Through all the technology, reading remains libraries’ focus
BEAVER, Pa. (AP) — “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” — Victor Hugo
As a student in Marion Township Elementary School in the early 1960s, Diane Blinn probably didn’t know who Victor Hugo was. Even then, she understood what happens when words written on pages become books that paint all sorts of magical thoughts and visions in your mind.
To paraphrase songwriter Alicia Keys, reading set Diane Blinn’s mind on fire.
For 41 of her 64 years, Diane Blinn Wakefield has been director of the Beaver Area Memorial Library. It was her first job and will most likely be her last.
So there’s no doubt Wakefield knows who Victor Hugo is, what the French author wrote, when, why and specifically where to find his classic “Les Miserables” in print, as an audiobook and as a DVD in the unpretentious building at the corner of College Avenue and River Road in Beaver.
And within a minute, she’ll know which local libraries have Hugo’s masterpiece in their collections, courtesy of the Beaver County Library System’s automation system.
Best of all since 1998, any library patron from Beaver County can use a computer in the library or their own anywhere to search the 339,000-plus items in the system’s shared online catalogue.
A collective “wow” surely describes how automation and digital technology has rocked the decades-old quiet and stuffiness of libraries, a steadfast perception that continued when a county resolution established the library system in 1971.
Not so now.
“We look at it (the library) as more of a community center,” Wakefield said. “We don’t care if people are loud. They don’t have to whisper. They can come here and have fun.”
A library card, free for Beaver County residents, is still essential to access information culled from books, magazines, newspapers and periodicals.
Now, eBooks, audiobooks and public computers with internet access that enables patrons age 16 and older to find information throughout the system’s nine-member libraries. The monthly calendars at each of the libraries are chock-full of learning, social events and community programs, from story time for infants and preschoolers to a knitting and crochet club for dedicated stitchers. All are free.
Reading is still the library’s core. Technology hasn’t tampered with that.
“I think that it (reading) helps you in every aspect of life. It makes our brains work. You need reading for everything,” Wakefield said.
Today parents bring their preschool children to the library for story time as often as they did decades ago, she said. Registration is required because sessions fill up quickly.
And though their children’s tiny fingers are adept at navigating iPads, smart phones, a computer mouse and TV remotes, parents are introducing their children to books. They come to the library with children in tow, and fill a basket with books, which the kids enjoy checking out.
“They want their kids to have hands-on (book experience),” she said.
And the youngsters are thrilled when they are issued their first library card at any age, though most apply when they are about 5-years-old, she said.
Wakefield didn’t have a library card while growing up in rural Marion Township. The nearby Zelienople Public Library required Beaver County residents to pay a fee for a card, she said. But her neighbor Pam Lintz had a card and passed the books she borrowed to her grateful friend.
In seventh or eighth grade, Riverside students were required to take a library instruction course, which covered the basics of the Dewey Decimal classification system, a numerical code that mandates how books are placed in specific categories and put on shelves accordingly.
Research for a term paper required physically going to the library, searching the card catalog and using encyclopedias for facts and the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature to find published journal and magazine articles on the topic. Index cards, an outline, footnotes, a bibliography and the term paper had to be typed on a manual or electric typewriter, then proofread, Wakefield explained. She noted the Beaver library staff still uses two electric typewriters in the office and another for public use is nestled in a far corner behind the stacks.
During high school, the 1971 Riverside High School graduate spent hours in Geneva College’s library. At the University of Pittsburgh, she majored in sociology and psychology, intent on becoming a social worker. Early in her freshmen year, she was hired at the Hillman Library learning to shelve books and working at the circulation and reference desks. She’d found her career calling and decided to seek a master’s degree in library science.
“I loved the reading part, but it’s a small part of it (being a librarian),” Wakefield said. “I’m an organized, efficient person, and it lined up with my personality.”
In the spring of 1976, she earned her master’s. That October, she married Bob Wakefield, whom she met when both worked at Pitt’s Hillman Library, and in January 1977 began her career at the Beaver library.
Four decades later, the building has expanded, undergoing two major renovations, from 5,000 square feet in 1977 to 7,500 square feet in 1980; then in 2003 an additional 4,000 square feet was added, she said.
The third expansion included an enclosed children’s are that’s a wonderland of books, talking books, large-print books, audio books, puzzles, Legos, a kid’s computer, robotic gizmos and programs, science and technology programs, and a virtual reality Viewmaster.
The renovations, in part, were financed by Friends of the Library, a fundraising group Wakefield established. Fundraising is a big and vital for the library’s existence, she said.
But mostly, her job as director as well as staff duties were dramatically changed when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates introduced the world to personal computers. That change continues, seemingly nonstop.
“I like change,” a succinct Wakefield said.
The word change is an understatement. The shared automation system made checking out books at the front desk easier and meant that the staff no longer had to categorize each book and other materials according to the Dewey Decimal System, then for each type three individual index cards - by subject, author and title. Instead, staff entered the categorized items into the computer system and scanned the bar code on each item for checkouts.
More than 100,000 of those cards were filed in a wooden card catalog. Patrons searched the drawers, usually with help from the staff.
“Even though we were automated, we held onto that card catalog for several years,” Wakefield said. “It was like a little safety plug. It was still there just in case we couldn’t find (an item) online.”
Staff tossed most of the 100,000 cards but kept a stash to use as scrap paper.
“We still have some,” Wakefield said.
In 2001, the Beaver County Library System bought 34 computers through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for patron use. Most libraries, including Beaver received four. Staff learned the ABCs of the computer, the software programs and how to search the internet. They’d teach patrons how the technology works.
Very soon, public libraries became computer go-to places for anyone age 16 and older. Then and now, the computers gave people who didn’t own or couldn’t afford a personal computer access to software programs, research materials, the internet and its countless websites, said Jodi Oliver, who’s been director of the Beaver County library system for 10 years.
“There are many people who cannot afford computers, internet access and other gadgets,” Oliver said. Today, technology isn’t a luxury; it’s a communication necessity for work, school, email, anything and almost everything.
Throughout the system in 2017, the public used the library computers for 48,541 sessions, Oliver said.
The Beaver Library now has 13 public computers that people use for work, school, email, Facebook as well as online databases, all free. The database assortment is for children, job searchers, businesses, magazines, online eBooks and eAudio books and more. All databases are accessible on personal computers anywhere, except for the popular ancestry.com, which must be used in the library, Wakefield said.
It’s folks of all ages and expertise seated at the public computers, she said. At the onset, the library offered free online computer classes. Now staff will give individual lessons on specific programs such as Excel, when requested. Students from Central Valley High School also show anyone how to work smartphones, i-pads and other devices. Wakefield said all but a very few senior citizens have been receptive to the computer experience.
So it’s no surprise that computers also make the library experience easier for cardholders. Online does it. Books and other materials can be renewed and reserved, and transferred from one library to another. Items can be checked out at special terminals. And, the automation system updated in 2015 sends a robo call to notify patrons that reserved books have arrived, that items are soon due and when those are overdue.
Patrons now pay 20 cents per day for each book, far more than the nickel or dime they paid decades ago.
“In a year, we probably get $10,000 from fines,” Wakefield said. Most probably consider the fines a donation, she said.
Some changes are subtle. Jars of candy beckon children at the front desk and soon coffee, with a lid, will be available, Wakefield said. Proceeds from both benefit the library.
Technology has changed libraries, but not altogether.
Daily, retirees and regular visitors relax in cushioned chairs, reading the newspaper or perusing magazines. Some sit at a long table and add pieces to a jigsaw puzzle in progress. Patrons still ask reference librarian Mary Jane Ulmer questions. A set of World Book encyclopedias lines a shelf. And the Beaver Library still has 170,000 books to check out.
Will people still frequent the Beaver Library 40 years from now?
“I don’t know how many years, but I think it’s going to be here. My guess would be 20 years,” said Wakefield, now grandma to 1-year-old Micah. “I don’t see any major slowing down of people using the library.”
Victor Hugo would be pleased.
The facts, the figures, the future of the Beaver County Library System
The Beaver County Library System has gone digital. New technology directly impacts how, where and why county residents use libraries. It’s also changed what the staff does by streamlining and speeding up time-consuming tasks.
Since 2008, Jodi Oliver has directed the system, which was established by county resolution in 1971. It comprises nine-public libraries and two branches in Chippewa and Center townships. The system also shares online access to its complete collection with Beaver County Community College’s library.
Oliver detailed 2017 circulation figures and technology’s growth throughout public libraries in Beaver County.
. 2017 circulation figures show 335,026 items loaned. Of those, 206,885 were print items (books and magazines); 55,152 were non-print items. including DVDs, books on CD); 24,448 were eBooks and eAudiobooks; and 48,541 were computer sessions.
. Beaver County residents saved more than $8 million by using library resources.
. In 1998, an automation system provided staff and patrons online access to a shared catalogue of all materials available in Beaver County public libraries. All books were barcoded, giving users current information on the circulation status of items.
. In 2001, the library system purchased 34 public computers through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Member libraries each received four; the Baden Library received two. Staff received training to help patrons learn how a computer works.
. By 2017, the libraries had 110 computers for patrons to use. Last year, the number of computer sessions decreased from 58,863 in 2015 to 48,541 sessions in 2017. All libraries have Wi-Fi, so many patrons are using their own laptops or other devices in the library to connect to the internet. Wireless sessions are not tracked.
. All public computers in the library are connected to the internet and loaded with software that includes programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The internet affords access to websites such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as social, commercial, business, government, state and local websites.
. A number of online databases are free to county residents to use in the library and elsewhere. Databases include AtoZ, TumbleBooks, OverDrive, Zinoi, Learning Express Library and Britannica Online. Ancestry.com is available but may be used only in a library. The selection is geared to various topics and services such as job searches, access to eBooks and eAudio books, magazines, and children’s books. Patrons also have access to 27 statewide databases funded by the state’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries.
. In 2011 a collection of eBooks and eAudio books was started. Currently, the system’s collection has 25,805 eBooks and 577 eAudio books, all available to patrons. Additionally, 175 eVideos for children are accessible.
. The system’s website — www.beaverlibraries.org — enables patrons to renew borrowed materials, track their reading history, request that an item be transferred from one library to another and details which library has the same item in its collection, if that item is checked out and when it is due for return.
. The website has a master calendar of activities and programs offered at all libraries, as well as a monthly event calendar for each library. For February, 25 programs were listed at various libraries, including story times, block parties, children reading to therapy dogs, science and technology programs, teen advisory and reading groups, and needlecraft groups. In all, 20,103 children participated in 1,814 programs the libraries offered, and 6,825 teens and adults attended 656 programs.
. Technology plans include a knowledge exchange room at the Carnegie Free Library of Beaver Falls and a digital media lab at the B.F. Jones Memorial Library in Aliquippa.
Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/