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Why Our Public Libraries are More Popular than Ever

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Why go to the library? Isn’t it easier to download a book onto an e-reader, search Google for information you need, or find a how-to video on YouTube?

It is faster—but something is missing.

Ask Destiny Blake, a 23-year-old security guard who regularly visits the Frankford Library, not just for books, but to get some help while pursing certification credentials.

“I feel comfortable here,” Blake says. “They are respectful and helpful. That’s why I go to the library.”

In the early days of the internet, naysayers predicted that easy access to electronic information would soon cause libraries to shutter.

They were wrong. Public libraries are in higher demand than ever, which has resulted in new, larger libraries in Newark, New Castle, Dover, Lewes, Georgetown and Seaford.

Step inside. Libraries are no longer book warehouses where patrons select titles in silence, tiptoe to the desk, then get their cards stamped. There are books, but there is also a new sense of opportunity to learn, make, do and think. 

Cynthia Umobi sits with her tablet in a designated quiet space in Dover Public Library. She needs to focus. The room’s expansive view of the outdoors is a bonus.

An office manager from Magnolia, Umobi usually takes her kids, ages 10-15, with her. She can do what she needs to do while they participate in library activities. “There are even volunteer opportunities for kids,” she says.

Though small municipal libraries like those in Frankford, Harrington and Greenwood may not offer spaciousness, the cramped quarters don’t deter patrons from waiting for the doors to open.

In addition to books, there is a respect for individual learning styles, recognition of the value of informal learning and resources for personal development. State libraries offer free programs for learners of all ages: story times, healthy living programs, book discussion groups, how-to opportunities, music, film—even instruction on how to make music and videos. They are job centers, hubs of exploration and lifelong learning that encourage creativity and curiosity.

They are not silent.

What’s happening in Delaware aligns with the rest of the country. “Technology and the internet are changing Americans’ reading habits and also their relationship with libraries,” according to Pew Research Center. “Half of Americans now own a tablet or e-reader, and libraries have responded by expanding their digital offerings. But what hasn’t changed is Americans’ love for books. American adults still read about as much as ever and overwhelmingly say libraries play an important role in their communities.”

Library directors across the state offer positive, passionate feedback about the impact of their services, not by reporting statistics on the number of patrons or by quantifying their collections. They speak about the communities they serve.

And they speak with a sense of pride, which is driven and nurtured by state library director Annie Norman.

Inducted recently into the Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame, Norman oversees 33 libraries across the state. In a November 2015 TEDxWilmington talk, an enthusiastic Norman spoke about how libraries offer opportunities “to unleash your inner genius,” and “to explore and develop the American dream.”

Hence, maker spaces, performance spaces, inspiration spaces, and 3-D printers that draw people to the libraries and keep them coming back.

Libraries are free to patrons, but the funding mechanisms that support operations, facilities, and materials are complex, and they differ by community and county. Nevertheless, Norman aims to serve 100 percent of Delawareans through a library card. In 2000, 35 percent of state residents held cards. That number is now 50 percent, and marketing campaigns are aimed at enticing even more patrons. “We are looking at capacity,” Norman says, “stretching the target.”

Hitting the bull’s eye creates other challenges. Some community libraries, already understaffed, operate in spaces that do not meet the industry standard of one square foot per member. There’s a need for more computer stations, for staff training, for materials and for technology.

“The more we impact communities, the more we can fund,” she says.

Directors stay tuned into the impact a library can have on people. “We’re the anchor for the community,” says Frankford Library director Rachel Wackett.

Frankford, population 888, is a bedroom community for nearby resorts of Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island. Many residents are young families new to America who are working in the poultry industry or service sectors. Though the library offers reading materials, it also provides adult literacy classes, a summer feeding program for children, designated times for homework help, two bilingual librarians and a warm welcome.

“I know we transform lives,” Wackett says. Many people who live within walking distance of the brick library on Main Street live in poverty and often struggle with cultural and language barriers. “We know our families, and we function to serve the community,” Wackett says. “We are humbled by our patrons.

“If we didn’t attend to them, there would be dire outcomes. These people are courageous, survivors.”

About 90 miles north and culturally, some may argue, light years away, Diana Brown oversees the libraries in New Castle County. She ticks off the list of county facilities. For each, there’s a report on growth, expansion and renovation.

The Bear Library on U.S. 40 is the busiest library in Delaware, drawing people with popular programs, such as computer coding, that are a far cry from book discussion groups. Yet book groups still have a strong appeal.

In June, a new library will open on Del. 9 near New Castle. The neighboring community could be the urban counterpart to rural Frankford. Both are wracked by poverty underserved by access to something as basic as a grocery store.

That will change. Ground-breaking ceremonies in September 2015 marked the start of a 40,000-square-foot building modeled on national and international best practices. Think Lego room, a bookaterium, an interactive children’s wall, a STEM room, a place for video editing, a sensory room for people on the autism spectrum and a performance center.

In the middle of the state, Dover Public Library is approaching its fourth anniversary. It still feels new. Library director Margery Cyr says her challenge is to balance many learning opportunities, whether musical, literary or artistic expression, as well as social experiences.

“Everybody has a certain thing they love. We have a robust film program, for example, that is supported largely by retirees. We offer something for everyone,” Cyr says. She notes that free Wi-Fi is an attraction to at least 21,305 users. Many come from low-income households. “We have the highest wireless usage of any library in the state.”

User needs and expectations may differ from community to community, but library directors agree that their priority is to have their fingers on the pulse. “Everything we do is for the community,” says Ed Goyda, Lewes Library director.

Lewes opened a new library in June, doubling the size of the old facility to 28,000 square feet. That means more members. “We see a continuous uptake” in both paper and electronic book use, Goyda says.

Not all libraries can boast about their amenities, of course, but the joy of turning the pages of an actual book has not diminished.

Sussex County librarian Kathy Graybeal manages the libraries in Milton, Greenwood and Bethany Beach (South Coastal), plus a bookmobile, while filling an administrative role for 14 other libraries.

“We are the absolute tech center of the community, but we are still the great equalizer,” she says. “In a library, everyone has the same opportunity. We offer core services.

“It’s just a new format when you think of it. We have gone from scrolls to books now, and I don’t think we ever went out of vogue. You still need to read to succeed.” 

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