What is a 21st century library? Is it simply a collection of books? Does it include a gym? A clinic? A service center? In an era when libraries are losing patrons all around the country, Alachua County’s public libraries are doubling their programs and services, attracting over 150,000 visitors a year.
“We try to be innovative, create partnerships and provide essential services,” said Shaney Livingston, director of the Alachua County Library District, on why she thinks the library has been able to achieve such great community participation. “Our staff reach out to the community, both physically and virtually.”
Last year, the library district hosted over 7,000 unique programs for patrons of all ages. The innovative programs included magic shows, yoga for youths, events exploring childbirth options, Spanish story time, tai chi for arthritis, coloring for adults, puppet shows for toddlers and hundreds more. Livingston explained that the library district seeks to engage all facets of the community and be a necessity rather than an amenity. It achieves this by offering the wide variety of programs, partnering with businesses and organizations in the community and staying on the cutting edge of library technology.
Back to Library Basics, With a Twist
Among the diverse activities centered around exercise, spirituality, entertainment, and education, the library has worked to include and revitalize the reading activities one would expect of a library. The Battle of the Books program and summer reading programs are two such activities.
Battle of the Books is a district-wide teen reading program held every summer at Alachua County libraries. Each of the 12 library branches form a team of teens who love to read and prepare for a grand face-off at the end of summer. The teams read and prepare questions on three books, chosen by a poll. At the final battle, one of the authors comes to give a presentation and sign copies of the book for the participants and their friends and family. This summer, the guest author for the Battle of the Books event on July 30 will be Lynne Matson, the author of the Nil series, a science fiction trilogy set on the mysterious fictional island of Nil.
Rather than functioning like a class or book club, which would require the participants to read every book on a schedule, Alachua County Library Headquarters Branch Coach Tina Bushnell believes in letting the teens read only the books they like and learning those well.
“Battle of the Books is one of my favorite programs to do,” Bushnell said. “I get to spend a significant amount of time with a group of teens who get to know each other fairly well by the end of the summer. It’s a rewarding experience.”
Fourteen-year-old Jordan Williams is one teen who returned this year for a second summer in the Battle of the Books program.
“I really enjoy the team aspect,” explained Williams, who will be attending Eastside High School in the fall. “It ensures that I’m reading and I get to make friends.”
One of Williams’ favorite things about Battle of the Books, she said, was the chance to explore reading material she wouldn’t typically read. A close second favorite was being able to meet the guest author. In 2015, the guest author was Rick Yancey, author of The New York Times Bestseller “The 5th Wave.”
“When you’re a really big reader, meeting the author has a huge effect on you,” she said.
“I felt like it was my role to encourage them to have a voice, to speak up for themselves during the contest and to have fun,” explained Bushnell on her impact as coach.
Another way the library promotes reading is through the annual summer reading program for both children and adults. The theme for summer 2016 is “Exercise your Brain, Mind, Heart, Spirit and Body.”
Kids who visit the library and sign up for summer reading are given various coupons and incentives to encourage them at milestones along the way, Livingston said.
“We believe that kids who read succeed,” she added.
Embracing Technology to Attract A Wider Audience
The library district recognizes that the 21st century is increasingly technology driven, requiring libraries to provide digital resources like e-books, DVDs and computer workstations.
“One of the greatest challenges we face is how to be on the cutting edge of technology and not the bleeding edge,” Livingston said. She recognizes that many people come to the library for access to internet or computers that they may not have at home.
In addition to the online resources, free Wi-Fi, e-books, CDs, and DVDs offered, the Alachua County district has a service called Freegal, which allows library members to download free songs in mp3 format every week. Even more, the libraries have a 3D printer used for the new program series S.T.E.A.M., which focuses on helping kids foster an interest in science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
“We brought a printer to that program to attract teens during the summer…just to afford them the opportunity to come into the library and get more engaged,” Livingston said.
Adapting to the Community’s Needs
Ultimately, engaging with the community is what the library district is all about.
“We’re always trying to adapt to the community’s needs,” Bushnell explained. In addition to her work as Battle of the Books coach, Bushnell is a representative for Gainesville Equality Youth, a nonprofit organization for LGBTQI teens and a partner with the libraries.
The library district also partners with the University of Florida’s mobile outreach clinic to provide health services to patrons at several branches. One of the largest community partnerships is located on Northeast 16th Avenue in Gainesville, where social services are offered to visitors thanks to a partnership between the Alachua County Library District and Partnership for Strong Families.
The two organizations were brought together by the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Casey Foundation, an organization focused on improving and reducing the need for foster care.
The Library Partnership location offers resources contributed by Alachua County libraries and over 30 different social service organizations, allowing patrons to have many needs met in one convenient place. Through partnerships like these, the library strives to position itself as a key to building the community while also acting as an agent of change, Livingston said.
“Our partnerships are a really good way to reach people we normally wouldn’t be able to reach: people who can’t get to the library or aren’t aware what kind of services we provide,” Bushnell said. “We work in libraries because we love what we do — we want to help people find what they need.”
The 21st century library is more than stacks of books and CDs or even computers and a quiet place to work. Libraries in the current age are involved and innovative. They are the heart of their communities, providing something for everyone.
For a full calendar of upcoming events at Alachua County libraries, visit aclib.us/events.