The Santa Cruz public library downtown offers a surprising range of free services.

There’s a resource in town through which you can hunt for a job, explore local art and history, and borrow books and media. You can also learn the secrets of your iPad, build your small business, get online help with school work, take part in cultural events, pick the brains of child-development experts, access electronic databases, learn how to manage your online reputation and more. And it’s free and open to all. What is this wonderful place? Santa Cruz’s public library.

It was once thought that with the rise of digital media, libraries would go the way of the Dodo, but as our local system positions itself as a community hub that offers a growing number and variety of services, library usage is on the rise. Every month a whopping 35,000 people walk through the doors of our downtown branch. This year’s summer reading program set a new record with 7,638 people attending programs, blowing away the previous record of 5,500 participants set in 2003. And our library system circulates over two million items per year, not counting electronic materials.

But it is true that the digital age has reshaped how people access information, and libraries have adjusted their services accordingly, offering ebooks, hands-on computer help and expanded research assistance. In addition to calling or going into the library to talk to research librarians, you can email them, chat electronically with them or text them. There’s even a Santa Cruz Public Library app. Rather than competing with technology, libraries utilize it.

Teresa Landers, the county’s director of libraries, points out that while you can search for anything and get lots of information online, the question is, Is it good information? This is where librarians come in, and the questions being asked of them have changed.

“The questions are more complicated, because the easy stuff can be Googled,” says Landers. “People don’t want to know the capital of Spain, they want to know how so-and-so voted on something.”

In addition to being book experts, librarians of the 21st century need to be tech-savvy medianauts who can navigate today’s electronic landscape—and tomorrow’s, too. For example, in anticipation of changing health care regulations, local library staff is being trained to help people understand the new insurance options and enrollment protocol. There will be demand for the library to help, so staff is gearing up. Providing access to information, whether online or off, is at the core of the library mission.

The big picture vision for the local system is to align with the changing needs of the Santa Cruz community. Facilitating collaborations is part of this. As a growing community of freelancers and small businesses rely on libraries for work space, the library aims to be a place for working, connecting and collaborating.

“People’s way of working now is collaborative,” says Janis O’Driscoll, Division Manager of Programs and Partnerships. “They need collaborative space. That’s what we need to provide. Our business hasn’t changed. Our business is to provide information to the community, but now we need to be able to help people who are working collaboratively.”

 

Massive Reboot

That means rethinking the libraries themselves. Most of the buildings weren’t designed with sufficient power outlets or collaborative work tables in mind. Many of the branches are in need of attention but, at this point, there’s no facilities budget to help them accommodate people working collaboratively, let alone create maker spaces, digital media labs or whatever else the community would like.

Under Landers’ direction, the library’s operating budget is back up near where it was before the economic downturn, but the facilities budget is not. Other than reacting to a pipe breaking or the discovery of mold, there’s been no maintenance on the facilities for over 10 years. The boiler in the downtown branch is so old that if staff needs to replace a part, they have to have it manufactured. Landers and O’Driscoll joke that if they had 3D printers, they could just print the part.

“What we’re looking at,” says Landers, “is getting an influx now to take care of what we need to take care of and establish a plan for the future. We’re trying to stay up to date electronically with ebooks,” she continues, “but the bottom line is that we still need the facilities. That’s our big challenge that we’re facing. At some point we’ll probably go to the community and say, ‘Can you help us?’”

In the next 5-10 years, Landers would like to see all local branches redesigned along the lines of the Scotts Valley model, where people feel good about going in and the space feels good. There are ways, she says, to make the space welcoming and comfortable for everyone.

As the local library system continues to evolve and adapt to the needs of Santa Cruz patrons, the staff is asking the community what it wants from libraries.

“The thing that we are most trying to do right now,” says O’Driscoll, “is encourage the community to bring us ideas and tell us what they would like us to present; what they want to know about. That’s what we do,” she adds. “We connect people and we inform them. Connect, inform, inspire; that’s what we’re about.”

 

Find out about upcoming library events at santacruzpl.org/events.