How cramped is the Margaret E. Heggan Library in Washington Township?

"We were storing books in the bathroom, that's how bad it was," said Sally Zbikowski, treasurer of the library's friends group.

Children in the township - Gloucester County's most populous - get squeezed out of story times, patrons wait for computers, and meetings are jammed into a tiny conference room.

But that could all be a memory as early as next fall under plans to move the outgrown public library into a renovated building twice the size of the current facility.

While Mayor Nutter plans to shut 11 Philadelphia libraries in a desperate effort to close the city's deficit - and Burlington County has postponed its Westampton branch expansion until the economy improves - libraries in several South Jersey towns are preparing for a growth spurt. Directors are weeding their collections, rethinking floor plans and retrofitting buildings to meet future needs.

"A library in the 21st century is much more than books, CDs and DVDs," said Ruth Balton, chair of the citizens group advocating a new library in Haddonfield. It should be "a place to meet people and share ideas."

In Washington Township, the library board plans to apply a $1.2 million library budget surplus toward repaying a $4.65 million bond to purchase and outfit the Educational Information and Resource Center building. Township Council gave initial approval to the deal last month.

Not only is its layout well-suited to the library's needs, the roof has solar panels, which would generate about $50,000 annually through sales of clean-energy credits, said Mike Allen, library board president. EIRC will move to the South Jersey Technology Park in Harrison and Mantua Townships in the spring.

Zbikowski said the surplus was an accumulation of the township's annual state-mandated library funding, which went unspent because "there was no place to put anything else" in the 10,000-square-foot Heggan building.

The board hoped to construct a new building for up to $12 million, but that would have required a tax increase, according to township Mayor Paul Moriarty. Allen said the board could cover the relocation, debt service and higher operating costs in its budget.

About 115 New Jersey public library buildings need renovation or replacement, including Moorestown, Gloucester Township and Swedesboro, said Tina Keresztury, associate state librarian for construction. In 2001, the state awarded $45 million in matching aid for 68 library projects, including new facilities in Willingboro and Cherry Hill.

"It created building envy," said Pat Tumulty, executive director of the 1,700-member New Jersey Library Association. "We've seen what these new libraries have done for their communities."

The buildings have expanded children's space, computer labs, meeting rooms and - for the first time - dedicated teen areas. Some have cafes, patios, and fireplaces in cozy reading areas. Patronage is up as a result, Tumulty said.

Monroe Township's new library, to open this spring, will have all those amenities. About three years ago, the town purchased a former Verizon building just off the Black Horse Pike for $1.4 million. Including renovations, landscaping and furnishing, the project - which will more than double the library's size - will cost about $6 million.

The current building on Main Street, a former five-and-dime purchased in the 1970s, was meant to be temporary, said library director Beth Lillie.

"The town's been building a library for the last 30 years," Mayor Michael Gabbianelli said facetiously.

The old place's limitations became evident as Monroe's population boomed to 32,000, an increase of 15 percent since 1990.

"You couldn't drive in or out of town without seeing a new housing development," Lillie said.

Novels are piled five-high on shelves, and after-school tutoring sessions often leave no available seats. Since 2003, Lillie has issued about 100 new library cards a month, she said.

"There are people who say, 'Why do we need a library?' And economic times aren't good," Gabbianelli conceded. "But we can't shelve this now."

No longer just "book warehouses," libraries now require modern technology and wiring for patrons' electronic tools, said Steven Bell, associate Temple University librarian for research and instructional services.

"Libraries need to be much more multi-functional," he said. In the past, many libraries had a 50-year floor plan. Now, Tumulty said, flexibility is the key: They should have easy-to-move furniture and bookshelves that aren't bolted to the floor.

Haddonfield would love to follow that advice, but its 1917 building imposes severe obstacles, library director Susan Briant said.

Pillars block aisles, study carrels are old, and the roof leaks. There is no space for public programs.

"The thing I'm most embarrassed about is that it's not [fully] accessible" to people with disabilities, said Mayor Tish Colombi, whose town has two special-needs schools. The building's children's library and restrooms are down stairs.

The borough tried for 20 years to build a new library, on its current Haddon Avenue site or elsewhere. A $7.5 million plan failed in 2003 because it was too big and expensive, Colombi said. She said she wasn't surprised when residents voted Nov. 4 to require citizen approval of future library expansion.

Earlier this year, the borough hired Library Development Solutions, of Princeton Junction, to survey residents, then recommend a size and site. It also has hired an advisor to seek private donations.

"We've already had a half-million dollar donation" to the capital fund, Colombi said. The library hopes to raise at least half the cost of the new building privately.

Moorestown also is back at the drawing board. Last month, Collingswood architects Kitchen & Associates presented a pair of options to the town, which came so close to a $4.7 million expansion two years ago that the building closed to facilitate construction.

That plan fell through when Moorestown rescinded the contract with the job's overseer because of a problem bonding subcontractors. A spruced-up old building reopened in January 2007, library director Joseph Galbraith said.

"It was discouraging to the town. Everyone thought the renovation we had been talking about for 10 years was going to happen," he said.

A fire that closed the adjacent township building eight months later now has Moorestown rethinking the whole Second Street plaza. The latest options involve renovating the existing library or attaching it to a remodeled township building.

In the meantime, Galbraith is implementing suggestions - Sunday hours, drop-in story time, business services - from his patrons.

"Our service is about more than the building," he said. "It's about creating a space where people feel comfortable."

Contact staff writer Cynthia Henry at 856-779-3970 or chenry@phillynews.com.