Libraries are community centers – Grady Newsource

    CORRECTION: “Everyday Readers” is an adult literacy program. A previous version of the story misspelled the program’s name, and Grady Newsource regrets the error.  


The automatic sliding doors open with a whoosh. Books are neatly stacked on the hold shelves, waiting for readers to come and retrieve them. The stairs take you up to rows upon rows of books of all different sizes, some skinny, some wide, some heavy tomes. Bright lights illuminate the spines, and the air conditioning provides the only discernible sound in the quiet space. People work, read and rest at tables warmed by sunlight, and armchairs provide the perfect place for readers to curl up with a book and dive into a story.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: Today’s libraries are more than just books on shelves. Whether you want to start your own business, apply for a passport, learn more about your family history, play chess or improve your literacy skills, the library has something for you. The Athens Regional Library System provides valuable programming and resources to the residents of Athens-Clarke, Franklin, Madison, Oconee and Oglethorpe counties. 

Libraries in 2021

Most people associate libraries with checking out books and using their library card, but the resources don’t stop there. Patrons of the Athens-Clarke County Library have access to the Digital Media Center, passport services and programming like literacy programs for adults and children.

The Athens-Clarke branch on Baxter Street in Athens, Georgia is the main branch for the 11 libraries spread across the five counties. Here, patrons can find extensive resources like computers equipped with Adobe and GarageBand software, a 3D printer and can even digitally convert their old VHS tapes. You can drop in to use these resources during regular hours or even schedule time to receive personalized help with this technology.

“As society changes and the norms of society changes, so does the public library,” said Valerie Bell, executive director of the Athens Regional Library System.

What does this mean for you as a library patron? All of these resources are available to use either at no cost or a low cost. For example, the entire Adobe Creative Cloud comes with a hefty price tag of $29.99 a month for individuals. However, everyone from students to small business owners can save money by accessing the software at the library for free.

The library system and its services allow patrons to continue to learn, grow and discover.

“People come here with questions, you know, and we help them find the answers,” said Rhiannon Eades, public information officer for the Athens Regional Library System.

In 2017, the Athens Regional Library System was named the Georgia Public Library of the year. This award is presented by the Georgia Public Library Service each year and is usually only presented to a single branch. This was the first time it was presented to an entire regional system.

This bar chart shows the range of patron visits and patrons registered at each branch in the Athens Regional Library System (Graphic/Caroline Kurzawa).

Libraries as Community Centers

On most days, you can walk into the library and find active programming, anything from a genealogy class to a teen craft club. The pandemic has paused some in-person programming and decreased attendance. However, staff is bridging the gap by streaming some services online and offering some outside like the Outdoor Musical Storytime for children.

“But really libraries, they really are community centers,” Eades said.

This sentiment underlies the sheer amount of programming and resources available across the different branches. While the main branch in Athens offers substantial programming, speciality resources can be found at the Pinewoods Library off of Highway 29.

This bilingual library, located in the Pinewood Estates North mobile home park, caters to Spanish speakers and offers services like translations, government-program application assistance and English literacy services to its patrons. In 2010, the library partnered with the Athens Land Trust and Professor Paul Duncan within the University of Georgia’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Institute to build and maintain a traditional community garden. 

At the end of the day, the library branches serve as spaces for community members to engage and learn. In fact, Eades’ favorite thing about the library is its ability to include everyone by providing such an open and welcoming space. 

“We’re here for everybody in the community,” Eades said. 

Exploring the Programming

Children dance, sing and listen to stories during Outdoor Musical Storytime. Adults improve upon their literacy skills in Everyday Readers. Chess players, young and old, engage in open chess play. This is just a sampling of the programming that can be found at Athens-Clarke County Library.

The move to an outdoor setting for children’s storytime was a product of the pandemic that still continues today. While it was something the children’s department did once a month, the program has become more regular as other storytime sessions have moved online.

The outdoor space in Memorial Park allows the children to move around freely, dancing and singing to their hearts’ content while they listen to Evan Bush, the children’s librarian for Athens-Clarke County Library and regional children’s services coordinator, sing songs, speak rhymes and read stories. 

“It’s not just for the children. It’s actually for everyone in the family,” Bush said.

This brief video provides an overview of outdoor musical story time in Memorial Park. It is led by Evan Bush on Wednesday mornings, weather permitting. The final outdoor musical story hour of the season took place on November 24. (Video shot by Jeremy Person and created by Anna Jefferson).

This brief video provides an overview of outdoor musical story time in Memorial Park. It is led by Evan Bush on Wednesday mornings, weather permitting. The final outdoor musical story hour of the season took place on November 24. (Video shot by Jeremy Person and created by Anna Jefferson).

Bush explained that this early literacy activity helps children understand “nuances of language” and also helps parents and other caregivers understand how to read aloud to their child to successfully develop their language skills.

An adult literacy program, Everyday Readers, is hosted at the Athens-Clarke County Library and helps adults improve their reading, writing, listening and vocabulary skills. Students in the program may have had reading experience in the past, and others may not. The volunteers who run the program encourage participation and learning through traditional learning activities and more creative outlets.

The class has studied folk tales, adventures and love stories, practiced vocabulary cards and most recently worked on quilts where they illustrated important moments in their lives before creating autobiographies.

Jackie Saindon, a retired teacher, is one of three volunteers who run the Everyday Readers program. She explained that this program not only develops literacy skills, but also encourages greater community participation.

” They read. They are getting involved, ”Saindon said.

Students can read local news and hold topical conversations, engaging more deeply in the community.

Chess and community, a nonprofit and youth development organization, also uses space at the library to play open chess on Monday afternoons. The Open Chess Game is an invitation for chess players of all ages and skill levels to come together and learn more about the game.

The long, open room is filled with tables with chess boards, and giant chess pieces are spread out on the floor for more interactive play.

Lemuel “Life” LaRoche, Executive Director of Chess and Community, explained how important it is to have a “neutral place” like the library for the organization to come together, a place where everyone feels safe and secure. welcome. Holding meetings in the library also serves as an introduction for the children to all that the library has to offer.

While the Everyday Readers and Chess and Community programs are not sponsored by the library system, they do emphasize the importance of library space and the benefits it provides to the community.

Make social connections

Some library programs meet the needs of patrons in ways that others cannot. For example, the Library transformation based on trauma is a decentralized initiative funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent federal agency that provides grants to libraries across the country.

TILT focuses on training library employees in trauma-informed care, which means they have the same consciousness as a social worker and can do some of the same things. According to Rebecca Cordero, the only TILT employee at the Athens-Clarke County Library, this includes assisting clients with housing inquiries for low-income people, compiling databases of local pantries. and free medical clinics and assistance for visually impaired clients to navigate the Athens-Clarke public transport. .

“Before the pandemic, there were five to seven social work interns with [the University of Georgia], with the School of Social Work. And they were here in the library… at least five days a week, ”Cordero said. “So basically I was just helping them with the database and gathering information from the local community. And now it’s just me. “

When TILT was in full swing, Cordero and the interns were able to organize presentation events at the library to inform patrons of the services available. Due to the pandemic, there are fewer resources to educate people about TILT, and with fewer staff, Cordero is single-handedly doing the work of several people to help many more.

Cordero’s work as a TILT employee also helps library users who live with homelessness and mental illness, and because care is primarily focused on helping people, it has wide appeal.

“We had so many customers stopping by and asking about TILT… just being there in the lobby was very informative for a lot of customers. Even customers who didn’t need the information we were posting, just community members who were like, ‘this is fantastic!’ “Cordero said.

How libraries are funded

The programs available at the Athens-Clarke County Library and other branches of the system depend on funding to provide consistent resources. Funding is shared between federal, state and local funds and grants. The main federal funding resource is the State grant program. According to their website, more than $ 150 million is distributed among the administrative agencies of state libraries, which are official institutions specially designed to expand and develop the services of national libraries.

At the local level, libraries are labeled as independent agencies, and their budget requests are considered when the local budget for the year is under construction. While library funding has increased over the years, the current rate of increase cannot support the continued growth and programs they seek to deliver to communities.

“Funding is an issue for libraries across the country,” Bell said.

For the Athens regional library system, most of the funding goes to staff salaries, and Bell would like to be able to have a sufficient budget to be able to hire specialist librarians such as outreach and business librarians who can serve in the area. niche areas.

“They’re considered an independent agency, and they come to us every year with a budget for additional funds, and we’re always very, very open to their requests. You know, for the last few years they’ve been asking for salary increases. for their employees – library employees are noticeably underpaid – and therefore we try to ensure that all library employees at least comply with the living wage provisions of Athens-Clarke County, ”said the district commissioner 3, Melissa Link.

A glance at the figures shows that the financing of the whole Georgia Public Library System for fiscal 2020 was $ 225,807,139. During the same financial year, the share of the independent agency in the Athens-Clarke County Budget was 4% or $ 5,574,443, an increase of only 1.4%.

While the local government supports the growth of the system, albeit at a slow pace, it is the state budget that gives rise to concerns about the future of Georgian libraries. The state budget for the proposed 2021 fiscal year $ 3.1 million in cuts in public libraries. Cutting an already limited budget hurts not only the various library systems, but also the residents of the state who depend on their resources and programming.

Turn the page

As the Athens Regional Library System continues to provide resources to residents of the counties they serve, the system also continues to grow in size.

Because even if state funding is reduced by the millions, local funding has been allocated for a new library east of Athens-Clarke County. This new branch will provide meeting space and access to technology for residents of Athens who cannot easily access other branches.

The function of a library in 2021 goes far beyond just reading a book. The Athens Regional Library System provides an overview of everything libraries provide to their communities, from high quality technology to literacy classes.

When it feels like things are going downhill, libraries find ways to bring community members together in a space that welcomes everyone.

Anna Jefferson, Caroline Kurzawa, Jeter Long, and Jeremy Person are senior journalism students at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

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