, she said, which is well above the national average of about 55 percent.
Latasha Clarke is one the county residents who supports local libraries. She was at the Cooper River branch in North Charleston on Thursday helping her 16-year-old son Jalil use a computer to search for a job. Clarke said her home computer wasn't working, so she's glad she could use one at the library. "But we do need more computers in here," she said.
The library limits use to an hour during busy times, she said. "We need more time on them," she said. "We can't get it all done in an hour."
Jalil Clarke said he hopes new technology means more access to music.
Segal said county and library leaders explored many options as they created their plan. For instance, she's aware of a new "bookless library" called the BiblioTech in San Antonio, Texas. At that facility, patrons can use modern computers in the building, and can check out tablets. They also have access to BiblioTech's digital collection, which includes e-books, audiobooks, software training and databases.
But Segal said that model isn't right for Charleston County, which has relatively low literacy and high school graduation rates. While county libraries need technology upgrades, they also need to continue to offer literacy programs and provide books and other materials.
County Administrator Kurt Taylor said a presentation on the library plan will be posted on the county's website Friday.
Now that library staffers have a green light to move forward, Segal said, they will quickly begin letting local residents know about the plan and asking for their support. "It's truly time," Segal said. "Actually, it's long overdue."
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.