PALM HARBOR — Call it a "novel idea."
Starting Monday, after hours, you can get a bestselling book or hot new movie release from a vending machine at the Palm Harbor Library, just as you would a soda or snack.
Only it won't cost a dime.
With just the swipe of a county library card, novels like John Grisham's The Confession or a DVD like Sex in the City 2 is yours to enjoy.
It's one way the folks at the library, at 2330 Nebraska Ave. in Palm Harbor, hope to appease the public as they lay off staff and cut operating hours by 13 hours a week beginning Oct. 4.
Those aren't the only changes coming.
Programming and the purchase of new materials will be reduced by 25 percent. Daily late fees are increasing — from 10 cents to 15 cents a day for overdue items — and a collection agency has been hired to help recover more than $52,000 in fines for overdue materials.
It's the new grim reality as the library's annual operating budget shrinks to $1.2 million, about 25 percent less than what it was four years ago.
The budget shortfalls are due mainly to property tax reductions, reduced funding from the Pinellas County Library Cooperative and the elimination of state aid. In a 2006 referendum, voters rejected a tax rate increase of an additional one-quarter mill, or 25 cents on every $1,000 worth of taxable property, to bolster library services.
The changes come at a time when the library is more popular than ever.
Debbie Phillips, the library's administrative services director, said the library is getting about 18,000 visits a month on average. She chalks up the larger number of visits to the fact that people aren't buying books, DVDs and computers like they used to.
Nowadays, the library's computer stations are busy with people job hunting and applying for benefits. Those who need to brush up on computer skills are keeping those classes full.
To alleviate the crowded parking lot, 39 additional parking spaces have been added, increasing the lot's capacity to 122 cars.
The monies for the parking spaces are part of $85,000 of new capital improvements that also include landscaping, bamboo benches and a new outdoor reading garden that features a bamboo pergola and pond on the southeastern corner of the building.
The library began setting aside the money for the capital funds years ago, Phillips said.
The Palm Harbor Library Endowment Foundation purchased an electronic road sign for $28,000 that will display the library's new hours.
The new vending machine, dubbed "Out-of-the-Box" Library to Go, is located just outside the front door. It will be operational only when the library is closed, said Jessica McLuckie, who is in charge of adult services for the library.
On Friday, she was loading the automated device with brand-new, hot-off-the-press books and blockbuster movies. She said it will hold up to 88 hardcover books and 240 DVDs.
McLuckie said she's not sure how it will be received by the public since it's such a new concept, but anticipates a good response.
Gene Coppola, the library's director, said there's nothing else like it around.
"We understand that this is the only library on the west coast of Florida to have this type of vending machine," he said.
A similar machine was installed at a library in Brevard County after it closed, he said.
The $16,000 automated device is a gift from the Palm Harbor Friends of the Library; the organization is also picking up the $15,000 tab for the annual subscription service to keep it filled.
"Because of this wonderful support group, we're going to be able to supply services to the community 24 hours a day," Phillips said.
"We know people will be upset when we cut hours and this is one way to blunt their anger."