OUR POSITION: Services change but the vital essence remains the same.

In the recesses of the popular imagination, the image of a public library — a meme, if you will — is a building with tall stacks of hard-bound books and library ladies shushing anyone who speaks above a soft whisper.

We’ve come a long way since Andrew Carnegie first decided to spend his vast riches on providing free educational opportunities to the masses.

These days, books simply may be an old-fashioned means of “content” delivery. Still vital, we insist, as most curmudgeons and gray-haired newspaper editors will. Also still vital are public libraries: the democratic institutions that provide opportunities to all comers for education, entertainment and intellectual stimulation.

Libraries still attract a lot of those comers around here. Our libraries are busy community centers. Walk through the library door any weekday morning in winter to witness their popularity. Stop by the new $7.8 million Punta Gorda Charlotte Library, which opens today, to see and feel the pride of a community committed to all the values a library represents.

The free public library is a brilliant invention, still, 133 years after Carnegie first commissioned his first in Allegheny. Pa.

Of course, libraries have had to change to remain relevant.

Yes, there are still stacks of books. There are periodicals and newspaper racks, card catalogs. Hardbacks, paperbacks, poetry, fiction, scientific tomes, histories, travel guides and photo books.

Also CDs, DVDs and books on tape. You can go online and reserve books from anywhere in an extensive system and pick up them up later at your neighborhood library. You can download audiobooks for digital devices. You can rent a room for your club meeting. You can attend lectures, events, see a movie. Or take a seat at a desk, pull out your computer and link to the internet.

Or, bring your kids in for special activities. Some modern libraries have “creation stations” with hands-on activities and 3-D printers. Punta Gorda’s new library has a children’s section dedicated to the late Mary Knowlton, the former president of the local Friends of the Library.

Another thing about libraries: They have onsite bookstores run by Friends volunteers. The money raised through book donations is funneled back into library services and programs.

Libraries also have become community computer centers. The computers are busy with everyday browsers and people using them to print documents or apply for jobs and social services. The E-Government Act of 2002 required all public libraries to assist people applying for government services online, and it’s the librarians who are charged with guiding them. The job is a far distance from, “Shhhh!” Librarians are not only expected to be up on the latest mystery or diet book, but they must be well-trained information technologists.

And more.

A recent story by Sun staff writer Daniel Sutphin highlighted the increased demands put upon library staff, especially the difficulty of dealing with the homeless drawn to public buildings with air-conditioning, water fountains, bathrooms and computers.

Librarians today must be trained to defuse touchy customer interactions, the most difficult of which involve people with mental illnesses. Or, worst case, the potential for violence.

Those are outlier scenarios, though. It just highlights the fact that libraries reflect the reality of public spaces in an open society. We cope with some bad in a world of good, and libraries bring us into that world.


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