Alachua County public libraries have evolved into multimedia community centers


Patrons work on computers below the reading deck at the Alachua County Headquarters Public Library.

Matt Stamey/staff photographer
Published: Sunday, March 9, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 4:09 p.m.

For an hour a week, Veda Lewis helps people forget their worries.

Mothers and their teenage daughters, 80-year-olds suffering from rheumatism and, occasionally, a homeless man who won't take off his shoes gather in the least likely of places for Lewis' public yoga classes: the fourth floor of the Alachua County Headquarters Public Library.

“You can go and pick up a movie, pick up some books and pick up some relaxation,” Lewis said.

It used to be libraries were seen as quiet places where people went to bury themselves in books.

But today's libraries are more than that. Libraries today have evolved to stay relevant as community centers where patrons access the Internet, apply for work, attend workshops and download books to their e-readers.

Which is why libraries have turned to technology to enhance their programming to meet the growing demands of the people they serve, said Roseanne Russo, Marion County Public Library System Branch Service Manager.

“Our communities now, they're technologically savvy,” Russo said. “They expect us to have anything they need in terms of research and literature and cultural aspects.”

The Florida Library Association held its fourth annual Library Snapshot Day on Jan. 22, during which libraries across the state collected basic information about how library resources are being used.

Library personnel are asked not to do anything special to ensure the figures accurately represent a typical day at a library.

Some statistics were collected electronically as patrons logged on to library computers. Others were physically counted by library staff.

The results are shared with the Florida Library Association, which, in conjunction with the Florida Division of Library and Information services, participates in the nationwide Library Snapshot advocacy efforts of the American Library Association.

The numbers also are shared with government representatives. When library funding is facing cuts by the legislature, the numbers are used to show representatives what goes on in libraries in just one day, said Jo-Ann Glendinning, state coordinator for Library Snapshot Day.

The demand for services by patrons has pushed local libraries to increase the number and types of materials they offer, reflecting a national trend.

In 2000, print materials represented 93.4 percent of resources at U.S. public libraries. By 2009, the percentage of print materials dropped to 87.3 percent, but the percentage of audio, video and e-book materials increased, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

In fact, e-books made up 1.6 percent of U.S. public libraries' collections by 2009, compared to 0 percent in 2000.

Alachua and Marion county public libraries offer books in traditional print, e-book and audiobook formats. They also provide the movie adaptations for some of the books.

All of these options are available to meet the needs of the consumer, Russo said. “We keep everybody interested in literature, no matter what form.”

In fact, browsing the shelves for books or media — such as DVDs and CDs — is the most popular activity people do at the library, according to a 2013 study by Pew Internet.

And libraries have stepped up to meet the demand as patron expectations have grown.

A big part of library programming is geared toward children. But young adult, adult and senior citizen programming has grown in response to patron demand.

Lewis' yoga class, which serves all age groups, is just one example. Alachua County public libraries also partner with organizations like Elder Options, which provides classes on living with diabetes, and the University of Florida Mobile Outreach Clinic, which provides health care services.

“They're really a social service agency,” Lewis said. “That's wonderful.”

In Marion County, basic computer classes have increased in popularity, especially among older generations, said Karen Jenson, the library community liaison for Marion County Public Library.

Library users will often expect popular books to hit library shelves the same day they hit bookstores, said Chris Culp, public services division director at Alachua County Public Library. Libraries had to change their processing procedures to accomplish this, she said.

Just as librarians are expected to answer book questions, library users with a Nook or a Kindle also expect librarians to know the answers to their e-book questions.

As a result, libraries have emphasized staff training to help library users download e-books and navigate e-readers.

The library environment also has changed. While the noise level remains low, some library branches have designated quiet spaces set off from the main area. The Millhopper and Headquarters branches have opened quiet reading spaces in the past couple of years.

“We try to create an environment that is conducive to all patrons,” Culp said.

Meanwhile, reference desk questions also have become more varied, said Joyce West, a reference librarian at Alachua County Headquarters Public Library, who fields questions ranging from how to check an email account to how to look up family history and genealogy.

“A reference question is something that can no longer be answered through an encyclopedia or dictionary,” said West.

Digital collections at local libraries have become more popular as reference books have moved to online databases requiring people to turn to online services instead of checking out physical materials.

The challenge today is trying to be everything to everybody, West said.

Likely, that means libraries will continue to take their cues from the needs of patrons, Glendinning said. “Libraries are not going away, they're evolving; and they're evolving with the times.”

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