Libraries embracing greater purpose

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 6:35 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 2:33 p.m. CDT
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(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Allie Steele, 15, and Owen Ritchie, 15, study at the Geneva Public Library Friday afternoon.

When the Geneva Public Library board dropped its plans to buy the Cetron property, the action marked 13 years of effort to secure a site for a new building – 10 years on the Sixth Street School site and three years for Cetron.

It also set officials off to consider the library's future – what it does, what it should do and what it should do but cannot, because of space issues. What has happened in the last few years is a sea change in how the public uses its libraries, directors say.

Libraries had long moved from books to include other media such as movies and music to technology education and electronic books. Now that libraries have become community centers library experts such as Robert Doyle, executive director of the Illinois Library Association, said. Libraries are in demand for everything from rooms for private study or tutoring, for meeting and program rooms, classrooms and open spaces to be creative, Doyle said.

"The configuration and how library usage is being allocated is shifting and changing these days," Doyle said. "There is much more emphasis on common space, study areas and maker spaces – where people go and make things. ... It's how people are creating spaces for community participation and how this might impact how space is allocated in a library."

Local library officials said they noticed the shift and are working to meet what patrons want and expect. At the Sugar Grove library, director Carol Dolin said the biggest challenge is having enough staff to manage the meeting rooms which is in near constant demand.

"We have 10 meeting rooms, including the cafe, for open spaces. We have enclosed meeting rooms and spaces or rooms for people to reserve," Dolin said. "When all the rooms are claimed and somebody still wants a room, we are trying to address that by changing our policies."

George Scheetz, director of the Batavia Public Library, said people always have wanted to meet and be tutored at the library. But now with the demand for open space to work on projects and as meeting places, libraries have become "the third place."

"It's not home; it's not work. It's that third place that people want to be there, they are comfortable there," Scheetz said. "We see that a lot."

• • •

Not everyone agrees that the library of today or tomorrow is ever going to need all that space.

Ernie Avellana, 47, of Geneva said he has not been to a library since he was a kid.

"Most everything I do is via the Internet. ... I do not go to the library to get a book or an ebook," Avellana said. "If I want it, I just go get it. I don't feel a municipality or government should provide it for me."

Acknowledging the library is evolving as a social gathering place, Avellana said that makes it more an extension of the park district, so libraries should look there for programming needs, or to the city or the schools.

But in Elburn, Town and Country Public Library director Mary Lynn Alms said libraries will continue as centers of learning and information as well as gathering places.

"As long as I've been in the library business, people said we would be obsolete, and we are not," Alms said. "People are using the library in ways they always have and also coming here as gathering place for all kinds of reasons."

True to the current trend, Alms said space is the biggest challenge in the 13-year-old Elburn facility. Money was finite, and officials built what they could afford, Alms said.

"Our biggest area is a capacity of 50, and we have 250 people show up for a program," Alms said.

The St. Charles Public Library has evolved similarly, director Diana Brown said.

"What our library lacks is space for people and for staff," Brown said. "There is now a demand for tutoring space and meetings and study areas …. I am always looking for places where I can get more space."
At the Messenger Public Library in North Aurora, director Kevin Davis said one of the library's priorities is meeting that "third place" need.

"We have the fiber or fabric group for arts and crafts. Two or three book groups, writer groups, job club meetings to brush up on resume skills ... study rooms," Davis said. "Sometimes, we are turning people away."

Carol Medal, director of the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin, said the library of today engages the community as never before, and the trend will continue.

"We're not going back to what it was 15 years ago," Medal said. "This is the course all libraries have to take. It is the activities that are going on .... it's not just about the books. The books are our brand, but it's not our business. We have to be so much more than just that."

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