Hillsborough County is renovating three libraries and building two more as the facilities adapt to become high-tech meeting centers.TAMPA People of a certain age remember libraries as quiet places where one went to check out books or read magazines.
The printed materials were housed in boxy, crowded settings with a touch of stodginess befitting a repository of great knowledge. Patrons whispered as if in church, and a prim librarian enforced the quietude with a “shush.”
Now, libraries hum with activity, their airy, luminous structures no longer cavern-like. Printed material is just one of the features. They are meeting places, teaching centers and venues for speakers on topics such as native plants and African-American genealogy.
And patrons can access the library’s cornucopia of cultural delights without even entering the brick-and-mortar building.
“When information was scarce, we were the center for information,” said Suzanne George, a chief librarian for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System. “Now, information has exploded … we’ve become a center of culture. I think it’s important that people have that sense of being part of a culture.”
If anything, the information explosion has made the libraries more relevant. Librarians see themselves as gatekeepers and facilitators for their less-tech-savvy library customers.
“We instruct people on how to acquire accurate information from qualified references,” said another chief librarian, Andrew Breidenbaugh.
Library director Joe Stines goes further: “We have to be on the cutting edge of technology.”
Every one of the 26 city-county libraries has WiFi, wireless access to the internet. And you don’t even have to buy a cup of coffee to use it.
“Studies have shown an increasing number of people accessing library resources through mobile devices,” said Renalda Sells, a chief librarian. “We’re not limited to brick and mortar.”
Many county libraries are equipped with printers that also fax and scan documents and that can be accessed from patrons’ homes or smart phones. The printers have USB outlets so you can hook up your laptop and print whatever you want for a nominal charge.
Breidenbaugh gives this example of how a library card holder could take advantage of WiFi access to the library printers:
Suppose you want to print out an airline boarding pass but you don’t have access to a printer. If you’re in your local library or close by, you can email the document to the printer. You’ll get an email back with a numeric code that you can punch into the library printer which kicks out your boarding pass.
Even with the growing availability of online services and E-book circulation, the use of traditional library services remains constant in Hillsborough County, Breidenbaugh said. About 10 million printed books, CDs and DVDs are checked out each year.
“We’re not going to be making an announcement like Amazon did that we sold more E-books than print books,” Breidenbaugh said. “The printed book is not going away.”
Along with the revolution in services, library buildings are also undergoing transformation.
Unlike existing libraries, which have separate rooms for community meetings or cultural programs, the new structures will feature open areas with moveable tables and chairs. Dividers will be used to create semiprivate spaces for two or three people to talk, conduct interviews or work on projects together.
“If you have a meeting with a business partner or a prospective client, you have that flexible space,” Breidenbaugh said.
Bloomingdale Regional Library, tied with Jimmie B. Keel for the highest circulation in the county, is also being expanded by 10,000 square feet.
In addition, the system is building three new libraries – replacements for the Seminole Heights and Robert W. Saunders Jr. libraries and a new 10,000-square-foot University Area Library.
Hillsborough’s library system is funded by a dedicated property tax of about 50 cents per $1,000 in property valuation. The owner of a house valued at $128,000 – the average home value in Hillsborough last year – would pay $45.47 to support county libraries.
That dedicated millage has allowed the library system to meet the county population growth while expanding services. Since 2003, the system has added 146,156 square feet in new and expanded libraries, not including the projects mentioned above.
The steady income from the property tax enabled the system to keep building and expanding during the recession and related housing bust, said David Wullschleger, library operations manager.
“We had to put some projects on hold for several years and proceeded very cautiously with others,” Wullschleger said. “What we’ve seen around the state is that systems that have a dedicated revenue source survived the economic downturn better than those that don’t.”
A recent midday visit to Jimmie B. Keel, C. Blythe Andrews Jr. and Jan Kaminis Platt libraries found all three well-used, even before the after-school crush of youngsters.
At Jimmie B. Keel, James and Janet Dopico were among dozens of people waiting in a meeting room to get tax help from volunteers with the American Association of Retired Persons.
The Dopicos said they appreciate the help, especially since it saved them hundreds of dollars they would have spent for a tax preparer. And Janet Dopico was able to check out some books while she waited.
Among all the things local government does, James Dopico said, the library “is one of the best benefits you can get. It’s really great, it’s free and it’s open to everyone.”