Story by Ingrid Sjostrand
Photo by Bernie Laframboise
Taking a meditation class, learning to use a 3D printer, and sewing on a button aren’t things you would typically think of doing in a library. But, as the needs of a community grow, so do the available resources. Oak Park Library is a perfect example of this transformation.
No longer known just for stacks of books, the Library has evolved in the 60 years since its opening in 1958, and Director Brandon Bowman has been crucial in navigating the transition since his start in 2014.
“Basically, libraries in the 21st Century are becoming community hubs. It’s not just print materials anymore,” he says. “They are still going to be a place for the books, but we are kind of reinventing ourselves to become something better. It’s technology, programs and community meeting centers – libraries are encompassing all these things.”
One of the best examples of the changing landscape of Oak Park Library is their programming. A variety of programs are available to teach new skills, highlight a business or even just discuss an interesting topic. Programs are free at the Library, although there are some charges for services.
“The neat one I really like is our program, which is basically teaching things that don’t necessarily get taught in school but are very valuable skills to have. Like, cooking without a stove and not a lot of money; Sewing on a button and hemming your pants. These are some of those classes,” Bowman says.
Other programs include learning basic computer skills, joining book club activities, attending movie nights and visiting with guest speakers. On March 21 an Oak Park Public Safety Officer conducted a presentation on crime scene investigations. “It’s having this community knowledge and passing on knowledge, not in a book but in person,” Bowman says.
Aside from new programming, libraries have always been a place of resources. As technology becomes more and more of an essential part of everyday life, the Library works to ensure they always have technology available to patrons. “When people don’t have access to the Internet or the fast speeds of access that we have, they come up here and use our computers. We just added ten new computers last year to meet that need, so that’s huge for us,” Bowman explains.
It’s not even necessary to come to the Library to get access to their offerings anymore. Through digital loaning programs like OverDrive and Zinio, members can view online books, audiobooks and magazines to their phones, tablets and computers. The Library is even making efforts to bring its resources out to homebound members of the community and to students in school settings. They’ve started a book club in collaboration with Ferndale, Huntington Woods and Berkley public libraries.
“We are not confined to our building anymore, we’re going out,” Bowman says. “With our new operating system coming in May, we are going to be able to use tablets to do mobile checkouts so we can take a cart full of books out on the road. Getting out in the community and being more visible is something people don’t realize the Library is going to be doing, even within the next six months.”
With all the new offerings and developing changes you might think that the Oak Park Library has a large team on hand or that they use a ton of tax dollars for their growth. In reality the majority of their effort is accomplished with a small but dedicated staff, grant applications and the Friends of the Oak Park Library (see next page), a nonprofit organization that offers funds through volunteer efforts.
“We are ironically one of the bigger libraries in the area – Huntington Woods, Berkley and Ferndale are all smaller communities than us, so we actually have the largest library – but we have the least amount of staff and the smallest budget,” Bowman says. “What we do offer is a lot of innovation, and our staff is phenomenal.”
Some of the grants the Oak Park Library has received include the LSTA grant through the Library of Michigan, which they used to purchase 10 iPads. They also received the Ezra Jack Keats grant; and the Detroit Book and Author Society Grant.
“Another grant we just got was the Harwood Institute grant. We took a three-day seminar provided by the Library of Michigan that taught us to go out and ask the questions, obtain input and better meet the needs of our community,” Bowman says. “That’s what we want to do over the next couple years; we want to fine-tune our model of getting the input back to us, and fine-tune our communication out to the community.”
Their efforts seem to be paying off with circulation and usage numbers showing an increase over last year. In 2017, 103,592 items were circulated, almost six per cent higher than 2016; 23,000 reference questions were answered; and 3,000 visitors attended programs. Bowman hopes to see these numbers continue to grow and has no plans of slowing down efforts to improve the Oak Park Library.
“Consistently, our statistics are going up. I think that’s because more and more people are becoming aware of what we do. I would love to see those continue to get higher and get more people involved,” he says.
The Library’s 60th Birthday Anniversary that is coming in June presents a wonderful opportunity. “We want to use the birthday party as the catalyst to say, ‘We’ve come to this point and now we’re going to kick it into high speed.’ And go and do all these things – adding more online stuff, more program offerings,” Bowman says. “Look at how we can meet the needs of our community better.”
According to Bowman, the most important thing the Library can do is make sure it’s a valuable resource for the community and that they are indeed meeting the needs of Oak Park. He says he can’t think of a better community to put the work in for.
“I cannot say enough good things about Oak Park!” he exclaims “There has never been a community where I’ve gone in and been so welcome as I have when I came here. I think all the staff agree: We go above and beyond because we feel the people deserve that. They are such good people and the community is such a nice place that we want to give, and make this the place they envision.”
And, he wants to make it clear that the things people request don’t have to fit in the normal definition of what a traditional library has been. If it will better the community they are willing to work to make it happen.
“We are currently out in Oak Park, asking what community members aspire for the city. They are invited to tell us anything and we will tailor our mission to what they are asking for. It is a more open-ended question,” Bowman says. “With the community that we have, we need to have a good, strong library. We can draw a lot of people to Oak Park by using the Library as that showcase by saying this is what we can do and we are taking these steps to get there.”