The new life of the library: - Tucson Local Media: Import

The new life of the library:

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Posted: Tuesday, October 4, 2005 11:00 pm

October 5, 2005 - Imagine curling up on an oversized couch with a good book, the smell of its old pages comforting you almost as much as the aroma from a snowy, sweet mug of coffee as you lose yourself for hours in a story.

Or picture yourself sprawled out on the floor, munching a granola bar, pillow under head, headphones pumping the tunes of your favorite songs into your ears as you leaf through glossy magazines filled with the latest ideas and trends.

Or think about meeting your friends for a game of chess, chatting about strategy and gently joking about bad moves made.

Now, envision your surroundings. Do you see this kind of relaxation and socializing taking place at your local library? If you live in Oro Valley, you should.

That's because the Oro Valley Public Library has strived since its opening in 2002 to provide the services the community desires, which often means having spaces for meetings, events and social activities as well as more traditional spaces for studying and quiet reading.

Librarians there say that while not every library looks like theirs, they are among a number of libraries across the nation that break the stereotype of the silent, studious room stacked high with books and void of fun.

This fall, with the completion of a major construction project, the library will add a huge space in which to provide even more programs to the community, and the library staff, volunteers and patrons are excited about some of the changes that will take place.

The library now is using 15,000 of its 25,000 total square feet, but has been planning to complete the remaining 10,000 square feet with money from the 2004 Pima County bond program. In early April, a contract was approved to move forward with construction completion, and Community Development Director Brent Sinclair expects the project to be finished by the end of the year.

Overall, the cost to complete the renovation will be $1.1 million, which is being paid for with the bond funds.

In addition, several groups have held fund raising events to generate additional money for items, such as additional computers, not covered by the bond.

Since the library opened, it has always served a variety of functions from a place to read and research to a place to meet and visit with friends. But, with the large number of people who use the library, staff has been anticipating the use of the additional space to further enhance its programming.

This fall, the library will be changing the way it does some of its business, and those changes reflect what a growing number of libraries are doing to keep up with their patrons' needs and wishes.

With the explosion in popularity of large bookstores such as Barnes and Noble and Borders in the 1990s, libraries began finding that some people were expecting something different from them as well.

"People come into the library and ask where the coffee section is," said librarian Tom Sommers.

They also expect plush armchairs, and jazzy book displays that nudge them in the direction of the next read.

"We want to respond to the community, so we are willing to accept these changes," Sommers added, and so the library considered whether looking a little more like a book store was such a bad idea.

When finished, the complete Oro Valley library will reflect the evolution of libraries across the country, which includes specialized sections for children and teenagers, a section for purchasing books from the Friends of the Library group, the possibility for coffee and other snack services, as well as wireless internet access on the entire library property.

But, Sinclair said despite all these changes, the library will still have many of the more traditional features some expect in a library, which include quiet reading areas, computer labs, tables and chairs for studying, and rows and rows of books. In fact, with the new space, the library expects to bring hundreds of books out of storage and onto the shelves.

Cat Strong, another library employee, said the entire library will be affected by the opening of the new space.

"All the audiences the library serves will be affected," she said.

The agencies such as the Pima Council on Aging, SCORE and any other organization with which the library has formed a community partnership will have more space to use for programming.

Also, the library intends to overhaul its web site to make it more user-friendly, and hopes to have the changes ready in time to correspond with the unveiling of the completed space.

"When everything is finished, it will be a fabulous place in the community where people can come and get the information they need," she said.

Sommers, the librarian in charge of running the new Teen Zone that will be part of the completed library, said the expansion is exciting for everyone at the library because the new spaces open all sorts of doors to what the library can provide for the community.

The teen zone is an example of one way the library is changing to meet the needs of today's user.

"This library is nothing like what I had growing up, which was four walls and books," Sommers said. "In the new library, we are setting aside a place for teens."

The new teen zone will be like a student union on a college campus, said Sommers, with areas to study, post announcements, use computers, listen to music and even to watch movies.

The space was designed by members of the library's teen advisory board.

"It was a great opportunity for local teens to create what they are looking for," Sommers said. "It was designed by teens, for teens."

"It will be a really creative environment. When you walk into the Teen Zone, you feel like you are leaving the orderly universe of the library and going to a place where teens can meet each other and express themselves."

Shannon Green is an avid reader, library user and one of the teens that helped design the new library. Although she is away at college and won't be in Oro Valley to use the new zone, she wanted to be part of designing the space because she has spent so much time in the library and knows how big a role it played in her life as a teen.

While fundraising for the teen zone last summer, Green said that one of the reasons the Teen Zone will have such a drastically different look than the conventional library is to attract more teens to spend time there.

"This is a Barnes and Noble culture," she said. "We have to become more modernized to keep up with that. The more we have (in the teen zone) the more people will want to hang out here."

And feeling comfortable enough to "hang out" is exactly the affect the teen's were going for as they designed the new space.

The zone is located in the newly completed section, and like the children's area, will be separated from the rest of the library by glass doors and windows. The library will dedicate 1,000 of the completed square feet specifically to the 12- to 18-year-olds in town, a big step up from the 100 square feet they were first given when the library opened.

There will be places to socialize and have fun, but the space will still be devoted to educational uses as well.

"So that it's not something that it suddenly shouldn't be," Sommers said.

The teen zone is modeled after another library, Phoenix's Burton Barr Library, which has Teen Central, an area devoted specifically to people 12 to 18. Sommers said it is a trend for public libraries to begin devoting spaces to that particular demographic, and the trend fit in Oro Valley, where there is little to do in the public realm for young people.

"That seems to be the way more and more libraries are going, providing space for teens," he said.

In the new Teen Zone, only fiction books for young people will be shelved. Teens will need to leave the section and look in the main portion of the library for nonfiction books. There will be a staff person located within the section to help anyone who needs it. The Homework Help after school tutoring program also will be located in the Teen Zone, for those who need extra guidance with completing school work.

The teen advisory board, a group of young people who meet regularly to discuss library issues from a teen perspective, raised $6,700, with the help of Wells Fargo Bank, Chipotle restaurant and several bake sales, to buy the extra stuff they wanted in the teen section, such as the television, extra computers and other audio visual equipment.

The teen's also have submitted a proposal to the Friends of the Library asking it to help pay for vending services in the Teen Zone, so that items such as bottled water and juice, granola bars and other healthy snacks are available as they study or hang out.

In addition to the Teen Zone, another dramatically expanded program in the completed library will be the children's section. The larger space will give Oro Valley the opportunity to customize its programs and separate young children from older ones who are often lumped together with young adults and teens.

Librarian Cheryl McCurry oversees children's programming and story time.

When she first came to the library, prior to its opening three years ago, she had experience working with children, having been previously employed in the Amphitheater school district for many years and also had researched early childhood education extensively.

McCurry said she has observed in her time at the library how important it is to the community. She said she believes it is for several reasons, one being that there isn't a lot to do in Oro Valley on a social level, but she also believes it is because the library adapts to the needs of the community, and that adaptation does not go unnoticed.

"They buy into the library because this is their library," she said of the community, explaining why Oro Valley's library always is bustling with people. Because Oro Valley has an intergovernmental agreement with the Tucson-Pima Public Library system that allows it to maintain control of services which the town pays for, programming at the library can be, in some cases, uniquely tailored to the community.

McCurry said there are regulars at the Oro Valley library, people who she sees on the same days each week, and who she looks forward to checking in with.

"There are people who have become friends with the librarians. Those whose first names we know, whose children we ask about," she said, adding that it is that familiarity that also is a part of a community library.

McCurry said people in Oro Valley use the library both for in the traditional sense, for the books housed there, and in a way that is gaining popularity at some libraries across the nation, to interact with their community.

On Tuesdays, when many kids get out of school early, McCurry said they come to the library to play one of the many games kept there.

Some families also come to the library in the evenings to play the games, or to read to one another or choose books to check out together.

Children play a big role at the library, and are responsible for a large part of the library's book circulation.

"A huge part of the library, of the people it serves, is children," McCurry said. "We need to focus on them."

McCurry said she hopes the new children's area will allow for new, creative ideas in children's library programming to be implemented.

A program she hopes to have at the library soon is one where trained dogs are brought into the children's area so that children can read to them.

She said being engaged with the dogs, who are trained to sit and at least appear to listen to the children, can be a great experience for a young person just learning to read.

"The dogs are so noncommittal. If the kids mess up, they don't know," she said.

The children's area is in the portion of the library that is being completed with bond funds. It is to the far left of the entrance of the library and is closed off by glass windows and a door.

Sinclair said this will set the area off, and keep some of the noise generated by the children and the various children's programs, without isolating the area from the rest of the library.

"It tends to get noisy and interruptive to the people who are trying to read and study," McCurry said. The new area provides a solution to that problem so that both the quiet bookworm and the rambunctious child have a place.

Having the area closed off, with it's own staff person inside, will also provide safety for children, who will be supervised by parents and staff.

"It's going to be an incredible layout," McCurry said. "It will be a safe environment for the children and will provide peace of mind for the parents."

McCurry said the new room will feature a very open layout, with the center area being designated for books. Because there will be more space, library staff will be able to have more books and have the books displayed and grouped together in ways that make them easy to find, much like the way a bookstore merchandises books to keep them moving off the shelves.

Organization and accessibility were important factors when designing the new children's space, McCurry said. The area will feature a stroller parking lot, because the library noticed the need for such a space instead of having traffic jams throughout the library.

The area has it's own bathrooms, colorfully tiled in the primary colors, so that children will not have to walk across the library to find facilities.

There also will be cabinets and a sink in the room so that McCurry can run more arts and crafts programs and have easy clean up.

Dutch doors on the storage closet will serve as a built in puppet theater.

"The room will be perfect for story telling," McCurry said, an activity she especially enjoys.

"I'm so interested to see the reaction of the families when they see it," she said.

During the design phase of the completion project, McCurry said she told the interior designers that her only request was that the new room be a cheerful, colorful place. "Well, I got it," she said of the nearly completed room. "It's going to be an awesome kid's space."

To come up with ideas for programs that the library should offer, McCurry said she speaks to parents on a regular basis about their needs and wishes.

In planning for the new spaces, both McCurry and Sommers organized two family focus meetings during which parents were asked to brainstorm with the librarians about what programs or features would be ideal in the space.

One example of something dreamed up by a parent that the library is considering is holding a computer class for toddlers.

McCurry said the idea makes sense because kids who know what computers are will "play" on them. They also use educational software with their parents at the library now.

"Kids nowadays are so savvy and technology is a big deal," she said. As the librarian leading children's services, McCurry said she is open to any number of educational programs, even ones that might not be thought of as something a library would offer, such as the bike safety classes she has hosted in the past.

Community libraries serve an array of different purposes to different communities, whether that means providing meeting places, education programs, or a convenient, fast way of checking books out for your children on your way home from work, McCurry said. The Oro Valley Public Library tries to do all of these things in order to meet the needs of a community that is diverse and changing.

"They wanted a community space, and it's our goal, to bring the community in," she said.

McCurry said that even with the bond funds, if it was not for the library's devoted volunteers, many of the programs she and her colleagues dream up would never be realized.

"Our volunteers are so wonderful. We could not open the doors without them," McCurry said. "I am so grateful to them."

Alisdair Innes, who helps fund raise for the library with the Friends of the Library organization, said he sees the library as the fulcrum of the community, especially for the young people.

"I see it as a central place, especially for the kids. Almost as a hang out for them, but also a place where they can study and be tutored," he said.

The Friends will have their own space in the completed library as well, which will help them to continue their fundraising efforts. Right now, having just a cart, they are able to sell thousands of dollars of books each year. The money raised has helped improve the library in a number of ways, from purchasing supplies to buying computers and even building a roof over the patio.

"It's easy raising money for the library," Innes said, because people want to support it as a community place.

"The library is much more than books now, it's a learning center," he said, pointing out the number of classes, book clubs and other special programs offered. Innes himself is taking a Spanish for Fun class at the library, which he said he may be failing technically, but which he is enjoying very much.

Because he has children and grandchildren who love books, Innes said he sees first hand why a library is important, especially to a young person, and that is why he volunteers with the Friends.

He said it also helps that the community continually supports the endeavors of both the library and the volunteers.

"The community is high behind this library. The council, the staff, everyone," he said. "When it's done, all 25,000 square feet of it, it's going to be a blast."

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