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Beyond books: Technology drove libraries to become community centers
By Charles Swenson
Dwight McInvaill remembers when it all changed. “I can almost tell you the date,” he said.
The internet arrived in public libraries in 1996. Over the next two years there was a push to wire the libraries around South Carolina, a quaint notion in the current era of wi-fi.
McInvaill the Georgetown County library director, also remembers the result. “Comments were made that libraries were like a record store,” he said. They were victims of technology destined to go the way of the blacksmith and the five-and-dime.
He thought about that earlier this month as he listened to County Council debate a proposal to renovate an old school for a community center. The area in the southern part of the county is due to get a $2.2 million branch library in the new round of capital improvements. The local council member, Everett Carolina, said that wouldn’t do what he envisioned: provide a place that gives children opportunities to learn outside school and gives seniors access to activities, a place where the community comes together.
“I fully support all the programs Mr. Carolina is proposing,” Council Member John Thomas replied. “It sounds, with a few exceptions, the way the Waccamaw Library operates.”
That’s how it sounded to McInvaill, too. “I thought, I need to put together a PowerPoint on this issue,” he said.
What started with the push 20 years ago to become a resource for technology has led libraries to take on other roles, McInvaill said. In a county of just over 60,000 people, over 42,000 people attended library programs in the last fiscal year. Those range from storytimes for toddlers to game time for teens to financial advice for adults and tax preparation for seniors. They included one-on-one sessions for adult literacy to a statewide conference on the antebellum rice culture. “All the other things have come with it,” McInvaill said of the growth in information technology.
He sees a couple of reasons for that. “As we embrace technology, we move away from embracing each other,” McInvaill said. The libraries give people the opportunity to interact in a way they can’t do online. While technology is driving a change, he said, “parents realize that interacting with their children is the best way for them to be smart, instead of turning them over to computers.”
Some of the branches are also hubs for social services. At Carvers Bay, there’s a summer meal program for kids, and librarians distribute free bread to low-income families. “Churches have always fulfilled this role of community service. Some people feel more comfortable coming to a more secular place,” McInvaill said. The library “is always a comfortable place where you’ll be accepted.”
All this activity hasn’t diminished the more traditional uses of the county libraries, which include branches in Georgetown, Andrews and Carvers Bay. Over half the households in the county have borrowed material from the libraries in the last three years. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016, they borrowed over 187,000 items.
The statistics took a jump after the new Waccamaw Library opened in February 2015, demonstrating what McInvaill calls “the utter vibrancy of the place.” Through the first five months of this year, over 12,000 people checked out materials at the branch.
But even more people took part in library activities: 2,054 children, 4,634 teens and 10,017 adults attended either programs or meetings. “It’s overflowing with people of all ages,” McInvaill said.
There are after-school programs during the academic year and summer learning programs to help kids retain what they learned over the summer. Adult education programs are particularly popular at the branch.
After listening to the County Council discussion, McInvaill said, “I was heartened by the realization by nearly everyone that the Waccamaw Library has been a transformative place.”
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