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Experimentation spurs evolution of First State libraries

Delaware Public Media

In the library, silence is a time-honored tradition.

But at the New Castle County Library's Brandywine Hundred Branch, there’s a soft hum of sewing machines.

At Greenwood Library, culinary enthusiasts whip up chocolate mousse.

In New Castle, the Route 9 Library and Innovation Center is now home to groups of do-it-yourselfers wielding screwdrivers and soldering irons to put together small projects.

“Experimentation is where it’s at now with libraries,” says Jean Kaufman, Brandywine library manager. “We’re moving beyond books to make the library a place of experiences.”

Alison Keeling of Fairfax enrolled in the sewing class with a modest goal.

“I wanted to be able to hem pants,” she says.

She was pleasantly surprised that sewing students immediately began work on simple projects, including a tote bag and an apron.

“I thought I was going to learn how to thread a machine but I came home with a pillow cover,” she says. “The library supplies the sewing machines, the ironing boards and the teacher, so it’s very easy and accessible.”

Her sister-in-law, Catherine Cambridge of Wilmington, took a course at the library, How to Sell Your House in 60 Days. “It worked,” Cambridge says. “We sold our home in two days.”

Keeling visits libraries wherever she goes and once checked out a ukulele from a library in Martha’s Vineyard. Across the country, libraries are looking for ways to attract patrons looking for resources other than books, DVDs and CDs.

“I like that the library is a welcoming place,” she says. “You aren’t going just because you need help with your homework.”

Brandywine launched its sewing program based on the success of classes offered at Wilmington Library. Both libraries have waiting lists for the course and Brandywine plans to add an upholstery class.

Library administrators keep a close eye on what is happening elsewhere so they can anticipate trends, says Annie Norman, Delaware state librarian.

“We get a lot of great ideas from libraries in major cities,” she says. “Other ideas grow organically, from feedback from the people who use libraries here in Delaware.”

A few pages to browse from innovative libraries:

  • In Iowa City Public Library’s Art-to-Go program, patrons can check out paintings and sculptures and take them home for up to two months. The library also benefits local artists, buying their works to add to the program’s collection.
  • The library in Erie County, Pennsylvania, is angling for members by allowing anyone with a library card to borrow a fishing pole and tackle box.
  • Dozens of public libraries throughout New Hampshire allow patrons to check out telescopes to gaze at the stars.
  • In Berkley, California, the library’s lending inventory includes 10 extension ladders and 14 power saws.
  • More than 100 libraries have followed the lead of Kansas City, designating an area where members can drop off yard waste. The material is turned into mulch, which is offered free to the community.

Several libraries in Delaware are contemplating lending small kitchen appliances and specialty baking pans. Patrons benefit in two ways. First, they don’t have to spring for spring-form pans and other seldom-used items. And second, they don’t have to find a place to store them at home.
Library goers are sweet on the concept throughout New England and the Midwest.  It flopped like a bad soufflé at the Dimmick Memorial Library in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, because too many patrons returned dirty cake pans.

In Delaware, library patrons are increasingly hungry for activities that include food. In Hockessin, showings of foreign films are accompanied by a tasting in the cuisine of the movie’s home country. Chef Paul Oppman is presenting a class and tasting on Spanish cuisine at the Greenwood Library and the South Coastal Library in Bethany Beach. Desserts were on the menu at a previous class.

Partnerships and efficiencies are helping to keep Delaware’s library system strong, Norman says.

In Seaford, the library has teamed with the Food Bank, serving meals to kids up to age 18 throughout the summer in the library’s air-conditioned foyer. The Money School provides courses at libraries throughout the state on such topics as saving for retirement, getting out of debt and buying a home. Volunteers make a difference, too. In Bridgeville, a farmer interested in technology is teaching teens to use a 3-D printer.

The state’s investment in technology has vastly reduced redundancy, streamlining the system from four public library catalogs—one for each county, plus the City of Wilmington—to a statewide multi-catalog system in which 33 public libraries and nearly 40 academic libraries share 2.6 million electronic items.

“It makes sense for the state to provide that technology backbone,” Norman says.

Currently, about 50 percent of Delawareans hold library cards, she notes, “and we would like to see that number get as close to 100 percent as possible.”

To that end, librarians are issuing cards at public events and are working toward online applications.

The First State’s newest library is the Route 9 facility, which includes such non-traditional elements as a black-box theater and a café. A new library under construction in Delmar is designed to be a community centerpiece, with an expansive gathering space, and dedicated areas for programs focused on youths and entrepreneurs.

“We encourage flexible design in libraries because we don’t know what’s coming next,” Norman says.

At Route 9, there’s a chemistry club, where patrons can participate in small-scale scientific experiments, as well as a class on creating a YouTube Channel. On Maker Monday, members bring in projects in electronics, fiber art, programming and other interests, where they can use the library’s tools and bounce ideas off one another.

Sarena Deglin, administration librarian of emerging technologies, says libraries are increasing access to such resources as virtual reality headsets that can take the wearer inside a Van Gogh painting or on a trip to the moon—and beyond.

“They require expensive high-power computers that not everyone can afford,” she says. “Libraries make more technology accessible to more people.”

Libraries also are leveraging their real estate. At Brandywine, a grant from the Delaware Library Association is funding Go Out and Play!, a physical literacy program in which kids can check out jump ropes, whiffle ball sets and other sporting equipment and play on the library lawn.

“We want people to use the whole library, including the outside,” Kaufman says.

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.
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