From tomb-like book repository to vital community center, welcome to the new library
story by Suzanne Hudson and Joe Formichella and photography by George Fuller
“THE WORD ‘LIBRARY’ HAS BECOME A VERB.”
That’s Tamara Dean’s favorite way to think of the hive of activity that is the Fairhope branch, over which she presides. For those of an age among us, who grew up with the tomb-like book repositories we cherished, the “stacks,” card catalogs, microfiche sheets, and somber silences punctuated by the shushing of stern-faced librarians, it’s definitely a new day in Dewey Decimal Land. In fact, Tamara says, “I think of ‘shush’ as a four-letter
word.” While noise is held down to a respectful level, there are always multiple interactions going on throughout the facility. Whether it’s at the computer center, where folks can check email and access databases; or participation in one of the popular “Scanning Parties,” at which attendees can convert their old documents and photographs to a thumb drive, preserving family histories; or in an upstairs room where business meetings, classes, book club discussions, and tutoring sessions are held; Fairhope, and all the Eastern Shore branches, have, well, “branched out.”
GENEALOGY, TECHNOLOGY CLASSES AND, OH YEAH, A BOOK CLUB
“The library is really a community center,” Daphne director Tonja Young says, listing the smorgasbord of resources, services, and classes offered: art workshops, soap making, book clubs, a genealogy center, “how to” technology classes for seniors, CPR and first aid certification, help with income tax filings, voter registration, an annual “etiquette tea,” a myriad of online classes, ACT practice tests, proctoring of real estate exams, even squid dissection, and other hands-on experiences for home-schoolers. The Exceptional Foundation, serving the mentally and physically challenged, routinely visits, producing art work. Attention high schoolers: need instruction on “how to do hair for prom”? Job market folks: want to know “how to dress for success”? There is
clearly something for everyone.
Tonja is most excited about the new addition in progress, a high-tech classroom that can divide into three, with a seventy-inch interactive screen that can become four separate screens if needed, where attendees, armed with special pens, drawing pads, iPads, or laptops can learn, twenty-first century style. And both Tonja and Tamara
point to their respective “maker spaces” with pride, 3D printers at the ready, places for sewing, knitting, all things creative and crafty. Finally, she takes me to a hidden storage maze, where craft supplies, circuit board kits, robotics components, and microscopes – the stuff of delightful exploration – spill from shelves and closets and crannies.
For Tamara’s part, she looks forward to re-imagining the upstairs space to spread the technology around, creating more resources for ‘tween and teen patrons, those age groups “where we lose people,” she says. An eighteen-year veteran, she, like all the librarians we interviewed, is dedicated to spreading the joyful love of learning.
TAX PREP TUTORIALS, HOME-SCHOOLING RESOURCES,AND A NURSING STUDENTS STUDY GROUP
In Spanish Fort, Tracy Cole is no exception, overseeing the newbie facility, birthed in 2015, as a vital part of the city complex. Smaller and more compact than the other Eastern Shore branches, it is nevertheless a hub of activity. “We have all kinds of study groups, including nursing students from Coastal Community College, who take advantage of our free WIFI – no need to sit in a McDonald’s or anywhere you’ll have to buy something.” She also points to the well-attended summer reading program and an assortment of kid-centered activities, from the annual “Harry Potter Book Night” to regular movie screenings to the Thursday “Code Club” that teaches computer programming for the eight to eighteen crowd, to visits from Mississippi’s Freedom Ranch, offering animal and wildlife encounters, to the popular “old timey board game night,” when families break out the Scrabble boards, Chutes and Ladders, and Monopoly sets.
There are also writers’ groups, readers’ groups, tax prep tutorials, and home-schooling resources. There is even a grant-driven class for seniors, taught by Spanish Fort High School’s Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) members, who explain all things cyber or techie and therefore intimidating to some of us elderly folk, such as how to use your iPhone. Conspicuously absent at this branch: the reference section. Gone are the rows of alphabetized volumes, the Lincoln Library of Essential Information, the bound periodicals, the medical texts. “It’s obsolete,” Tracy says, since the world of Google, online research rabbit holes, and Wikipedia, flawed as it is, reigns supreme. After all, why spend thousands of dollars on encyclopedias when everything from forever and back is just a key stroke away?
DRIVEN BY THE NEEDS OF OUR COMMUNITIES
Like her colleagues, Tracy applauds the community spirit that is a vital part of today’s libraries, and her goals include adding even more computer classes and additional workshops focusing on resume writing and tips for those in the job market. She asserts that the needs of the community are what drive the library’s objectives. And she agrees that the word “library” is a verb – an action verb. Not long ago, she says, her three-and-a-half-year-old son said to her, “Mom, you’re a librarian and let’s pretend this is Gotham City.” Which got her thinking, “Hey, that makes me Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, aka a superhero. Pretty cool!”
And Tracy, like Tamara and Tonja, is done with the librarian’s image of olden times. She is, as they say, over it. “The stereotype of the shushing librarian must die!” Tracy says. “That’s not how we do things anymore. We have fun at the library. We laugh! And sometimes we are even LOUD!” But there won’t be any disapproving looks, reprimands, or shushing directed at these “offenders” now that the library has gone from being a tired, musty old prude to a living, breathing learning lab. And the librarians of the Eastern Shore are happy to make a big noise about that, singing the praises of their mission and welcoming suggestions from their patrons and beneficiaries –you.
But if it’s just a book, you want, audio or print, or DVD or any of the other half a million items available through the Baldwin County Library Cooperative, Max Reed is your man. He runs the cooperative’s courier system, literally “runs” it, crisscrossing the county five days a week, from Bay Minette to Gulf Shores, Orange Beach to Daphne, and all the libraries in between – putting upwards of 800, 900 miles on the old county van each week – delivering the “hold” items requested by patrons,from the historic library house in Silverhill or the brand-new complex in Spanish Fort, no more than forty-eight hours later.
I tagged along with Max one balmy Thursday morning in February, one of the “slower” days. (Max says Tuesdays are typically the busiest, processing all the weekend transfers. “As well as any day after a holiday.”) The morning started early at BCLC headquarters in Robertsdale, where the van is loaded with all the different canvas bags of items –color coded for each of the baker’s dozen facilities in the county, plus the Bookmobile. Then it’s off to the public library itself, where we arrive before the staff, unload their bags, pick up more bags, reshuffle the cargo, and roll on to Loxley. Then it’s up to the northern hinterlands and back down the Eastern Shore. The program is wildly popular,from the librarians, who once they’ve opened up shop enthusiastically greet our arrival and pitch in their role in the deceptively intricate and amazingly organized process,to the patrons – over two-hundred thousand served countywide – who never fail to thank Max for his work when they encounter him. Like them, probably, I hadn’t put too much thought into how a book or movie got tome before that morning. All I knew was I clicked a couple of buttons on the computer and a day or so later got a message from my friendly librarian that the item was ready to be picked up!
Max has been doing this for the three years the system has been in place, has seen and hefted the exponential increase in the number of items shifted from library to library – growth year over year over year that would garner front page headlines were we talking about the GDP or the Dow. Far from slipping into irrelevance as another victim of this “information age” we live in, from his perspective, libraries, and books, are as popular or more so than ever. Might be that fantastic selection available, or the promptness and personal touches built into the process. He’s not sure. All Max Reed knows is that the time’s coming when they’re going to need a second van and another driver to keep up with the demand. Don’t worry, though, he’s already working out the logistics.