Illinois Libraries Celebrate Evolution Into Digital Community Centers

From magazines, movies and books, to computers, tablets and educational programming, Lake County libraries continue to share an evolving wealth of information with their communities.

by Yadira Sanchez Olson, Lake County News-Sun / April 15, 2015

(TNS) -- Seen more as community centers for patrons of all ages, rather than the once cavernous and soundless institutions that offered mostly books, the public libraries of today have a lot to celebrate during National Library Week through April 18.

From magazines, movies and books, to computers, tablets and educational programming, Lake County libraries continue to share an evolving wealth of information with their communities.

Trying to get a degree in human resources from an online university, Darryl Briscoe said he's thankful for the Zion-Benton Public Library, which is near his home.

Almost every day, Briscoe said he takes his laptop with him to one of the library's study areas.

"It's faster Internet than what I have at home," Briscoe said. "It's a quiet environment that helps me get the work done."

For 17-year-old Zion-Benton High School students Marquette Warren and Lalonda Mcmath, the library provides the computers they use for homework and to connect with friends via social media.

Without that free service, the two said they would have to rely on other friends who have computers at home, and that "gets complicated," Warren said.

Servicing the wide-ranging needs in the community, reference librarian Bob Palas said, is the reason why he's excited to be a part of the North Chicago Public Library.

Each day, Palas assists people who are in need of online job search training.

Through a partnership with the Waukegan Public Library, the North Chicago library offers patrons a weekly General Educational Development (GED) program. The library's English as a Second Language (ESL) program is offered in collaboration with Deerfield and Highland Park's Township High School District 113.

"At the end of the day, nothing is more fulfilling to our hearts than hearing the words, 'Thank you, I landed that interview,' or better yet, 'I got that job. Thank you,'" Palas said.

The Waukegan Public Library staff takes a unique approach to making decisions about the services they offer, executive director Richard Lee said.

Programs are not created in hopes people will attend. Rather, the staff asks patrons what it is they would like to learn and then creates programming based on that information.

"We always strive to make a difference in our community," Lee said. "That is precisely why we won the National Medal (for Museum and Library Service) and went to the White House in 2013."

To strengthen its presence in the community, the Waukegan library is expanding its space to offer more classrooms for their programs, which are taught in English and Spanish.

Over at the Lake Villa District Library, the goal is to make patrons see the facility as their "destination for life," public relations coordinator Nina Kenney said.

With "The Smart Bar," where assistance with any technological mobile device is provided, the Lake Villa District Library is aiming to improve the lives of their approximately 40,000 patrons.

"We improved the vibe by selling coffee and expanding bandwidth so people can enjoy a cup of coffee while having a better online experience," Kenney said.

Some of the most popular programs for adults, Kenney said, have been yoga, guided meditation and tai chi.

For kids and teens, the art and science programs are always a big hit, Kenney added.

Home to one of the largest Spanish collections of books in the Lake County area is the Round Lake Area Library.

Head of Outreach Services Sandra Lopez said that "with an almost 50/50 patron base of English and Spanish" speakers, providing reading material and resources in both languages is essential for the community.

To make that engagement fun, the library offers innovative programs, such as the Hollie Collie therapy dog program, in which kids read to a dog to "build self-esteem and make a new friend," Lopez said.

At the Warren-Newport Public Library, which serves a population of about 67,000, the staff's goal is not just providing diverse and creative services. Officials said they also are committed to offering those services in the friendliest way.

"Besides being the world's nicest public library, we are one of Lake County's busiest libraries," said Jan Marsh, head of communications.

The Vault, a dedicated teen space, and the library's study rooms are in constant use, Marsh said.

Currently the Warren-Newport Public Library is raising money to add a space dedicated to tweens, as programs have been expanding for third- through fifth-graders.

Many changes are being made to the Grayslake Public Library these days, as a small renovation that was just completed added new shelving and remodeled floor space on the second level.

Library Director Roberta Thomas said the staff works diligently to be responsive to the interests and needs of the community.

"GAPL is unique because our community is unique," Thomas said. "Grayslake is home to commuters, educators, small business owners, farmers, lifelong residents and newcomers seeking a small-town atmosphere. It is not uncommon for young mothers to bring their children to the very space that they sat in many years ago to listen to story time."

The Antioch Public Library District often hosts jugglers, magicians, bubble blowers and pianists.

"We take our cue from the public on this one," said Becky Jacobson, of library's public relations staff. "Monthly comments range from ,'It just feels like home here' to 'The staff always makes me feel welcome and important,'" Jacobson said.

The Antioch library caters to a population of about 26,000 that comes from parts of Fox Lake, Lindenhurst and Lake Villa. Jacobson said the library averages about 80 programs a month for ages ranging from newborn to adults.

"The face of the library is changing but the mission is the same in that we will continue to provide information, education and entertainment on a personal and professional level," Jacobson said.

©2015 the Lake County News-Sun (Lake County, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC