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Once upon a time, a trip to the library was almost a sacred affair: the hushed voices, the endless stacks, solemn librarians as gatekeepers of knowledge. But a trip to one of our public libraries today is likely to show bright open spaces filled with librarians circulating among patrons, banks of computers, children building robots and the ability to check out everything from music to cake pans to telescopes to a real live person.

“It’s a library of things,” says Ava Ehde, Manatee County Library Systems services manager.

These expanded collections and services are a part of libraries’ mission to serve as a resource of knowledge for all community members, with an emphasis on all. In pre-Revolutionary War America, libraries were private affairs that required a paid subscription. Only literate, privileged men could afford to join. When the idea of free public libraries—places open to everyone in the community—took hold, libraries became an important facet of democracy, a role that libraries still fulfill.

“Public libraries have become the people’s university, a lifelong learning center,” says Ehde. “We are not the same quiet hallowed place of learning. Learning is active.”

But it’s not just what libraries allow users to check out. Libraries have also evolved to become cultural gathering spaces that hold meetings, help people apply for jobs, provide tax tutoring and even serve as places for some people to find a nutritious meal.

“The way we serve is different today,” says Ehde. “People often need a space to meet other people, to make a connection with other human beings. We serve everyone in our community, and that keeps changing as the community changes.”

Check out these new library services.

Feeling Creative?

Both Sarasota and Manatee public libraries offer spaces for invention. Called Creation Stations in Sarasota, these spaces are filled with equipment and staffed by librarians and volunteers. Selby Public Library downtown and the Shannon Staub Library in North Port have dedicated spaces for creative activities. The rooms allow library patrons—everyone from kids to businesspeople to seniors—to use 3D printers, make robots, learn how to code, and learn folk arts like sewing and quilting. In all other Sarasota public libraries, creation stations operate in conference rooms and computer rooms. “We’re acquiring resources too expensive for an individual but that can be used for a whole community,” says Sarabeth Kalajian, director of Sarasota County libraries. “We had a boy who designed a plane with a computer and then printed his aircraft carrier on a 3D printer. He was 7 years old.”

The Manatee library system also includes spaces to create: Young children head to Art Maker Stations and teens have a dedicated space at the Central Library called Area 52 where they can learn about gaming, coding and video production.

eBook Revolution

Print books have seen a resurgence in popularity in the last couple of years, but digital reading is growing. Both Sarasota and Manatee county public libraries own extensive eBook and audiobook collections for easy download. (Be patient. Waiting lists are common for eBooks.) Sarasota’s collection is up to 26,500 eBooks and the Library Foundation of Sarasota County is raising $200,000 to buy 8,000 more. “We want to reinforce reading no matter how you want to read,” says Kalajian. “A great upside is that books wear out, and downloadable eBooks and audio versions don’t get damaged. We don’t have to re-shelve, and the minute it’s returned, it’s available to the next user. There are no overdue fines. You have only so many days to read and then you’re shut off.”

Borrow a Ukelele…Even a Person

Libraries have expanded their collections way beyond traditional print books. Manatee County library patrons can check out cooking supplies, musical instruments, tablets, telescopes and binoculars. At North Sarasota Library in Sarasota, users can even “borrow” a person. Specially selected individuals with interesting life experiences volunteer once a month to be “checked out” for a 20-minute time slot in the library for a conversation. “People can be as important a resource as a book sitting on a shelf. They share stories with one another in a neutral space,” says Kalajian. “It’s especially important here. Family may not live nearby. They may have just moved here and not found their activity group. This is a great way to get to know your neighbor.”

Feeding Body and Soul

Sarasota County libraries have partnered with All Faiths Food Bank and the Sarasota County School District to serve nutritious snacks and meals for low-income kids and families. Five days a week during the school year, people can pick up food packs for the whole family. Libraries offer snacks to kids during after-school programs. During the summer, families eat lunch at the library and then stay for reading activities. “It’s most effective when there are activities in tandem,” says Kalajian. “We want people to think of the library as a trusted place. We’re their library. When they need help they can come here.”

Manatee County libraries have partnered with Anna Maria Oyster Bar to offer breakfast and summer reading programs to second- and third-graders at their restaurants. Transportation is provided and volunteers tutor the children. The program started last year and earned AMOB the national Restaurant Neighbor Award from the National Restaurant Association. This summer the program will expand to all five AMOB restaurants.

Library Stats & Facts

2.7 million Number of books borrowed from Sarasota County libraries in 2017.

291,307 Number of Sarasota County residents who had library cards in 2017. (72 percent of country residents)

124,387 Number of Manatee County residents who had library cards in 2017. (34 percent of country residents)

4.3 million Number of books circulated from Manatee County libraries in 2017.

551,080 Number of people who logged onto Manatee County library computers in 2017.

307,294 Number of requests answered by Sarasota County librarians in 2017.

The most popular book in the Manatee County library system is James Patterson’s The Store; the most popular eBook is Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.

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