Saturday, October 05, 2013

Reinventing the Library

by Zinta Aistars
Published in ENCORE Magazine
October 2013

The days of card catalogs may be long gone, but libraries are still critical components of the community. Zinta Aistars tells you how they are adapting to meet changing times, while remaining 'the front porch of the world.'

When Marsha Meyer first entered a library as a child, she saw "the yellow pools of light on the tables between the book shelves, and I knew I had dropped into heaven."

Meyer, program and events coordinator and reference librarian at Portage District Library on 300 Library Lane in Portage, fell in love with the idea of living in a library. Decades later, she's still hanging around libraries, even when she's not working. And Meyer has been working at Portage District Library (PDL) since 1980.

That kind of love for one's work seems to be the common thread among librarians throughout southwest Michigan. Drop in on any library, big or small or in-between, in the greater Kalamazoo area and beyond, and you'll find a librarian ready to gush about working in the libraries of today.

The library of today, however, has changed a great deal from the library of years ago. With the wave of constantly advancing technology, digitalization of books and other materials, and a library patron used to instant and easy access to information, the modern library has changed its role in the community.

"We're the front porch the world is now missing," says Meyer. "The entire concept of a public library is brilliant … is vital. If you had free libraries everywhere, you would give everyone access to the world!"

It's how that access happens, Lawrence Kapture, head of adult services at Portage District Library, that is changing. "The trend now is that the library is no longer providing information as much as we are facilitating information."

Laura Wright, head of youth services at PDL, adds: "We are a conduit, a community presence that is no longer defined by the building we are in."

World access begins on the front porch, librarians agree, and that means libraries now are increasingly becoming community centers. Check on the needs of the community, and the library in its center responds.

At PDL, Christy Klien is a newly minted director, taking her new position in January 2013, although she has worked at the library since 1996. One of her first tasks was to gather her staff of librarians and take the pulse of the Portage community.

"We finalized our three-year strategic plan for the library this spring," Klien says. "We looked at where our focus should be, at the services we offer, our age population, and we determined our priorities. We took an especially hard look at our younger population."

Many patrons come in to use computers, Klien found, and the demand for e-books was on a fast climb. But that wasn't all she found. Patrons were coming to the library for a wide range of services, and they were also coming in for the variety of events the library was offering. Literacy was a growing concern in schools as test scores dropped. These were all needs to which PDL wanted to respond.

"PDL is the first library in the state to have a dedicated room for preschoolers," Klien says. "We want to help children to read at their grade level, and we can help them understand the concept of reading early. Working with Portage schools is an important part of our strategic plan."

Wright, head of youth services, adds: "We build around the needs of the community. We want to establish meaningful services that reach people. School readiness is a large part of that."

"Everything in the library has a reason for being here," Klien finishes.

The same approach is being applied to adult services. Head of adult services Kapture says, "We also found that we needed to make changes as the local economy changed. When the economy suffered or area organizations downsized, people came to the library looking for employment resources, get resume critiques, or to learn about starting small businesses. New retirees came in wanting to learn about retirement investments."

Once the front door opens, the library staff reports, all eighteen of the computers on the main floor of the library are quickly in use, while other patrons come in with their own laptops to access free wireless connections. Laptops are circulated internally, and a dozen computers are dedicated to teens.

With the advent of the Internet, it might seem that the circulation of books might drop in popularity. Not so, said the PDL librarians—and their report of climbing circulation numbers for both print and non-print materials is mirrored in nearly all libraries in the area.

"Non-traditional materials are on the rise," says Klien. "Adults are very interested in ..."

READ THE COMPLETE COVER STORY IN ENCORE MAGAZINE. Or pick up an issue on newsstands throughout southwest Michigan. 

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