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Checking out the new library
Heather Boatwright and her daughters Aaliyah and Mariah Boatwright

By the end of my first visit to the new Southwest Chatham Branch of the Live Oak Public Library system, I half expected the library staff and the patrons to break into a dance routine.

Perhaps that expectation was a residual effect of watching my favorite musical, The Music Man, on a Live Oak Library DVD the night before. (I returned it, along with four other overdue items, as part of that first visit. In our library system, checked out books can be returned to any branch.)

One of The Music Man's biggest dance numbers takes place in the River City Public Library. Patrons twirl across study tables, tap dance between book shelves and slide down banisters while Professor Harold Hill woos Marian the Librarian. In the film, Marian tries at first to ignore the professor and to keep the patrons quiet, but before the scene ends she's dancing along with the rest of them.

At the new library branch, if a dance number breaks out, I'm betting that the librarians will be the first to leap onto the desks. During all three of my visits last week, the staff seemed practically giddy about their new workplace, a 50,000 square foot LEED-certified building next door to Savannah Mall.

Maybe that giddiness is fueled by the spacious interior, the natural light infusing nearly every corner, or the vivid green and blue color scheme in the children's section. Perhaps it's the 100 new computers available for public use, or the $2 million worth of new books, CD's and DVD's shelved and ready for check out.

A quiet but upbeat energy seemed to infuse the library-appropriate behavior of the hundred or so patrons as well. Five young adults, looking like a college study group, were deep in discussion in a conversation area on the second floor. Three gray haired patrons read newspapers in upholstered chairs backed up to floor-to-ceiling windows in the first floor periodicals section.

In the Children's Section, a grandmother propped her chin with her hand, elbow on top of a bookshelf, chatting with her granddaughter who crawled the floor between shelves of toddler's board books. In her pink velour outfit and matching pigtail bobs, the girl pulled out book after book, holding each one up to Grandma with descriptions --"Kitty cat! House!"-- before moving on.

On a quick tour with Branch Manager Judy Strong, all that was missing was a soundtrack as she pulled open door after door, revealing the auditorium, its adjacent catering kitchen, and the AV set up.

In the Children's Storytime Room, Strong showed off the built-in puppet theater and the activity room next door. Her toe tapped a bit on the bamboo flooring, one of the renewable building materials used to help the building achieve its LEED certification (signifying the building's environmentally friendly design and construction.)

Strong says that the Southwest Chatham Branch is drawing a huge crowd of both regulars and new library users.

"We are having lots of people apply for library cards. Hundreds," said Strong. "I had to ask the central library office for more applications, and more library cards."

Many of the new cards are for enlisted people and their families affiliated with Hunter Army Airfield, next door to the new branch. "The people at Hunter are thrilled," she said. "We met the commander. He came to our open house."

Like most Hollywood musicals, the opening of the Southwest Chatham Branch library is not without a few bits of trouble. Access to the drive up book drop, and also to a wheelchair ramp close to the library entrance, is blocked by a plywood and concrete planter that Strong says was installed by the Savannah Mall, out of concern for traffic hazards.

The Chatham County budget has created other Live Oak Library worries, with no increased funds for staffing the new branch. System wide, staff has shuffled and branch hours have been reduced in order to open the new branch, adding only 19 additional staff hours per week system wide.

While the new branch has stretched staffing a bit thin, it's been a well-timed boost to the system's inventory. Because this branch was budgeted before the county budget took a nosedive, "There was money for books here, but the other branches' budget for books was cut." In the Live Oak Library system, all the inventory floats, so the $2 million in materials can be requested and checked out from any branch in the library system.

That's two million more reasons to dance through the bookshelves, in this new library and system wide.