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The public library can serve as 'the people's university,' enriching what we have learned in the classroom

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - April WitteveenToday, I saved $300 from my household's entertainment budget. No, we didn't stop our Netflix subscription or cancel any fun family plans. Instead, I used the library!

The Massachusetts Library Association developed a "Value of Library Services" calculator, where I inputted everything I might borrow in a regular week. Books for the whole family, a DVD or two, some digital audiobooks, and an Explorer Pass to the High Desert Museum. The calculator doesn't include other items you can now find at the Crook County Library, such as our robotics and building kits, telescopes, or our soon-to-be-released loanable technology kits.

This free access to information is one of the things that brought me to librarianship as a career; I love the idea that the public library can serve as "the people's university." Author Ta-Nehisi Coates shared similar feelings about libraries in 2017, saying: "The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people's interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself."

While I certainly support formal education, the fact remains that the public library offers material to expand on and enrich what we have (or maybe, haven't) learned in the classroom.

With all these resources at hand, why do we see people drop away from using libraries? Nearly every time I work with the public at the library information desk, I speak with someone who shame-facedly says, "I'm sure I have so many overdue fines, that's why I haven't been to visit in so long." It's my joy these days to proclaim, "we don't do overdue fines!" Usually there is a moment of surprise, followed by gratitude that this barrier to service no longer exists.

Fines and fees gathered by the Crook County Library make up for less than 1% of our operating revenue; primarily we are funded by county property taxes. The library belongs to our community just as much as our law enforcement and parks, and that's what leads my dedication to removing other barriers, real or perceived, to library service.

The library's 2019-2024 strategic plan lays out several goals related to increasing access to our services; we seek to improve physical accessibility, we strive to reach underserved populations including those who may be homebound or speak a language other than English, we work to increase access to technology, and we broadly promote early literacy principles with local families.

Upcoming initiatives to reach these goals include utilizing grant funds to translate portions of our website and select policy documents into Spanish, a pilot project called Words on Wheels that will deliver library material to patrons unable to visit our building, and the launch of loanable technology kits that will let patrons borrow laptops, tablets and WiFi hotspots to use at home.

If you haven't visited the library in a while, what's keeping you? If you experience barriers, I'd love to learn more. Drop by or give me a call, I'm ready to listen and see how we can help.


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