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PINES library system puts millions of items in reach of residents

To say that the Nicholas Sparks book that inspired Miley Cyrus’ new movie is a hot commodity is an understatement.

There are more than 350 copies of “The Last Song” available through Georgia’s public library system, but only one was on the shelf Friday afternoon.

Mega fans of the pop star may want to drive across the state to get their hands on the book, but they may not have to. Card-carrying members of the Georgia’s PINES network can hold the book online and have it sent to their local library in a matter of days — all free of charge.

The Public Information Network for Electronic Services has been operating for 10 years and gives any Georgia resident access to more than 10 million items in the network of 51 library systems in 140 counties.

The system has become a model for the world, said Thomas Jones, Middle Georgia Regional Library director.

“Georgia is actually on the forefront of library lending across the nation,” Jones said. “People all over the world are looking at what we are doing here.”

Thank the Y2K scare for the development of the computerized catalogue system. At a time when many library systems faced uncertainty with antiquated software, the new network was born out of meetings with library directors.

“We all got in a room in 1999 and said, ‘This is an opportunity to improve our catalogues and improve our software and improve our service. Now how can we do it?’ ” Jones recalled.

The program that features a shared computerized cataloguing system has been a huge success and has saved the state’s public libraries more than $70 million dollars in its first decade, according to the Georgia Public Library Service. Cardholders can search for books and other resources online at www.gapines.org. They can place a hold and request delivery of an item or renew the items they’ve already checked out.

“With this, there is basically one library in Georgia because you can go in with your PINES card in any branch and check out a book or return a book to your closest PINES library,” Jones said.

Only libraries in counties near Columbus, Savannah and through metro Atlanta from Newnan to Dalton are currently not in the network of 282 libraries. Those larger systems faced too great a cost to convert during the initial implementation, Jones said.

Every day at Macon’s Washington Memorial Library is like Christmas for circulation head Ellie Snead. She unwraps dozens of books packaged like presents in old newspapers, bubble wrap or plastic bags.

The volumes arrive by courier in forest green-canvas, zippered bags sent from places such as Rome, Brunswick, Bainbridge or Clayton and most counties in between.

Some of the books are being returned home to Macon while others are just visiting.

When a book arrives, library staff will call the person who requested it or e-mail a notice.

The system equalizes access for people in rural areas to materials that only wealthier systems in more populated regions can afford. The library directors who govern the PINES program also try to unify circulation procedures so the same rules apply.

Anyone with proof of Georgia residency can get a free PINES card at any participating branch.

“We’re a great bargain for people,” Jones said.

With National Library Week this week, libraries are seeing a boost in popularity.

“Library usage is up in difficult economic times,” he said. “That was true of the Depression, and that is certainly true now.”

Georgia’s public library use increased nearly 10.5 percent from 2008 to 2009 and is up about 4 percent in Middle Georgia, Jones said.

The PINES program makes the state’s resources go farther in a time of dwindling budgets, Jones said.

“If we bought everything that’s in the PINES libraries, think how much that would cost.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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