One Local Library’s Fight for Survival
By: Logan Aukes
February 15, 2019
Off Sioux Center’s main avenue sits a building with a light brown brick exterior. It has a handful of entrances marked on either side by matching brick pillars and slim glass windows. The parking lot is full.
In a society that is facing a general decline in library usage, this public library is growing stronger.
According to Pew Research Center, a Washington D.C. fact tank, the percentage of U.S adults who have visited a library in the past 12 months declined 7% between 2012 and 2016.
Yet, the number of checkouts at Sioux Center’s local library rose to 304,084 last year. This is comparable to much larger public libraries in Des Moines and Iowa City.
Its checkouts aren’t the only thing on the rise, though. In a 2018 Sioux Center survey, 91% of residents felt the library was doing a very good or good job. This was up 10% from the previous year and made the library the highest rated of all Sioux Center’s services.
Part of the library’s growing success is its willingness to adapt. Becky Bilby, the library’s director, knows a thing or two about change.
She transitioned from teacher to librarian 20 years ago and has seen the changes an increasingly digital world has brought to the library. “When I first started, there were no such thing as eBooks,” she says. Now, she believes libraries must jump on the digital bandwagon.
“It’s tricky to stay relevant,” Becky says, but Heidi Ouwinga, the library’s marketing coordinator, says that Becky is always researching new e-resources to bring to library users.
The library also houses dozens of computers, iPad stations, and study rooms with large screen TV’s.
But Becky’s goal is for the library to be more than just a building that holds books and the latest technology. She wants to rebrand it as a community hub where she says, “people know they can come.”
Part of getting people to know they can come is giving them a reason to.
Becky lists LEGO club, sign painting for adults, and an upcoming pressure cooker class as just a few of hundreds of programs (566 in 2018) offered freely to library users. Anything hands-on seems to be the most popular.
But the library is careful not to move too far from its roots. “Story time is still very much alive and valued by families,” says Becky.
Becky retells the story of a young girl with a visual impairment. At story time, a trained reading dog sits and listens while children read. Most weeks, the young girl presses her nose up against the pages to make out the words well enough to read. On a recent occasion, however, she came in with books she wrote in braille to read to the dog.
Since then, the library has purchased large print books to ensure they are meeting the needs of an underrepresented group of readers like the young girl.
Another underrepresented group the library has made efforts to impact is the community’s growing Hispanic population.
Heidi mentions a recent 5-week life skills course she offered to native Spanish speakers. Not only did they receive educational, medical, and financial advice, they were fed a free meal.
There is also Yolanda—a participant in Spanish computer literacy and English conversation classes. With the library’s help, she applied her computer skills to complete an online degree through a local community college.
“[the library] always helps me so much. They always have the information that you need and people to help you,” Yolanda says.
But this library serves more than just underrepresented groups. They aim to serve all ages, too.
On this day, a middle-aged man sits at one computer watching college football highlights. An older woman sits at another looking through photos.
All the while, a library employee helps a young father find a book. Once found, the father walks to the other side of the library to find his three children hard at play at one of the library’s several iPad stations for children. He leaves the library with his book in one hand and his daughter’s hand in the other.
Not to mention the library frequently delivers books to nursing homes and those who would not otherwise make it to the library.
For those that can make it to the Sioux Center public library, they will find a place growing stronger despite the challenges facing modern libraries. A place that’s more than just a building for books, technology, and programs. A place that’s “for everybody,” says Becky.