Chris Murray had been head of the West Palm Beach public library for only about a year when he had to steer its move from a decades-old building on the waterfront and into a library 2 1/2 times the size.
Murray grew up on Long Island, in the north shore town of Port Washington, N.Y. He worked at libraries in Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn., and came to Florida to work for the Broward County library system. He became West Palm Beach’s assistant librarian in March 2002, interim head in late 2007 and main librarian in March 2008.
Murray, who turned 61 on Saturday, lives in Boca Raton with his wife, a lawyer, as well as a family dog.
Q: How did you end up in the library business?
I had actually worked in my hometown library in high school as a shelver. I didn’t actually think I would ever be a librarian. As I worked around in different other jobs, I realized I did like the whole atmosphere of a public library and the purpose of a public library, what it does for a community.
Q: How has the mission of a library changed in the technological age?
Our core mission hasn’t changed that much. It’s still providing information and entertainment sometimes. But it’s vastly different because the library I grew up with and you grew up with was mostly books.
Q: We hear people don’t physically come to the library as much any more.
Over the last 10 or 12 years, we actually have a lot more people coming to the library. It’s almost quintupled. With the recession on, people want to use more stuff for free. And libraries are optimal for that. The way libraries are changing over the last several years, they’ve gone to being basically a depository for books, to information in all forms. We have movies and music but also we have computers. We help people create résumés, search for jobs, perfect interviewing techniques. We’ve been honored for our homework centers.
Q: So has the library become as much a community action center as a book collection?
It really has. We have yoga classes that are spilling out the doors. We have Pilates. Tai Chi. All sorts of programs that just a few years go you wouldn’t have considered.
Q: How dramatic has the transition been from the old library?
The first full year, we had a 54 percent increase in items checked out. We also had a 77 percent increase in reference questions. Self checkout was up 426 percent from the last full year in the old building. We had about 50 percent more visits and 51 percent more computer use. Adult program attendance is up 200 percent. Computer use was up to 250 percent.
Q: But pundits are insisting that people just don’t read any more.
I think that’s probably not really that true. They have to read on the Internet! And we have e-books now. And people are actually borrowing those at a steady clip. But they’re still borrowing regular books heavily as well. I think as Mark Twain says, rumors of our demise are premature.
Q: Libraries nationwide, and your library as well, have to fight for every penny. Your book budget was cut in half. There’s even been talk of you closing on Sundays.
We certainly hope not. We want to stay open for the public as much as we possibly can. But it’s an economic reality; you need money to operate. We’ve cut everything to the bone. The next cut would have to be staff.