Even in the digital age, libraries relevant to community

Social doomsayers predicted the demise of public libraries to correspond with the rise of the Internet and electronic books. But a funny thing happened, because it didn’t happen. According to data collected by the Pew Research Center, a nationwide focus on early childhood education is breathing new life into libraries.

Nowhere is that trend more evident than at the Timberland Regional Library system’s 27 branches stretched across five South Sound counties.

The library system is stepping up its early reading programs and finding a renaissance of interest from South Sound parents that matches the national trend. According to the Pew studies, 94 percent of parents see libraries as important resources for their children because librarians cultivate a love of reading and books.

To prove the point, Timberland libraries have partnered with the University of Washington on a nationally funded study to show the impact of story-time programs on early learning. And an increasing number of partnerships with local schools to coordinate class curriculums and reading lists, and the ability to provide relevant tutoring, is producing results in student learning.

More than ever, it seems, families with young children are rediscovering libraries as a resource-rich and affordable means to provide early educational opportunities for preschoolers. Along the way, they are rejuvenating a historic function of libraries as community gathering places.

One of Timberland’s newest programs — now offered in six libraries — focuses on infants and toddlers and making connections between young parents. Called Book Babies, it’s designed for children from birth to 18 months, although the Tumwater branch offers two programs, one for birth to 12 months, and another for 13 months to 24 months.

Besides helping the children acquire language skills through interaction with library staff and their parents during a steady flow of nursery rhymes and songs, the parents have also formed support networks that continue in library spaces or in private homes.

Like the local post office, libraries have been traditional places for people to cross paths and make connections. In fact, even in this digital age of often impersonal communication modes, the Pew research shows 91 percent of people believe libraries are important to their communities, more so as a community center than for how a library has met their personal needs.

That isn’t to say Timberland libraries are lagging the public use of technology. The library has steadily been increasing its digital resources; and downloads of books, audio books, music and video have doubled every year since 2008. Next month, it will begin offering three-hour customizable music streaming accessible anywhere in the world.

Responding to public demand, the library system has expanded its free Wi-Fi hours to 6 a.m.-midnight, every day, and is available in outside areas surrounding Timberland branches. The system’s free apps even enable patrons to access library resources through mobile devices.

Although everyone pays for Timberland Regional Library through property taxes – which comprise 80 percent of its $21 million annual budget – most people do not realize the depth and breadth of its resources. The Pew study reported that 62 percent of people do not realize they could download electronic books from their local library.

Give credit to new library director Cheryl Heywood for trying to educate the public. Since taking the reins of the regional library system last fall, she has undertaken a whirlwind tour of speaking engagements and targeted community meetings to inform as many of the 486,000 people in the system’s service area as possible.

Kudos also go to the library board for planning a comprehensive strategic plan, its first since 2005 — it may announce the selection of a consulting firm as early as this week. Because the public wants everything equally — print, music, electronic books, Internet access, tutoring and staff assistance — the board must set priorities for Heywood and the system’s 310 employees. There just isn’t the money to do it all.

With a realistic plan, the Timberland Regional Library system will remain relevant to the lives of people in the South Sound. Our communities benefit from strong libraries that position themselves as modern technology hubs, family learning centers and public gathering places.