SUSSEX COUNTY-Local libraries are still filled with books and the Dewey Decimal System is alive and well, but this is definitely not your mother's library. The easy access to information provided by the Internet has not spelled the end of libraries as clearinghouses of knowledge. In fact, the Internet may be the best innovation ever to hit libraries. Expanded Internet access has increased library membership and circulations throughout the county, reflecting the most sweeping change in the industry in decades. Specific borrowing habits may have changed, but most local branches are reporting "highest ever" circulation figures for 2004. Almost all (over 99 percent) academic, public, and school libraries in the United States are connected to the Internet, both for staff use and for public access, according to a recent American Library Association (ALA) study. At the same time, visits to U.S. public libraries have more than doubled to almost 1.2 billion per year; reference librarians answer more than 7 million questions each week; and research has found that school libraries are critical to student academic achievement. The Sussex County Library System (SCLS) is comprised of six branches: the Main Library in Frankford, Dennis Memorial Branch in Newton, Dorothy E. Henry Memorial Branch in Vernon, Franklin Branch in Franklin, E. Louise Childs Memorial Branch in Hopatcong, and the Sussex-Wantage Branch in Sussex. Due to a dramatic population increase in that area of the county, the new Sussex-Wantage facility was opened on September 12, 2003. Located at McCoys Corner, the new building boasts an outdoor reading area and garden, display areas for exhibits, a collection size capacity of 70,000 volumes, and is fully accessible for the physically disabled. The 12,310 square foot facility replaced the old Main Street branch, which was less than 1,200 Prior to July 2002, the county system did not have any terminal designated for public Internet access. Now it boasts 30 computers throughout its branches. Each with a "net nanny" filter installed which prevents children from accessing to adult sites. "We actually have more people using the library and higher circulations than ever," said Library Director Stan Pollakoff. "And we've had our database available online for a couple years, so patrons can now request items from our catalog, or others, in real time." The new Sussex County Library Web site (www.sussexcountylibrary.org) launched in April, 2003 provides access from home to the SCLS online catalog, schedule of upcoming library programs and events, and various online databases. Patrons can place hold requests, renew materials, and offer suggestions about the library and its services. The Sparta Public Library, which is not part of the county public library system, currently has nine computers available to its members, as well as remote access to the library's databases and catalog through its Web site (www.spartalibrary.com). "I was afraid when I came (in 1992) that computers were going to radically change things," said Director Carol Boutilier, "but the Internet has not impacted us negatively like in some (other) communities. You keep providing what people want, and they keep coming." Like the Sussex County branches, Sparta has recorded an increase in "business use" of the library. Computers are used not just for high-speed Internet access, but also for laser printing, saving to disk and scanning. Sparta also offers faxing and color copier services, at a minimal fees. But providing Internet access is one part of the changes taking place in the public libraries. Local libraries have also seen a technological shift in borrowing habits. Videos on DVD are increasingly gaining on VHS usage, and sizeable book-on-tape collections are being replaced by featured titles on CD. "We began buying DVDs in 2001, and now members borrow over 1,100 per month at the Main Library," said Pollackoff. "Leisure reading has become leisure listening for a lot of folks," shared Boutilier. With increase traffic comes longer hours. All branches have included at least one evening to their scheduled hours, the Sparta library is open Sunday afternoons, as well. "If you look at the hourly numbers, Sunday is our busiest day," said Boutilier. Not all the changes are high-tech. Children's programs and book discussion groups for adults have always been well-attended features, what has changed it's their frequency, and more impressively, their variety Last year, the Sussex-Wantage branch began hosting quarterly "open mic" nights. Although "most of the teens prefer soda" instead of coffee, according to branch librarian Nancy Helmer, the three-hour sessions emulate traditional "coffee house" amateur hours. Participants share original poetry, prose and acoustic music, and many just come to listen. The December session drew between 75 and 100 people, most from High Point High School. Sponsored by Friends of the Library (FOTL) and spearheaded by creative writing teacher Heather Strout, the next "open mic" night is scheduled for tomorrow evening, Friday, Jan. 14, from 7 to 10 p.m. The Sparta Public Library is currently accepting entries for the 17th Annual Sussex County Poetry Awards. All Sussex County middle school students are encouraged to enter an original poem; there are no restrictions as to content, theme, or length of entries. Entries will be accepted until 9 p.m. on Monday, February 14, and awards will be presented for each grade level at an award ceremony in late April, National Poetry Month. Fortunately, one national trend is not being reflected in Sussex County. The American Library Association reports funding cuts in almost every state of as much as 50 percent, and more than one million residents in New York and California are slated to lose library service entirely this year. However, both the Sparta Public Library and the Sussex County Library System have managed to thrive on a combination of state and municipal funding, and freeholder and community support. "We're lucky," admitted Sparta's Boutilier. "We haven't had a problem, and we'd like to keep it that way." Finally, as one would expect, the new technology also has had its effect on the library's courtesy signage: The "Shhh!" and "Please be quiet" reminders of yesteryear have been replaced by "The use of cell phones is not permitted inside the library. Please take your call outside."