‘The Front Porch of the World’

Libraries adapt to meet changing times
Not only have libraries’ offerings changed with the times, their architecture has as well. At left is the exterior of the Allegan Public Library, established in 1914 as one of the original Carnegie libraries. Juxtaposed with it on the right is the very modern interior of the Kalamazoo Public Library.

When Marsha Meyer first entered a library as a child, she saw “the yellow pools of light on the tables between the bookshelves” and knew she had “dropped into heaven.”

The library of today, however, has changed a great deal from the library of Meyer’s childhood. With a wave of constantly advancing technology, digitization of books and other materials, and patrons who are used to instant and easy access to information, the modern library has changed its role in the community.

In fact, libraries have evolved a great deal from the luminous havens with wooden bookshelves, tables and card catalogs of decades ago. Today’s libraries are more likely to have long banks of computers; shelves of DVDs, graphic novels and audiobooks; and plush sitting areas for reading. They also are likely to offer programs and events that draw patrons from across the community.

“We are the front porch the world is now missing,” says Meyer, program and events coordinator and reference librarian for Portage District Library since 1980.

Libraries of today are more than just book lenders. Long ago, librarians realized that the needs of their patrons were changing – whether because of the rise of technology, economic shifts within their communities or changing community needs. More than just places that lend books and provide reference materials and information, libraries now are about providing access to information.

“The entire concept of a public library is brilliant … is vital,” says Meyer. “If you had free libraries everywhere, you would give everyone access to the world!”

“The trend now is that the library is no longer providing information as much as we are facilitating (access to) information,” agrees Lawrence Kapture, head of adult services at Portage District Library.

World access begins on the front porch, librarians agree, and that means libraries now are increasingly becoming community centers. They check on the needs of the community and respond to those needs.

In Kalamazoo, the public library promotes literacy and focuses on the college readiness of the city’s students. In Portage, the library does much the same but also serves a devoted adult audience that comes to it for special events and programs. To the northwest, in Allegan, a small, largely rural community with limited broadband access, the library serves as the area’s Internet hub.

Laura Wright, head of youth services at the Portage library, sums up the current role of libraries by describing them as “a conduit, a community presence that is no longer defined by the building we are in.”

Taking the community’s pulse

When Christy Klien became interim director of the Portage library in January (she was named director in April), one of her first tasks was to gather her staff of librarians and take the pulse of the Portage community.

“We looked at where our focus should be, at the services we offer, our age population, and we determined our priorities,” Klien says. “We took an especially hard look at our younger population.”

The staff knew that many patrons came in to use computers and that the demand for e-books was on a fast climb, but they found that patrons were coming to the library for a wide range of other services as well, including the variety of events the library offered. In addition, literacy was found to be a growing concern in schools, as test scores had dropped. The library staff wanted to respond to all of these needs and concerns.

“PDL is the first library in the state to have a dedicated room for preschoolers,” Klien says. “We want to help children to read at their grade level, and we can help them understand the concept of reading early. Working with Portage schools is an important part of our strategic plan.”

Wright, head of youth services, adds: “We build around the needs of the community. We want to establish meaningful services that reach people. School readiness is a large part of that.”

“Everything in the library has a reason for being here,” Klien finishes.

With regard to adult services, the library needed to make changes as the local economy changed, says Kapture, head of adult services. “When the economy suffered or area organizations downsized,” he says, “people came to the library looking for employment resources, to get resume critiques or to learn about starting small businesses. New retirees came in wanting to learn about retirement investments.”

On a typical day at the library, once the front door opens, all 18 of the computers on the main floor are quickly put to use by patrons, says the staff. Other patrons come in with their own laptops to access free wireless connections. Laptops are circulated internally, and a dozen computers are dedicated to teens.

With the advent of the Internet, it might seem that the circulation of books might drop. Not so, the Portage librarians say. Their report of climbing circulation numbers for both print and non-print materials is mirrored by nearly all libraries in the area.

“Nontraditional materials are on the rise,” Klien says. “Adults are very interested in e-books, but that (trend) hasn’t reached children as much yet. Picture books don’t translate as well to e-readers. Parents own devices, but they aren’t yet buying them for their children. We look at statistics monthly, and although fiction numbers are down, e-book numbers in general are up.

”I don’t think e-readers have changed how we read as much as our borrowing habits have changed. For instance, some of our patrons go south for the winter, but they now continue to check out materials from our library from afar.”

“People can check out e-books in their pajamas, right from home,” Wright says, laughing, “although the library is a judgment-free zone if anyone wants to come in in their PJs.“

It’s person-to-person contact that continues to be the library’s strongest suit, she says. “If there is one aspect in which I believe we excel, it is in the customer service we provide. It’s why I wanted to work here — the friendliness,” Wright says. “For all the digitization, it’s still what makes us special.”

Setting priorities

The same is true at Kalamazoo Public Library’s downtown location and its four branches, Director Ann Rohrbaugh says. Nothing replaces human touch and friendly assistance, she adds.

Like Portage District Library, Kalamazoo Public Library launched a planning process that resulted in a strategic plan to guide future programs and operations. Five objectives rose to the top: create young readers, stimulate imagination, connect to the online world, build successful enterprises and help patrons to discover their roots.

“Libraries don’t compete,” Rohrbaugh says. “We all serve our communities, and every community is unique. What makes us unique is what we do in terms of localization.”

Kalamazoo Public Library has become highly focused on college readiness as a community need, Rohrbaugh says. This priority, she says, resulted from the Kalamazoo Promise, a pledge by an anonymous group of donors to pay college tuition for Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates who attend public colleges and universities in Michigan.

“We are building a college-going culture here,” Rohrbaugh says. “That’s what we heard from the community that they want from their library. Literacy is a top priority. Illiteracy in Kalamazoo is shockingly high, and KPL collaborates with Kalamazoo Public Schools to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk.”

As a result, KPL is providing more programs, services and materials for young readers. The library collaborates with nearby Bronson Methodist Hospital on newborn and toddler programs to introduce children early to reading. Library programs are designed to help children prepare for school. Spaces for teens to study or just enjoy a good book have been created with a sense of fun. And summer reading programs have been expanded.

On another front, the automation of card catalogs — remember those? — has been a long and involved process, Rohrbaugh says, as has the expansion of the library’s databases for reference use. As more electronic resources have become available, the number of reference books on the shelves has been steadily shrinking, she says.

Movies and audio books, though, continue to be popular items, Rohrbaugh says. “And, of course, the demand for e-books and digitization has gone up,” Rohrbaugh says.

“Every month we see our circulation for e-books grow, but it’s still only a fraction of general circulation. Patrons don’t realize that (with e-books) it is still one book, one user.”

KPL also offers Freegal for checking out music and Zinio for checking out magazines for digital devices.

“Circulation in general has gone up by 9 percent this year and keeps going up, “Rohrbaugh says, “Even so, it’s harder than it used to be to pull in patrons. There’s a lot of competition for people’s time.”

In aiming to remain relevant to Kalamazoo amid a changing economy, KPL works with nonprofit organizations through a program called ONEplace @ kpl.(ONE stands for Opportunities for Nonprofit Excellence). ONEplace provides information, resources, training and referrals for those who lead, manage and support nonprofit organizations in Kalamazoo County.

Other areas of KPL that see a lot of activity are its Law Library, located on the lower floor of the central location. The professional legal collection is available for use not only by professionals but by anyone interested in learning more about legal rights or looking for information on divorce and child custody, power of attorney, credit reports and repair, small-claims court, or landlord and tenant issues. Up a few flights is KPL’s Local History Room, a hot spot for area genealogists.

In addition, KPL offers a long list of programs for all ages, including its ever popular summer reading programs and its annual Reading Together program, a kind of book club for the entire community that typically involves a visit by the author of the selected book.

The library also offers MeLcat, a system that allows patrons to borrow materials from hundreds of other participating Michigan libraries and have them delivered to KPL.

Finding a niche

Allegan District Library may not have the programs or elaborate offerings of the bigger libraries to the south, but it does provide some very important community services.

“In Allegan, we have a population of about 5,000, but we serve an area of about 18,000, and many of our patrons live in such rural areas that they aren’t able to get broadband,” says Ann Perrigo, director of the Allegan District Library, “so they come here.”

On a little hill on the banks of the Kalamazoo River, the Allegan District Library is the picture-perfect small-town library. Inside, Perrigo can’t help but show off a recent acquisition — the new print edition of the World Book encyclopedia. While other libraries have moved to electronic reference databases, which this library has done too, Perrigo still couldn’t resist acquiring the new set of traditional reference books. She opens one of the volumes to a particular entry to illustrate why. There, under “Library,” is a photograph of the Allegan District Library. Perrigo bursts into delighted laughter.

“We are in one of the classic Carnegie buildings,” she says. “Aside from these encyclopedias, however, our reference section has shrunk by two bookshelves, and those bookshelves now belong to the teen section.”

Teen reading is not a problem in Allegan. In fact, the teen section is the hottest one in the library, Perrigo says. She attributes its popularity to the library’s collaboration with local schoolteachers who encourage youth book clubs and a general love of reading. Otherwise, “some days I feel like a video store,” she says.

But technology has been a great asset to the library, Perrigo admits. “We now have thousands of books available for download, we have laptops that patrons can borrow in-house, and patrons can scan, e-mail, fax and print here.”

Seated in front of the shrinking reference section is reference librarian Linda Koch, whose work is anything but shrinking. Koch helps many patrons with genealogy research, along with providing other reference and computer assistance. Requests for genealogy help come in daily, she says.

“We all wear many hats here,” Koch says. “I help with whatever people need. People think they can get good information online, but we help people distill good information from too much information.”

Just north of Allegan, two tiny village libraries also report growing activity. In fact, both Hopkins District Library, headed by Natalie Bazan, and J.C. Wheeler Library in Martin, led by Alicia Kershaw, report booming interest in e-books. But they see growth in other areas too. While other libraries are boosting technology, these two are growing seed-lending programs. Patrons borrow seeds, plant them, harvest seeds and return them to the library — with no fines for overdue materials (see more on these programs in the September 2013 issue of Encore). Other creative and inventive programs serve the unique needs of these small communities, expanding the libraries into all-purpose community centers.

Still a campus resource

The Upjohn Library at Kalamazoo College serves as something of a community center too. “We see our students come here for that community feeling,” says library director Stacy Nowicki.

But this academic library, which serves both students and faculty, is more about research than pleasure reading, Nowicki says. She visits all first-year classes to talk to new students about how to use an academic library and how to do research. “We have students coming in thinking that National Geographic is the end all, be all,” she says, smiling. “We introduce them to our Cache. That’s our digital archive that captures, preserves and distributes historical materials Libraries and scholarly work by Kalamazoo College faculty, staff and students.”

Upjohn Library often exchanges materials with WMU’s Dwight B. Waldo Library through interlibrary loan and reciprocal lending privileges. Upjohn Library also offers databases for research, including a free search engine called Google Scholar. E-books are popular in the academic world too. “We reported 102,970 electronic books in our collection on last count,” Nowicki says.

“Most of our resources can be accessed from campus, of course,” says Greg Diment, chief information officer at Kalamazoo College, “but what’s really great is that our students can access the library from study abroad too, from wherever they might be in the world.”

Places for sharing

Yet, it’s the sense of hanging out on the front porch that brings most people to the modern-day libraries of Southwest Michigan.

Curled up comfortably in the crook of a purple couch in the Portage District Library atrium, Marsha Meyer makes notes of ideas for future library events. “Libraries have become a place to showcase local talent and to bring your passion to share it with others,” she says.

Meyer is committed to giving local writers and artists a place to share their work. The events she offers at the Portage library are known to become standing room only. She oversees several book clubs and group gatherings on any number of topics. If there’s an interest, she’ll organize an event for it.

“It’s so interesting to be on this cusp of our changing libraries,” she says. “Whatever the changes, libraries will always be a place of discovery. Your curiosity will always be fed here. You don’t ever have to go home hungry.”


“The entire concept of a public library is brilliant, is vital. If you had free libraries everywhere, you would give everyone access to the world!”
--Marsha Meyer