January 2017
Homeplace & Community

A New Kind of Public Library

With vision, innovation and commitment, Thomasville Public Library transforms into a community hub.

 

Gina Wilson, director of Thomasville Public Library, praised the help of Randy Johnson, who came to the Library as a part of the partnership between TPL and Georgia Pacific. As a part of the GP Rehab Program, Randy was recovering from a work-related injury, but he had not been medically released to return to work. He chose to volunteer with TPL through this unique partnership. One of his projects was to ready TPL’s plot in the Community Garden. He also built the Little Free Library that stands beside the building that will be renovated to house the new library.

Community libraries have always been centers for information and ideas, but, in today’s digital world, libraries have had to reinvent themselves to keep up with ever-changing technologies. The Thomasville Public Library has done just that, becoming a dynamic community hub, not only bridging the area’s digital divide but also addressing the region’s economic woes. TPL’s transformation is an inspiring story of vision, innovation and commitment.

Like most small, rural libraries, space was an issue for TPL, and a new building was not an option in a region with some of the highest unemployment in the state. Undeterred, Director Gina Wilson and her dedicated staff of three full-time and four part-time employees, used their mission of community engagement and relevancy as a call-to-action, creating what they now call their "Culture of YES!"

With no funding for major changes, the staff decided a simple facelift would be a start! They used a grant from the Thomasville Worthwhile Club to change the entrance to the library, adding a 24-hour, dual book/digital media drop, outdoor information boards, and benches and rocking chairs for Wi-Fi users forced outside because of overcrowding. Inside, they opened the library areas, added natural lighting and made the front desk more inviting and engaging, creating a welcoming ambience. Because most people in the community worked shifts, the library changed its hours, staying open 48 hours a week, two nights after 5 and a half-day on Saturdays.

To understand the diverse needs of all age groups, staffers journeyed into the community. TPL Youth Services Coordinator Dawn Heartsill used her findings to design programs to involve toddlers through teens. Heartsill moved into community schools to organize Book Clubs for elementary and middle school students and a Teen Advisory Council to coordinate events, such as Teen Read Week and Teen Tech Week. She expanded Summer Library Programs, adding hugely successful special events Tuesdays in June at the Thomasville Civic Center. Tours and field trips brought even more students into the library. TPL gave away free library cards to all third-graders, organized an in-house reading program at the Thomasville Boys and Girls Club, and brought home schoolers into the library for specially designed activities.

   

Left to right, in October, children who attended Story Hour enjoyed a Halloween party at the library. Hailey Bender, left, and Zoie Harvell participated in the costume contest. The children’s section of the library is bright and cheerful, with comfortable chairs and colorful decorations. Mary Madeline Drinkard enjoys a good read while waiting for her grandmother to finish her interview.

TPL embraced and welcomed technology into every aspect of its outreach. Recognizing that tech-hungry seniors yearned to learn basic technical literacy skills, Martha Grammelspaucher, TPL Adult Services Coordinator, partnered with the Thomasville Nutrition Center and the local RSVP to offer Tech Tuesday. Staffers travelled to the Center each second and fourth Tuesday, providing e-reader training, answering tech questions, and troubleshooting tech devices owned by the seniors. They also took along a rolling library with books for the seniors to check out or return on the spot. They sparked interest in the Young at Heart adult coloring program, by offering coloring kits seniors could check out. The library and the nutrition center displayed the artwork, creating even more interest. This successful program has now branched out into origami, involving even more seniors.

 

Miriam Pugh works on an iPad in the Literacy Station, donated by International Paper.

In 2014, with funding from a grant, Wilson added a genealogy and local history area with two computers loaded with ancestry-search software. She also created shortcuts to genealogy forms, developed tip sheets to make a search much easier and added over 200 books, containing vital records, births, deaths or family-specific information. She and her staff added other local historical documents such as school yearbooks and community scrapbooks, compiled by local organizations such as the hospital auxiliary, garden club, bicentennial committee and beautification group.

Partnerships with businesses and schools initiated even more positive relationships. A 2015 Early Literacy grant from International Paper Company allowed staffers to go into local pre-schools with free books and library information for 3- and 4-year-olds and their parents, as well as free sets of classroom editions for their teachers. When the grant came in under budget, IP allowed the library to purchase an Early Literacy Station that holds four iPads, loaded with over 100 early literacy-learning programs.

The Rehab Program, with Georgia Pacific in Pennington, provided help with maintenance, landscaping, carpentry and technical projects. GP employees, recovering from work-related injuries but not medically released to return to full-time work yet, were encouraged to volunteer at TPL. One GP worker, Randy Johnston, built a Little Free Library and placed it on the site of the proposed new library to serve until the library expansion project has been completed. Johnson also renovated and planted TPL’s plot at the Community Garden, in addition to repairing and renovating unusable furniture.

Chris Trull paints the Little Free Library that stands beside the building donated to the City of Thomasville for a new library.

 

One of the most mutually beneficial relationships has been with Thomasville City Schools. Wilson and her staff worked closely with the three school librarians to understand the needs of TCS teachers and share ideas and resources, especially e-books that teachers checked out through their school media centers. Employing students from the Work-Based Learning Program at Thomasville High School provided staff members with time for professional learning and other activities.

October 2016, TPL partnered with Alabama Southern Community College, the Alabama Career Center in Jackson, Clarke County DHR, the Alabama Entrepreneurial Research Network, the Thomasville Library Foundation and the City of Thomasville for a grant to expand services to rural and poor job seekers in North Clarke and adjacent counties. Since transportation and technology have been employment barriers in this region, TPL offered free access to computers and staff assistance to do job searches and complete online applications. The staff also provided referrals to partnering agencies, resume help, interview preparation and free lessons for those lacking basic digital literacy skills.

"There was a missing piece for our area job seekers," Gina Wilson explained. "Many couldn’t drive to Jackson, but they could come here to use our services. Our goal has been to improve their abilities to access resources, obtain information and apply business resources to get a good job. In the future, we hope applicants can apply for jobs through video chats right in our library."

TPL’s open-door/no-card policy to use the computers keeps Ruby Hightower, TPL’s Technology Coordinator, very busy. In 2015, over 11,587 guests enjoyed wired-computer use. Hightower collects data to plan various projects such as the recent addition of a new T1 fiber line to enhance connectivity even more.

The data have also shown some other interesting facts. For example, in 2015, TPL’s official service population was listed as 8,863; however, the staff welcomed 46,884 visitors, with over 40,840 checking out the 17,389 books and 41,692 available digital books.

 

The staff at Thomasville Public Library have worked to transform the library into a community hub and service center for the region. Pictured are (from left, front) Gina Wilson, Ruby Hightower, (back) Maxine Owens, Martha Gramelspacher, Chris Trull, Dawn Heartsill and Julie Rembert.

Surveys in 2015-2016 showed 40-42 percent of these users came from four surrounding counties: Choctaw, Washington, Wilcox and Marengo. If TPL had been able to count wireless use, the numbers would have been far higher. This data verified that TPL’s impact crossed county lines, making it a regional information center.

January 2016, dreams of a larger library became a reality. First U.S. Bank of Thomasville donated the old Bedsole Furniture Building to the City of Thomasville, for the purpose of moving the current public library from Highway 43 to the downtown area. The projected costs to renovate the historic, two-story building into a new modern library are $3.5 million, and fundraising efforts have already begun. With the new building, the library will become a one-stop experience, housing a children’s area, a reading amphitheater, a small business center and a professional business area with computers, an old-fashioned reading room without electronic intrusions, a community room, and another large multipurpose room for public meetings and children’s events.

With vision, innovation and commitment, the Thomasville Public Library has emerged as a new kind of library, one that looks much different from libraries of the past. TPL is now a 21st century community hub, offering solutions and services that will improve life for everyone.

 

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..