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Libraries: Not just' story time and book clubs' anymore

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

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Now they're often community information centers for all ages

In a conference room at the Shelton Timberland Library, "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson blasts out of a small, portable speaker.

Lights flash and gears whirl as two tiny blue robots appear to dance to the beat.

"We're learning robotics," said 9-year-old Kaleb Carmichael distractedly as he cues up his robot's next dance move on an iPad. "You train them to do a series of fast moves and then we have judges to decide who is the best."

"We didn't think we were doing that well, but we won the first one," added Kaleb's partner, 6-year-old Edmond Cleveland. "Everyone liked ours."

Kaleb and Edmond debate the pros and cons of different dance moves before deciding that making Dot, the robot they control, speed across the dance floor is always a crowd pleaser.

Kaleb and Edmond are just two of the kids who fill the conference room at the library to learn about robotics and coding during the library's summer reading program.

"Libraries have started to pick up the slack that maybe schools can't with budget cuts," said Heidi Larsen, youth services librarian senior for the Shelton Timberland Library. "We know that there's a real gap for younger kids learning coding in their early years."

Larsen, who runs the summer reading program at the Shelton library, said she's noticed a change in the role libraries play for communities.

"Traditionally, libraries did story time and book clubs, but that's not the only thing we do anymore," she said. "Now, we educate and entertain.... It's about discovery."

Larsen said she noticed the change most during the recession. Many people may not have had the money for a printer or computer with internet connection, but they still needed to access those resources to apply for jobs or fill out tax forms. Libraries across the United States stepped up to fill the gap.

Blake Bresnahan, the library manager, said the number of participants in the summer reading program has steadily increased each year.

Bresnahan added that in addition to programming, the library has also become a community resource for people. Many local residents — even those without a library card — come into the library to ask questions about federal documents, or request help with electronics or setting up an email account.

"There isn't anywhere else where people can go to ask these kinds of questions," he said. "They're not going to walk into DSHS (Washington state Department of Social and Health Services) and ask for recommendations on a blender."

On Monday, Bresnahan was busy finding a stack of architecture magazines for a student while other youngsters played with building bricks or perused shelves of hardcover books. A line formed at the checkout counter as librarians worked fast to help everyone with questions ranging from authors to federal student aid documents. Bresnahan adds there is often a line as people wait to use one of 15 computers connected to the internet, and people often rent conference rooms in the building to hold classes or even practice dancing.

"We're busy," Bresnahan said. "And now, people who work in libraries are expected to bring the library to the community."

He said many of the library's employees meet with schools, nonprofits, businesses and even those in homeless shelters to get the word out about programs and resources the library has to offer, as well as find ways to fill gaps in the community.

He also compares libraries to agoras, or open air markets of Grecian times.

"We don't really have anywhere like that, especially here (in Mason County)," he said, adding many people come to the library to just read, browse and socialize.

Larsen said this is a trend only seen in the United States and Canada. Libraries in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe are quickly failing.

According to the BBC, more than 8,000 jobs in UK libraries have disappeared in the past six years and 343 libraries have closed. More than 110 libraries have already announced planned closures this year, as of March.

Larsen speculates libraries overseas aren't trying to integrate themselves into communities.

"(Libraries in the United States) have always been community players and an entity that is at the table," she said. "We're always doing things to find ways to really give back to the community, and I think that's an anomaly."

Bresnahan said people are still checking out books, albeit in different forms — more people are utilizing digital checkout services, such as downloading electronic books to tablets.

"National statistics are showing that it has leveled off," Bresnahan said. "A few years ago, people were saying, 'Oh, physical books are going to be dead,' but we're finding that's not really the case.... People are doing both."

Copyright 2016 Shelton-Mason County Journal, Shelton, Washington. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: July 21, 2016

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