telescope (copy)

Five-year-old Barnabas Boatwright gets a look through one of the Charleston County Public Library's new Orion telescopes. Morgan Finley/CCPL/Provided

Books are flying off the shelves of South Carolina's libraries — and they aren't coming back.

The number of physical books held by the state's 42 public library systems peaked at 9.6 million in 2010 and has dropped by more than 600,000 since then, according to databases managed by the South Carolina State Library.

Old-fashioned paper books are being replaced, in part, by e-books. Most library systems now allow members to temporarily download books on tablet reading devices, and the inventory of those digital copies has soared to more than 1 million in the past decade.

The drop-off in physical book inventory wasn’t a uniform pattern across every library, though. Some smaller library systems like Horry County actually saw a slight net increase in physical book holdings over that period, and some stocked few or no e-books.

Beyond that, many librarians have been reconsidering their role in the community since the dawn of the internet.

"What libraries are really turning into are community centers, so they’re looking at different kinds of programs to do," said Curtis Rogers, communications director for the state library.

In Orangeburg County, recognizing their community's agricultural roots, librarians started a seed exchange in 2015, allowing patrons to take home seeds and return seeds from their harvested crops later in the year.

The Horry County Memorial Library hosts a Lego club, crafters' club, yoga classes and an adult coloring club.

New ideas kept coming in this month at the S.C. Library Association's 2017 conference in Columbia. Librarians attended workshops on the future of digital music listening, memoir writing and how to merge preschool story time with science, technology, engineering, arts and math disciplines.

They heard from the librarians of Richland County, where the downtown Columbia branch features "a theater, makerspace, production stage, editing lab, art studio, writing spaces and a resident's studio," according to the program.

At Richland County, which boasts the highest-funded public library system in the state and is often recognized among the top library systems in the country, the book collection dipped below the 1 million mark in 2014 and has continued to fall.

Charleston County's 16-branch library system dropped below the 1 million-book mark in 2013. Executive Director Nicolle Davies said that while this partly reflects a shift to digital reading, she doesn't envision a book-less library in the future. She said that while e-books have reshaped the industry, some patrons still prefer the tactile experience of a book — particularly when it comes to children's books.

Personally, she's just glad to see people reading. And when patrons can't find a hard copy of a book they want to read, she said library staff can often place an order for them.

"It's making us all better in that we’re becoming more knowledgeable and we’re consuming more, so that’s a good thing," Davies said.

Since arriving in Charleston from the Arapahoe Library District in Colorado, where she won Library Journal's 2016 Librarian of the Year award, Davies has made a few tweaks, with a goal of bigger changes down the road.

The library had already started its own radio station featuring local music, WYLA-FM 97.5, when Davies came to town. Now it's lending out telescopes at its main branch in downtown Charleston. A new library branch planned for Mount Pleasant will have a basic recording studio for local musicians to lay down tracks.

Beyond that, Davies is interested in trying ideas that made an impact back in Colorado. She says patrons there loved checking out drones and GoPro cameras for weekend mountain biking trips, and children learned the basics of computer coding through programming kits.

"Technological literacy is a literacy. With the proliferation of cellphones and tablets, you have to be somewhat technologically savvy," Davies said.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.