RUSKIN – Dusty tomes and hushed tones are a thing of the past.
Hillsborough County’s 25 libraries are in the process of exchanging book shelves for computer stations and encouraging conversation among users by providing cozy lounging areas and meeting rooms, said Renalda Sells, chief librarian for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System.
And leading the way is the SouthShore Regional Library, 15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin, now undergoing design changes to cater to the needs of today’s library user, said Sun City Center resident and 12-year library board member Jim Harkins, who was instrumental in bringing the library to South Shore in 2006.
“We’re right on the cusp of transforming libraries from warehouses of paper to electronic media,” said Harkins. “We’re not replacing books. They will always be part of the library. We’re simply adjusting the way people receive their reading materials.”
Harkins said the 7-year-old library was constructed with an eye toward the future and the changing mission of libraries.
To meet the cultural interests of users, the South Shore library features an art studio.
In addition, it’s the only county library with an outdoor lighted plaza for community gatherings or open-air book discussions.
“Our children’s library is nearly as large as the entire Riverview Branch Library, and we’ve got our own dedicated genealogy section with the largest reference collection outside the John Germany Public Library in Tampa,” said Harkins.
Anticipating the focus on computers and technology, the South Shore library was outfitted with wireless service throughout, including the outdoor plaza.
“Technology has made it possible for our libraries to offer a variety of free services beyond just lending books,” he said. “Now you can go to the library and learn a language, access magazines and eBooks, attend a class or program, research your family history and use a computer to find information anywhere in the world.”
And, in coming months, SouthShore Regional Library users will have even more access to technology, said Lorri Robinson, principal librarian.
The library’s current information desk will shrink to make way for computerized information stations with 42-inch touch screens where users can access information on their own.
“It will be a quick, easy way for users to get answers to their questions,” she said. “We will still have a traditional information desk but people also will be able to use technology resources to access information.”
“Today, people are using cell phones and tablets more than the Dewey Decimal System,” said Friends of the SouthShore Regional Library President Jim Duffy. “There’s more and more information out there that can be accessed through technology. We no longer need shelves upon shelves of books.”
With less emphasis on traditional books, the SouthShore Regional Library is in the process of removing book shelves and filling the space with flexible seating areas where users are encouraged to gather for discussions.
“It’s become a community information center and a cultural center,” Harkins said. “Instead of making libraries obsolete, technology has made them more relevant than ever to residents across all socio-economic levels.”
In coming months, the library will use space previously occupied by shelving to create a new meeting room. At the same time, it will convert one of its existing meeting rooms into a recording studio and media lab where users can create videos and audio recordings, and then edit the finished product.
“Libraries now serve a higher percentage of people than ever before,” said Duffy. “People come to the library to apply for jobs online, apply for a credit card, conduct business, learn a new skill and entertain the kids. There are 10,000 different reasons people come to libraries and all of them have something to do with learning or interacting with others.”
“The problem is that many people aren’t aware of all of the free services we have available at the library,” said Harkins. “Libraries are more vibrant than ever and we want to get the word out.”
Pulling out the library card attached to his keychain, Harkins added, “This is probably one of the most valuable things at your disposal. It opens a world of information for users.”
For more information on library services and programs, visit www.hcplc.org.
D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected]