Library turns inside out

Published 8:00 pm Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The traditional mission of a library is to connect people with information, but the Suffolk Public Library is doing it in unexpected ways.

Through a couple of new programs, the library is increasingly turning its focus outward to get more people in the community involved, said outreach services manager Sarah Townsend.

At the Pop-Up Library, patrons can check out selected materials, receive a library card and more.

At the Pop-Up Library, patrons can check out selected materials, receive a library card and more. (Submitted Photo)

“As a library system we’ve been focusing more on being community-centered,” Townsend said. “We’re making ourselves more accessible to the community.”

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Earlier this year, Suffolk Public Library was announced as one of 10 library systems nationwide to participate in the Libraries Transforming Communities program this year. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and organized through the American Library Association, the program seeks to help libraries create stronger relationships with the communities they serve and become agents of positive community change.

“It seems really basic, but it’s been kind of revolutionary for us,” Townsend said.

As part of the program, Suffolk Public Library has been holding “community conversations” at various spots around town.

Townsend said library systems and other organizations can sometimes fall into the trap of assuming what the people they serve want from them.

“But really, do we actually ask people what they want?” she said.

“I think that the one thing we’ve heard at all of them is people want to feel connected,” Townsend continued. “They want to know their neighbors. That’s something we already do, we just have to think about doing it in a way that’s meaningful for the community.”

Marketing and community relations coordinator Ben Scott said the initiative is unusual.

“I’ve never seen such a local initiative where I’ve lived previously,” he said. “There’s so many voices we want to hear.”

Another new initiative of the library system has been the Pop-Up Library, which takes the library’s services to public events like National Night Out and Taste of Suffolk and public spaces like the farmer’s market, the YMCA and Suffolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority neighborhoods.

“It was borne out of a need for us to increase access,” Townsend said, noting the city’s 430 square miles are served by only three physical locations. “We go where the people are; we don’t necessarily expect them to come to us.”

At the Pop-Up Library, folks can check out selected materials, receive library cards, do children’s crafts and participate in story time.

“It’s been far more successful than we anticipated,” Townsend said.

Library representatives at the Pop-Up Library can also educate patrons on services the library offers they may not know about, which is especially prevalent among adults, Director Clint Rudy said.

“They have an expectation of what a library is, and that may have changed since the last time they walked into a library,” Townsend said.

Rudy said he is pleased with the way the two new programs have gone.

“It’s all part of the bigger plan with marketing and outreach,” he said, praising Townsend for her initiative. “This is her revolutionary idea. It takes us places we’ve never been before.”