Zeb Coleman doesn't have a cell phone, computer or cable at home, yet he's no stranger to the virtual world.
The Tumwater Timberland Library supplies his ticket to the Internet.
This summer, the 16-year-old rides his bike from home to the library every other day. During the school year, when class lets out at Tumwater High School, he saunters across the stretet to the library most afternoons.
“Nothing else to do,” said the teen with a shock of thick dark hair. And during the gray winter months, “I don’t want to walk home in the rain.”
Besides, he can check his e-mail and search the Web for video game strategy guides to Legends of Zelda or Crash Bandicoot.
“I just come here to hang out with my friends and relax,” he said standing next to his bike. He was heading home after getting his fix of computer time and touching base with friends at the tree-shaded library in Tumwater.
As librarians like to say, the library has become his “third place” – behind the first two places where people spend the most time: home and school or work. Libraries increasingly are the place where people of all ages gather to learn and create, have fun and connect with others.
There’s simply so much to do at the library these days.
Besides maintaining their traditional role as the public’s key provider of books and information, libraries today serve as:
Job centers, where throngs of unemployed workers build resumes, learn interview skills and hunt through online job listings.
Tech centers, where patrons update their Facebook pages on library computers or plug in personal laptops and connect to free WiFi. At home, library card-holders can log on to library websites to read magazines, get real-time homework help from tutors, and download audio books.
Education centers, sponsoring classes on computer skills and crafts, and talks running the gamut from genealogy to green household cleaners to creating publications called zines.
Entertainment and cultural centers, sponsoring movie showings, live performances and art exhibits – all free of charge.
Entertainment examples abound.
Musicians and magicians, poets and puppeteers are drawing crowds at summer reading celebrations throughout Timberland Regional Library’s five-county service area. Easily 3,000 kids and adults showed up for last month’s Imagination Celebration block party at the Olympia Timberland Library, kick-starting the library’s summer reading program. Similarly, more than 250 people flocked to the main Tacoma Library July 1 to see the 1924 silent version of “Peter Pan” accompanied by a live harpist.
And it’s not just kid stuff. Saturday night, the Olympia Library hosted a somber, adults-only marionette show adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic “Of Mice and Men.”
Attendance at adult programs in the Timberland Regional Library system doubled in 2009 compared to 2008, library spokesman Jeff Kleingartner said.
Certainly the recession has contributed to an uptick in library use. But some say there’s something else at play, too: the desire for community.
Technology is creating a new “digital divide,” says Michael Crose, Timberland Regional Library’s interim executive director.
“It is now possible for many of us to find the news, take classes at all levels of education, and work from home. We are facing the possibility of laying our social skills aside and living in isolation,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Olympian.
“I believe that the public library can be the new town square, the commons where we can all come together and share the stimulating opportunity of interacting with our friends, neighbors and strangers in a neutral and safe environment.”
Users in the Pierce County Library System expressed a similar sentiment during surveys last year to develop the system’s 2030 facilities plan.
“People have really turned into themselves and are very solitary. They’re communicating on blogs and Facebook, but they don’t see people face to face,” said Mary Getchell, spokeswoman for the Pierce County system.
“People are yearning for this community center. ... We heard, ‘Where better to have this community center than the library?’”
Libraries are responding in kind.
In 2008, the Olympia Timberland Library, for instance, transformed its atrium into a performance space that’s now regularly used for concerts, presentations and speakers. The library partners with 200 community groups to sponsor projects and events such as the recent Imagination Celebration or the Latino Youth Summit that exposes teens to college.
“We’ve worked really hard to raise the profile of this library in the community,” Olympia Library manager Cheryl Heywood said.
BUCKING THE TRENDS
Libraries are seeing a rise in demand both locally and nationally.
Despite reduced library hours, limits on holds and the start-up of a fine system for overdue materials, circulation in the Timberland Regional Library system rose by 2 percent in 2009 from the previous year.
Numerically that meant card-holders in the five-county system borrowed more than 4.9 million books, CDs, DVDs and other materials – 100,000 more than in 2008, according to library statistics.
Meanwhile, the number of visitors to Timberland libraries climbed 5 percent in 2009.
To compare, circulation across the country increased an average of 6 percent in 2009 over the previous year, according to a survey by the Library Journal.
And folks aren’t just checking out books and other media. They’re using computers at libraries to access those media.
Although Timberland’s shorter library hours reduced computer availability, the use of library computers grew by 3 percent from January 2009 to this past January, Kleingartner said.
Nationwide, nearly one-third of Americans 14 or older used a public library computer or wireless network to access the Internet in 2009, according to a University of Washington Information School study released in April.
The rate represents a massive shift from 1996, when just 28 percent of libraries offered Internet access.
The service is especially crucial for low-income people. The UW study found 44 percent of families living below the federal poverty level used library computers and Internet access in the past year.
“People in our communities are looking for low- and no-cost ways to educate and entertain their families,” Kleingartner wrote. “Many people have canceled Internet, newspaper and magazine subscriptions to save money and come to the library to go online and review those materials they used to experience at home.”
Yet at the same time people need libraries the most, libraries are facing challenges of their own.
In late 2008, Timberland libraries began a series of cost-saving measures to cut $2.5 million over a two-year period. Among the changes: an end to Sunday hours, reduced hours on other days, less money to buy books and materials, a temporary hiring freeze and the imposition of fines for overdue materials for the first time in the library system’s history.
Library officials forecast a flat budget scenario for next year that would maintain services and staffing at the same level as this year’s $18.8 million operating budget.
Other Sound Sound libraries have suffered under the budget knife, as well. The nearby Pierce County Library System eliminated 24 positions this year to help cover a $1.5 million shortfall in a $28.6 million annual operating budget.
Amid those funding challenges, library supporters stress that live performances, author appearances and special activities are supported through grants, donations or foundations, not taxpayer dollars.
Heywood, the Olympia library manager, cited an example. “The Friends of the Olympia Library raises $24,000 to $35,000 that comes back into this (Olympia) library so we can offer a wide array of programs for people of all ages,” she said.
REACHING OUT TO YOUTH
Along with traditional storytimes, libraries offer an array of activities relevant to youth reared in a world of iPods, e-books and Black-Eyed Peas.
In libraries throughout South Sound this summer, youngsters watch slack-jawed as Olympia magician Jeff Evans turns clear water blue and pulls an egg from an empty cloth bag, sprinkling in comments about the importance of reading. Bubbleman Gary Golightly’s elaborate bubble creations delight kids at summer reading gatherings.
Separate activities target teens and “tweens” in an effort to prevent the traditional drop-off in library use between childhood and 20- and 30-somethings.
Many libraries organize manga and animé clubs for youth. Teens in Timberland libraries can decorate flip-flops, play Guitar Hero, chow down on pizza or ice cream, discuss books, and compete in a teens-only cooking contest this summer.
Traditionalists might ask what crafts and video games have to do with libraries.
Plenty, responds Sara Paschal, teen services librarian in Tacoma’s main library. Video games, for instance, require reading and critical thinking skills and encourage interaction.
“The older kids help the younger kids. You see people from different walks of life, different backgrounds, different socio-economic situations all playing together. There’s no kind of weirdness at all,” she said.
Most of all, it’s a way to get young people in the door. Those who initially come for Guitar Hero sessions or animé movie nights typically start checking out gaming magazines or graphic novels. They grow comfortable enough to ask librarians for help with homework.
“This can be a gateway to exposing them to other things,” Paschal said, “even though this has relevance in and of itself.”
GETTING A LEG UP
The library has become an essential tool for droves of unemployed people. With the help of Washington State Library grants, libraries in the Timberland, Tacoma, Puyallup, and Pierce County library systems have added classes, speakers and online services to help their users find employment.
The services helped jettison Jeff Nation off the unemployment rolls.
In February, the Olympia man lost the maintenance supervisor job he’d held for 15 years. At the Tumwater library, he combed through job-hunting websites and reference books and learned how to update his résumé at an employment class, his wife Sherie Nation said.
“It definitely helped,” she said. “He got another job.”
The assistance was yet another example of the library’s role in the Nation family.
Sherie stops by the Tumwater branch at least twice a week. She hauls home 10 to 15 books at a time, some to feed her reading habit and some for her 7-year-old daughter, Kendrah.
Two of her other kids, Brennan, 15, and Natasha, 12, head to the library during the school year for research.
Kendrah delights in the library’s summer programs. The second-grader was recently among some 60 kids watching Evans’ magic show. She’s still amazed at how he got water from one small drinking cup to fill four bigger glasses.
“The library is very important to us,” Sherie said.
So important, you could say it’s the family’s “third place.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694 firstname.lastname@example.org
Been awhile since you’ve checked out your library?
Public libraries are adding new media formats and services at a sonic pace.
Here are a few:
• Library computers for public use, including people who aren’t cardholders.
• Free WiFi access in the library for people with personal laptops.
• Online databases allowing library cardholders to read newspapers, trade journals and magazines at home or in the library. Timberland Regional Library’s subscription to Access Newspaper Archive, for instance, provides newspaper articles from selected countries back to 1700.
• Classes in basic computer skills and employment skills at the library.
• Online classes accessible via library system websites. The Learning Express Library, for instance, offers courses in Adobe Illustrator, Flash, Photoshop and PowerPoint, along with classes in algebra, grammar and reading.
• Reciprocal agreements allowing library users in one system to obtain free library cards from another library system. Timberland has such agreements with Pierce County, Seattle, Kitsap County and nine other library systems. After getting a Pierce County Library card, for instance, Timberland library patrons can use Pierce’s online services linking users with a live homework tutor or job coach – services that Timberland doesn’t offer.
• Downloadable e-books (electronic books that display text on a computer screen), audio books, movies and music that can be played on MP3 players or computers; media format offerings vary among library systems. Some e-book titles can also be played on electronic readers, such as the Nook, Kobo e-Reader or Sony Reader.
• An extensive collection of genealogy books and historic materials, provided by the Olympia Genealogical Society, at the Olympia Timberland Library.
• Original artwork at the Olympic Timberland Library, including papercuts by children’s book illustrator and artist Nikki McClure and the eight “Sylvester’s Window” paintings depicting the changing Olympia landscape from 1841 to 2001.
• A collection of online resources to help residents find jobs, pay bills, avoid foreclosure, shop for insurance and other assistance at the Washington State Library’s Hard Times Resource Portal.
For more information or help, contact:
• Timberland Regional Library at 800-562-6022 or go to www.trl.org.
• Washington State Library at 360-704-5221 or go to www.statelib.wa.gov.
Debby Abe, staff writer