Richland Library Director Melanie Huggins. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
Enter the front door of the main branch of Richland Library and the first thing you’ll see is a counter where patrons are scanning their library cards and piling books and DVDs onto the four self-checkout stations. A few yards away, past the self-service shelves where patrons retrieve requested books, a security guard offers directions and an information clerk talks quietly on the phone. Just behind them, every computer at the information pod is in use by people searching the library catalog, checking Facebook pages and emailing while several other people mill about waiting their turns. One escalator flight up lands you in the reference section, where even more computer stations are in use. Up in the third-floor state-of-the-art Business and Job Center, all but three of the 51 computers are occupied, and several people are seated at tables tapping away on laptops and tablets.
Yes, you’ll find homeless people, too — especially at the library’s main branch on Assembly Street. But serving the full community is part of the library’s evolving mission.
Welcome to the 21st century library. Long gone are the days when libraries served primarily as book warehouses and reading rooms. Today, they’re technology, education and community centers. And Richland Library is asking you to pay to reconfigure its space, technology and resources to help it move further in that direction, and more quickly. Richland County voters will decide on Nov. 5 whether to pass a $59 million bond referendum the library is seeking to pay for the upgrades.
Columbia is a library town — home not only to Richland Library, but also numerous libraries at the University of South Carolina, the S.C. State Library and more. The area’s great libraries support a community of avid readers and researchers. The question now is whether voters will support their county libraries in return.
If voters approve, the funds will be used to build two new branches, add additional space, reconfigure existing space and make updates and improvements in all 11 branches. Plans include additional meeting rooms, exhibit space, covered outdoor book returns and drop-off areas, teen centers, learning labs and outdoor programming areas in most branches, as well more computers, mobile classrooms, circulation kiosks and self-service stations.
“Richland County Council’s approval of a bond referendum in 1989 set the stage for what a 21st century library could be,” says Richland Library Director Melanie Huggins. “Richland Library consistently receives state and national attention for its special services.” Now, she says, the library needs a boost in funding to keep the momentum going.
Not everyone agrees, though.
“Do we really need additional infrastructure for meeting space and services when other viable options are already in place?” asks Michael Letts, co-chair of the group Citizens Against the Tax Increase. The state Department of Employment and Workforce operates several local job centers, for instance, and there’s already a 3,200-square-foot private co-working space in the Vista. Letts isn’t against libraries, he says; he just questions whether the improvements being asked for are really needed.
Huggins is optimistic voters will pass the bond referendum, but realizes they’re financially stretched. “If the referendum doesn’t pass,” she says, “we’ll simply chip away at [the updates] a little bit at a time.”
The Evolving Library
You won’t find spectacled librarians shushing you or shelves full of dusty, outdated books in today’s library, which are hives of activity and busier than ever.
“Even though so much of the information we offer is online, 6,000 to 8,000 students a day come through our doors,” says Beki Gettys, director of USC’s Thomas Cooper Library. “High-use periods, like exam periods, we have up to 10,000 students a day. We’ve run out of seats before and had people sitting on the floor in the hallways for group study sessions.”
Beki Gettys, associate dean and director of Thomas Cooper Library. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe
Since the Great Recession started in 2007, the demand for libraries has only increased. Since 2009, the number of visitors to Richland Library is up 20 percent, with a rise of 38 percent in items checked out. With so much activity, both Huggins and Gettys mention the necessity of designated quiet zones.
Much of the increase in library use comes from two trends: the struggles of the middle class and the rising importance of the Internet.
“People turn to the library for help with job searches, filling out assistance forms online, using the services such as story time for children and cultural events for entertainment,” says Sam Hastings, director of the USC’s School of Library and Information Science. “In hard times, like through this last recession, library use triples, sometimes it quadruples, it goes off the charts — but the funding doesn’t; it decreases.”
But as the Internet has become an all-encompassing platform for job searches, communication, research and other activities, some people have been left behind. Fifteen percent of American adults don’t use the Internet at all, according to Pew Center research, while another 9 percent use it but don’t have access to it at home. Among those who aren’t on the Internet, cost and frustration are among the reasons.
“For those who don’t have the technology and connectivity at home, the library becomes an access point to this wealth of electronic and digital information they can’t get to all on their own,” Hastings says.
A Key Resource for Job Seekers
Up in Richland Library’s Business and Job Center, unemployed and aspiring entrepreneurs of all ages are glued to computer screens, fingers tapping on keyboards searching for jobs, updating résumés and writing cover letters, filling out online applications, writing business plans and taking aptitude tests. A certified career facilitator staffs the center to assist and answer questions. The 26 open-classroom computers face a huge wall screen used for daily classes in résumé writing, interview skills, test-taking strategies and Internet, email and Microsoft Office basics. Richland Library’s Business and Job Center partners with 19 organizations — including AARP, Transitions and the Women’s Shelter — in assisting often hard-to-place segments of the population find employment.
Libraries continue to be a central gathering space because they offer both technology and help in using it.
“The more tech-savvy and tech-dependent our community gets, the more it needs people to walk them through it,” Huggins says.
Richland Library's Business and Job Center holds job-related workshops, mock interviews and hosts a career networking and support group.
Hastings adds: “Library employees are shifting roles, different capacities. In South Carolina, about 80 percent of public libraries now have job centers with one or two certified trained staff serving as career facilitators.”
The recession sparked an increase in home-based businesses and freelancing. In Richland Library’s newly opened Coworking Center, freelancers and the self-employed can reserve self-service space equipped with Wi-Fi, desks and computers. Comfy sofa seating in provides a professional atmosphere for holding meetings and interviews.
The Business and Job Center also has a pseudo office where mock interviews take place every Wednesday morning or by appointment any other day. Nearby is a display of professional attire by Belk. The department store provides dress-for-success workshops. Business etiquette, networking, job hunting tips and other job-related workshops are also held here. There’s even a career networking and support group that meets in the center each month.
It’s About Learning, Not (Just) Books
If libraries were just about books, their future — like that of bookstores — might be very much in doubt. After all, why would voters want to raise their own property taxes to expand and reconfigure what could soon be obsolete?
But libraries are maintaining their relevance by meeting patrons’ changing needs. In Bexar County, Texas, the public library system has gone completely bookless. Such a move is not on the agenda at Richland Library, but there has been a distinct shift in focus.
“We want to accommodate people, not books,” Huggins says. “Libraries are about learning. Books were the original technology. Today’s tools are so unique and varied. But it’s still about learning.”
The Dewey Decimal System and microfiche may be nearly obsolete, but librarians aren’t.
Richland Library Director Melanie Huggins, right, visits with Chandni Amin, 14, in the Teen Center at the main library branch downtown.
“Librarians connect people to the information they need, and they do it through a variety of formats and in a variety of ways,” Hastings says. They’re digital archivists, savvy searchers, knowledgeable in the use of keywords and databases. As such they’ve moved into the area of instruction, teaching users how to search and retrieve the information they need.
Librarians are trained to efficiently locate information, evaluate its quality and know how to use it — and they pass this knowledge on to library users. Internet information literacy is now a necessary life skill.
“We use it to buy a car, buy a house, research career paths,” Gettys says. “In order to make intelligent decisions, people have to know how to find, evaluate and use the information they need.”
Library as Community Center
People are attached to communities that have places for people to meet each other, are welcoming to different types of people and are physically beautiful, according to the Knight Foundation’s 2010 Soul of the Community study. And libraries are part of that equation.
“Libraries are microcosms of the bigger community,” Richland Library director Huggins says.
That larger community also includes the homeless, whose frequent use of the library is often commented on by patrons.
Huggins addressed the issue in a director’s message in the library’s March-April magazine.
Huggins said it “breaks my heart” when she hears people say, “’I don’t use that library. There are too many homeless people there.’”
“Serving the homeless is a part of the fabric of what we do — just like addressing early literacy and workforce development,”
Huggins wrote. “I know there will continue to be many opinions on homeless people using the library. We will continue to assert that homeless have a right to be in the library, to use the services as long as, like everyone else, they follow our rules.”
The high-tech Teen Center in the main branch offers 3D printers, iPad 2s, iMacs, video games and a vocal recording booth.
Beyond its work on literacy and workforce development — including helping the homeless — Richland Library is also reaching out to teens. At the high-tech Teen Center in the main branch, teens have access to 3-D printers, iPad 2s, iMacs, Xbox 360/Nintendo Wii/PlayStation2 and a vocal recording booth, as well as access to an anime and manga club and a writing group. If the referendum passes, teen spaces will be added to other branches.
USC’s Thomas Cooper Library also offers a state-of-the-art technology center and has the largest computer lab on campus. Students can check out laptops for in-house use and iPads for a week.
“We facilitate technology because that’s how they access what they need,” Gettys says. “This is to help prepare students for the working world where they’ll be expected to use this technology in a job.”
Libraries also serve the community as satellite government agencies in a sense, according to Hastings. Government printing offices have been on the decline for years, but libraries still provide electronic access to those documents to the public. Libraries have long served as a services provider for the IRS. Where they once were the paper provider of tax forms, they’re now the electronic provider of tax forms and free-tax assistance.
Can We Afford All This?
Even with all the benefits that could come from expanding Richland Library’s offerings, forking over $59 million in property taxes over the next few years is asking a lot from voters who just last year approved a sales tax hike to fund the bus system and transportation projects. Unemployment in the county has been hovering around 8 percent for months, and the figure doesn’t include workers who are involuntary part-time employees or underemployed. Median incomes are down, and the costs to individuals of Obamacare and the federal government shutdown are yet to be determined.
“You can only go to the well so many times before the well runs dry,” Letts says. “Less than 12 months ago, citizens approved a $1.1 billion tax referendum. They’re telling us this is a priority issue. They couldn’t have figured out how to fund it within [last year’s] bond referendum and using current revenue?”
Letts says some of the library’s plans appear frivolous given the economic atmosphere, and some of its services redundant. There is already co-working space in the Vista. Group meetings can be held in the rooms of churches and community centers. The South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce, right around the corner from the library’s main branch, offers assistance with job searches, résumé writing, interview tips and training opportunities. Wi-Fi is available at cafés, fast food restaurants and other public places. For the price of a soda, anyone can access to the Internet.
Richland Library says the tax increase would amount to a $12 to $14 increase each year for the owner of a $100,000 home — that’s $1 per month. But Letts argues the same tactic was used in the penny sales tax campaign: it’s only a penny.
“Yet, the calculation [on the penny tax] was that it came out to $574 in additional tax implications per family in Richland County. It’s all in the spin,” he says.
Henry McKie, 59, uses a computer in the Career & Job Center at Richland Library to search for full time employment.
Can We Afford Not To?
Advances in technology are pushing us further into the digital world in every aspect of our lives, but nowhere faster than how we work and learn. An ever-increasing number of schools distribute laptops and tablets instead of textbooks to students in all grade levels. An increasing number of courses are taught online. Everyone in the community needs access to technology and information literacy — key tools that enable students, professionals, retirees and everyone else to thrive in today’s world. Libraries provide that and more.
“The thing to remember is that your library is your cultural hub — it’s the place that’s going to give you access to the cultural information, literature, activities that improve your life,” Hastings says. “They give you the freedom to build a better quality of life and preserve that freedom.”
But is now the time to make this investment? On the one hand, interest rates are still at historic lows, making it a good time for governments to borrow money. On the other hand, voters are already cash-strapped as it is.
On Nov. 5, Richland County voters will weigh the costs and benefits of the referendum to the community. What they decide will write the next chapter on the future of their library.
Library Services: Did you know that at Richland Library …
• You can reserve a librarian for individualized assistance at any branch?
• You can get five free music downloads each week?
• There is a 3-D printer and voice recording booth in the teen center at the main branch?
• You can practice for a job interview every Wednesday at the main branch?
• Struggling readers can gain confidence in the Read to a Dog program?
• Bilingual storytimes and Let’s Speak English and computer classes are held at Northeast?
• The Assembly, Southeast and St. Andrews branches are open on Sundays?
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