The ever evolving public library

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Screaming kids are usually the last thing people think of when it comes to libraries. But at Provo City Library, screaming kids are the norm. Encouraged, in fact.

On a typical morning, a gaggle of young children huddle around a castle door in the bottom floor of the library, anxiously awaiting their turn to escape their parents for a half-hour to learn about the alphabet. Once the storyteller cracks open the castle’s door and rings the bell in her hand, the children slip through as fast as their feet will carry them.

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Heather Lue ushers children into story time through the Secret Passage of the castle door at the Provo City Library. Children spend some time away from their parents to read stories together.
Megan Lockhart, a stay-at-home mother of two, said the library was the best one she had ever seen.

“It’s great,” she said. “It’s like a pre-preschool. It’s helps them get ready for school when it comes.”

Libraries aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they mostly existed to house books people could come use for research and leisure. While that may have worked 30 years ago, this generation requires more from their local caverns of knowledge. Librarians are transforming libraries into new-age community centers to adapt to changing demographics and technology in order to keep up with society’s needs.

“I’ve often used the term that the library of today is turning into the living room for the community,” said Gene Nelson, Provo City Library director. “They’ve seen their role change the last 20, 25 years as an area that they can provide opportunities for people to get together.”

A 31-year veteran of libraries, Nelson oversaw the construction of Provo’s current library a decade ago. While it was being designed, he pushed for the expansion of the children’s area, citing demographics: Provo simply has a lot more young families than the average community. He sees it as playing things smart and providing his community programs tailored to their specific needs and wants.

“This is one of those things … smart public libraries are saying: ‘what can I do to help the parents, to help the moms, those young moms provide the not only social atmosphere for the children but also intellectual,’ ” he said.

Provo isn’t alone in this trend. Louise Wallace, Orem Library director, visited a new library in Phoenix a few years ago and found it to be entirely revamped from libraries of the past.

“Their teen section has very cool funky neon lights. There’s popular music playing. It’s not the quiet shhhh kind of place anymore,” she said with a laugh. “It really is designed to be a gathering place, to invite and entice people to come.”

Just as the economic cycle of booms and recessions affects people, so too do libraries see their use in the community rise and fall. When the economy is doing well, libraries tend to get less foot traffic. When it’s not doing so well, people start looking for the cheaper option. And with free computers, free wifi and free books, library prices are hard to beat.

“As a mom on a tight budget, I’m always looking for enriching, low-cost activities for my children and I have always been able to count on the library to help enrich and educate my family,” said one Provo mother in a letter to the library. “The Children’s Department does a superb job of scheduling entertaining AND educational literacy-oriented activities and storytimes that both my children and I enjoy.”

Pam Vaughn has been overseeing the design and construction of Springville’s newly completed library, and one of the biggest changes she’s seen over the years in libraries is the attitude in their design.

When she first started as a librarian decades ago, libraries were very protective of their books, taking great pains to keep too much natural light from falling on them and aging them faster. This led to designs that were typically enclosed. These days, libraries have become roomier, spacious even, featuring large windows to give them a much more open feel.

“I’ve seen more libraries let in the light,” she said.

Amid all the changes in public libraries — the design philosophy, the technology, the programming — librarians see their mission as essentially unchanged: serving the community by helping them get the information they’re looking for. Only the tools have changed for them.

For Gene Nelson, library technology was pretty basic when he started his career in librarianship 31 years ago.

“What is probably one of the most interesting changes is the fact that years ago, about when I started, you had a thing called a book, and you had a thing called a record and a tape. And that was essentially it. Those were the formats that you could find,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of talk in the library field about the future of libraries. The basic construct of what it is really hasn’t changed. What’s changed, however, is the vehicles.”


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