A veritable and vital treasure: Manatee County's public libraries

December 1, 2013 

Ava Ehde, Library Services Manager, Manatee County

BRADENTON HERALD

In a counterintuitive development considering this digital age, the Manatee County Public Library System is enjoying a surprising surge in business. People still like paper, though the trend toward digital is clear.

Utilization of online databases surged more than 80 percent over the just ended last fiscal year; Internet workstations and wifi use jumped a combined 37 percent, and eBook checkouts rose 34 percent. Overall over the year, library usage of all print and digital material surpassed 3.1 million -- a record.

That should send a signal to Manatee County government and commissioners that this library system is a vibrant and vital part of the community, an essential connection for the public to access information that informs, educates, entertains and advances careers. The value that public libraries return to the community is well worth the investment.

Commissioners should also consider that there are 100,000 library card-holders -- and figure most of those are voters, too. Plus, more than a million people visited the system's six facilities.

The system is engaging the community in many new ways and is also constantly brain-storming additional ones,

During a tour of the Central Library led by Ava Ehde, the system's director and officially called the library services manager, we found an enthusiastic staff dedicated to the mission of spreading knowledge and understanding.

The Central Library continues to evolve into a community center where creativity, technology and social services are key to driving the increase in traffic. Services include early literacy programs designed to boost children up to third grade so they are best prepared for school.

Other youth-oriented programs target science, technology, engineering and math as well as the arts. With annual comic book conventions and other special events for teens -- like the recent Doctor Who party and a celebration of International Games Day with table-top games and Wii, the library long ago dusted off the now outdated perception of being a stuffy place.

This is not the library system of another era where checking out books was just about all the buildings supplied.

Today, you can check out an audio book -- with an MP3 player, too, so you don't need to own that expensive piece of high-tech gear. Regular classes teach people how to use eReaders and eBooks can be downloaded -- for free.

Want to learn a foreign language? Sign up for an Internet account and learn over the web. For free. Or learn how to use a computer, browse the Internet or master social networking? Those classes are free, too.

Need a job? Fill out a resume form online and then find links to openings that matches your skills and experience to jobs within 50 miles. And attend one of the regular sessions on career skills and job hunting.

We've only scratched the surface of all that the library system offers, but pamphlets and other information can be found in each branch. We encourage a visit if you're not one of the frequent users already.

Early this year, the Florida Library Association bestowed two major awards for excellence on Manatee County's Library System -- in library innovation and youth services. That reflects the high value our libraries provide and the great return on the county's investment.

While people can literally access the world from anywhere - the road, the beach, the coffee shop -- the library business is booming.

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