It is a weekday afternoon, and car after car rolls up in front of a pale gray, modernistic building next to one of Irvine Heritage Park's flowing streams.
Inside, where long lines have already formed at the checkout counters, the arriving adults and children quickly join others in the crowded aisles, sizing up the stock on the shelves.
No, this is not a shopping center experiencing a mad dash by consumers to a big sale.
This 1980s in place is a public library.
The very latest kind.
The four-month-old Irvine Heritage Park Regional Branch Library is the newest and, with 60,000 loans a month, already the busiest library in the 27-branch Orange County Public Library system.
The $1.4-million complex--complete with skylights, soft-hued walls and woodsy decor, a reading patio and sophisticated computer technology--is a far cry from the old image of a public library as a dull, hushed, forbidding institution.
Yet Barbara Brook, principal librarian at Heritage, is amazed by the larger-than-expected turnouts, with more than 200 patrons crammed into the one-story, 18,000-square-foot facility at peak hours.
"It's been body-to-body here since the day we opened in June," she says. "We registered 2,700 patrons in that first week alone. Don't tell me libraries aren't having some kind of boom."
This same rush-hour crush is repeated at many other public libraries in Orange County, which has one of the most thriving suburban library networks in the United States.
It's all part of the profound personality changes and modernization programs public libraries are undergoing to woo more users.
The surroundings are becoming more informal and, in some cases, downright trendy. Some local libraries, as a way to bolster revenues, even rent their facilities for weddings and other private receptions.
Collections are becoming more eclectic, including everything from classics to compact discs and Hollywood videocassettes.
And libraries are becoming computerized, using the latest available technology to give patrons access to more books and once hard-to-obtain research.
These changes have been happening quietly, with little publicity or fanfare.
"Too many people still take us for granted," says Rob Richard, director of the oldest public library in the county, the Santa Ana municipal system, founded in 1891. "We don't always get credit for the changes, no matter how favorable and meaningful they are."
There are 10 separate public library systems in Orange County: the 27-branch county system; seven municipal systems, most of which have their own branches, and two special districts (special district libraries), in Buena Park and Placentia. The county system not only serves the unincorporated areas, but also 16 cities.
All the local systems and county branches now belong to a cooperative network that gives library users access to public libraries throughout the county. Patrons can use their local library card--or quickly obtain card privileges--at any library in the network, whether it's a county, municipal or district facility.
The largest system in the county is easily the 67-year-old county system, which nine years ago was a $9.7-million operation with holdings of 1 million volumes. The growth since has been dramatic: The annual budget is now $19.2 million, the number of volumes nearly 2 million.
The county system's total annual circulation of books and other materials has increased from 4.4 million nine years ago to 7.8 million, a figure topped in the state only by the much-larger systems in Los Angeles County (12 million for the 88-branch Los Angeles County system, 9.8 million for the 62-branch Los Angeles Public Library).
According to Elizabeth Martinez Smith, head of the Orange County library system, the system's official number of borrowers is 637,000 cardholders. That is 58% of the 1.1 million residents in the areas served by the system--one of the highest rates of library use in the nation for a large system.
The national average, the American Library Assn.'s public library division reports, is 33% for systems with populations of more than 1 million, 42% for those with 500,000 to 1 million.
One of the biggest attractions of today's libraries is their cozier ambiance.
"Sure, the older ones had a lot of dignity, but, my, they looked and felt just like banks," says longtime patron Esther Thompson, 76, of Huntington Beach. "I love the new ones. They're so much friendlier, not awesome."
A classic example of a solemnly institutional bastion was Anaheim's two-level, brick-and-column Carnegie-era landmark, built in 1908. It served as the city's main library until 1963 (and is now, appropriately, home to the Anaheim Museum).
Since the 1960s, however, and especially in the past 15 years, libraries have been designed to project a far more approachable, almost folksy aura.