W.T. Bland Library: You’ve Got A Friend

July 24, 2015

When I was a kid, the library was a palace of bookish wonders. Every book I couldn’t afford to buy was there, and on every visit I loaded up a stack of them from a shelf deep in the stacks on the second floor and carried them over to a large carpeted reading nook. Many after-school afternoons and Saturdays I whiled away the hours on a plush carpet book embryo, reading Tom Swift adventures in hard cover, large page format, from thick and creamy pages that had rough cut edges I can still trace in memory.

Long time ago. Once there was an Amazon and Wikipedia and Google and the iTunes store, just about everything I thought I needed from a library was at just a few keystrokes away. Like newspapers, libraries seem to be fading from relevance.

If William Gibson is right that the future is here, only unevenly distributed, then all we can do to keep from becoming more and more unevenly distributed is to provide a space where analog and digital worlds not only coexist but strengthen each other.

A newspaper, with its print and digital editions, is or was one such place. Every community is comprised of many interests, vantages and points of access. A multi-platform news product can be inclusive of the widest possible reach to these groups. Some can’t start the day without their morning paper. Others read headlines on the fly from their mobile phone. Everyone tries to glean some information that gives them a better handle on the day.

Another, even larger and perhaps more important place where analog and digital worlds co-exist, is the local library. In every branch of the system, from the Library of Congress down to the extension just around the corner, you’ll find the clearest statement of what it means to live in both worlds. In every library you’ll find rows of book-filled shelf stacks next to a media center with computers with broadband access for all.

Maybe the two institutions are becoming information twins. Surely they have an equal stake in the matter of maintaining democracy in a community. Journalists report and present the first draft of history, and the library is the memory institution which preserves it and then makes it available to all.

* * *

Stephanie Haimes, director of the W.T. Bland Library.

Mount Dora’s information-gathering, -sharing and –celebrating space is the W.T. Bland Library. Now in its 110thyear, the library has always been close to the heart of life in the city.

The library currently boasts 84,717 in its holdings, including 8,936 e-books (shared with the county’s library system), 5,681 audio books and 11,472 DVDs. An estimated 12,000 patrons made 328,000 visits last year circulating more than 255,000 items, asking some 60,000 reference questions and using computers 65,000 times.

Local historian Jim Laux wrote a history of the library for its 100thanniversary. (Free copies are still available.) Back in 1905 when the library began, Mount Dora was a village of 225 and the library occupied a small room in Town Hall; its 150-book collection was bequeathed by Betsy Rodgers.

Mount Dora’s library started out in 1905 in a room on the second floor of what was then Town Hall, next to the bank on the east side of Donnelly Street.

Through other donations the collection expanded to 1,300 books, too large for the room, so in 1917 the Library moved into the basement of Education Hall (a private school) at Fifth Avenue and Tremain. Unfortunately the basement was prone to flooding, and the library moved up to the main floor in 1929.

For many years the library was overseen by the Women’s Club of Mount Dora. Adults paid a dollar a year for use of the library, while for children it was free. By the early 1940s, the library’s collection had grown to 5,000 volumes, though its non-fiction holdings (especially Civil War histories) was scant. The building was tented for termites in 1948. The Dewey Decimal system began to be used in the mid-1950s.

In 1965 the library established a branch in what was then called East Town where most of the city’s African-Americans resided, in the former Milner-Rosenwald School, the school black kids attended before integration. By 1968 the library’s circulation had reached almost 30,000, and new library was needed, and 1976 one was built at Ninth and Donnelly (what is now the city’s Parks and Rec building). By the late 1980’s, the library had again outgrown itself, and in 1995 a 15,000 square foot building was raised on Donnelly next to Goat Pond. (Remember the goats? Apparently their droppings floated too much fertilizer into Lake Gertude, and they were relocated.)

The W.T. Bland Library’s most recent expansion, completed in 2012, creates a grand cathedral center for both analog and digital knowledge. By adding another 6,000 square feet, they have added a new community room, children’s program room, expanded computer workstations, archive and technology rooms, an art wall and Friends of the Library used bookstore.

* * *

The library’s entry to the digital world was like most of ours — slow and fitful. Computerization of the library’s card started in 1990 and in 1994 the library was networked into Lake County’s library system, allowing for much wider access of titles.

“Back in 1997 or so, soon after I started here, there was just one computer with public access to what was then the Internet,” says library director Stephanie Haimes. “Then, thanks to a grant from Bill Gates’ learning foundation, we got ten more.” By 2004 there were 22 workstations, and the recent renovation, there are now 39.

It wasn’t until the past few years that e-book lending became possible. Magazines can be read online through a service called Zinio, movies now are also available for streaming, and music files can be downloaded.

The strange thing about digital lending is that while the library owns its analog books, some digital products are licensed for a limited number of check-outs. (And if you think the digital products you buy from Amazon are different, think again: that license too can end — books can disappear from your devices.)

In the future Haimes hopes to acquire a supply of iPads and laptops that can be checked out for use on the library premises, and add a class teaching how to use the iPad.

You don’t have to be a Mount Dora resident to check out books at the W.T. Bland Library, but you do have to be resident of Lake County. (The Mount Dora library is part of a 15-library Lake County system.) The oddity to this is that residents of Stoneybrook who claim Mount Dora residency actually live in Orange County and are thus outside the Lake County library system Mount Dora is part of.

“We try to make sure that everyone has a good library experience,” Haimes says. “And we’re especially attentive to that with children.”

Indeed, the roster of childrens’ programs robust, with family story time and family movies, Lego and chess clubs, a sensory story time for autistic children, a Read To Win summer reading program, a calendar of activity hours (puppet craft, reading to therapy dogs, Water Day with the Mount Dora Fire department) and events throughout the year (including an Easter Egg hunt, a Halloween party, pine cone decorating and building and decorating a gingerbread house for Christmas.)

“Our job is to make learning fun for kids,” she says.

All is quiet in the Nunan Butterfly Garden.

Adding to the ambience of the library is a butterfly garden just outside the kids’ reading area. The garden was planted back in 2012 as an Eagle Scout project and is maintained by Boy Scout Troop 19. It was named after Ruth and Richard Nunan, long-time supporters of the library. Ruth was a volunteer for many years. The Mount Dora Garden Club helps with the upkeep.

The library is a department of the city; its employees are on the city’s payroll. It receives payment from Lake County through the city’s interlocal agreement with Lake County plus a portion of the state funding Lake County’s library system receives and the balance is from the city budget.

Funding also comes through two volunteer organizations. “The Friends of the Library started out as a guy selling used books out of the back of his car and donating the proceeds to the library.” Haimes says. “From there it developed into several used book sales conducted throughout the year and our Book Nook.” Monies from used book sales support children’s programs at the library. The Book Nook is open six days a week, from 10 AM to 4 PM weekdays and 10 AM to 2 PM on Saturday.

The other volunteer group is the Mount Dora Library Association, started back in 1994 when the current library was built. “It serves as an endowment group and helps to pay for all the extras — equipment needs, computer furniture and chairs, the Art Wall, refreshments for programs.” They also purchased the unusual LAT-Stena pods used to file and house DVDs (it’s that bank of what looks like black boomboxes behind the circulation desk).

Reference librarian Greg Phillips.

In addition to lending services, the library maintains a robust calendar of programs throughout the year. Computer classes are popular, everything from basic operation to Windows 8 to security classes. Reference librarian Greg Phillips even teaches a course on The Brain, that thing that created libraries long ago to help relieve some of the burden of memory.

The building next door which used to belong to the Historical Society is now part of the library, and its used for meetings of a variety of activity groups, from embroidery to mahjongg to smoking cessation to tax guidance (through the AARP), citizenship and literacy.

An essential thing that libraries provide to their communities is access to the information world by those who can’t afford its high price tag. “When the recession hit in 2008, patronage of libraries skyrocketed,” says Haimes. To save money, people had stopped their subscriptions, cut their cable costs, or simply couldn’t afford to replace their home computer when it was time.

Haimes told me that volunteers are essential to providing library services, at the same time giving them something constructive to do with their time. “We rely on them for all sorts of extras — shelving books, helping to lead or support programs, staffing our book nook,” she says. There’s a group of retired teachers who volunteer in the children’s department, helping to conduct after-school programs.

Anyone interested in volunteering can check the city’s website or check in at the library’s circulation desk. A background check is required.

* * *

Maybe it isn’t surprising that newspapers and libraries are both struggling to continue their mission into the digital future. Local news has largely disappeared into the national reporting — everything that is news that isn’t about your home town. Similarly, the tech giants have co-opted much of the media once available only through libraries.

Creating a space for the local is the task of both institutions. In a 2013 survey by Pew Research Center, a vast majority of Americans ages 16 or older said that the public libraries play an important role in their communities.:

– 95% of Americans ages 16 and older agree that the materials and resources available at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed;

-95% say that public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading;

– 94% say that having a public library improves the quality of life in a community;

– 84% say that public libraries provide many services people would have a hard time finding elsewhere.

Fond childhood memories of hours spent in the reading room of our local library gives us a sense of belonging. But it will take more than nostalgia for libraries to continue to hold their center place in a community. In his recent book Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever In The Age of Google, John Palfrey writes,

Without greater public support, librarians will not be in a position to make this switch to the networked, collaborative modes of operating that hold such promise. All of us, whether individual citizens or institutional leaders, need to devote more capital and time, especially during this transitional period., to supporting libraries as they make these changes.

And if we don’t? “It is not too much of a stretch,” Palfrey writes, “to say that the fate of well-informed, open, free republics could hinge on the future of libraries.”

Maybe your library could use a friend.

— David Cohea (djcohea@gmail.com)

Originally published at www.mountdoracitizen.com on July 24, 2015.

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