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Helping People Grow at Tulare Public Library

Aug 26, 2015 12:42AM ● Published by Brandi Barnett

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Equal Access

September 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Christina Hopper

A wallet or purse holds a number of useful, even essential cards. There’s your credit card, insurance card, driver’s license, and let’s not forget your Starbucks card. But the smartest card of them all, says Sara Brown, is your library card.
   
Brown, the Tulare Public Library manager since early 2014, isn’t just talking about book smart, either. Yes, those still line its shelves, but the modern library is about much more than print and paper.
   
On a normal weekday in July at the Tulare Public Library, a line of people waits to check out books. The place is abuzz with energy, fingers tapping on keyboards, questions both asked and answered (quietly). In a community room adjacent to the lobby, about a dozen children construct Legos. Is it usually this busy? Yes - every day, the guard says.
   
Maybe it’s the new building, or perhaps it’s the mountain of resources and programs, or it could be Brown’s visceral enthusiasm, but whatever is drawing the crowd, Tulare Public Library is putting the “public” back in public library.
   
To prove the point, Brown reveals that last year, “35,000 people in a town of 65,000 used our computers. The community, boy, they love their library, which is the hallmark of a great city.”
   
It could be called a chicken and egg scenario – does a great library produce a great city, or does a great city produce a great library? Brown credits her staff, volunteers and the Tulare Library Foundation, the nonprofit that committed $1 million to building the new structure in 2010. According to Brown, former library director Michael Stowell was especially influential. She called him “the building’s builder” and “the one who really envisioned this for the community.”
   
While statistics and numbers suggest tangible growth – a 6 percent increase of visitors between 2014 and 2015, and a 15 percent increase in revenue – the real evidence lies in resources that serve this community.
   
Last year, the library added an adult summer reading program to complement the already successful youth program, which increased from 1,300 to 1,800 participants from last year. Residents now can apply for passports at the library, take computer courses, learn typing or Excel and get one-on-one bilingual instruction. There are clubs like “Weight to Success,” a weight support group that meets every other Tuesday night, and arts and cultural programs.
   
They’re also breaking stereotypes. Brown, formerly the youth coordinator for Fresno County Library, admits, “I still have that children’s librarian vibe about me” — a far cry from the purse-lipped, hair-pulled-tightly-back librarian that will shush you and any sound.
   
The library also loans DVDs, music, even video games. “Studies have shown that families who play video games together actually helps increase literacy skills,” Brown says.
   
Being a librarian is addicting because her job is to help people, she says. “We’re the location if you’re going to pick up your tax forms; you can print it out. We’re the location if you need referrals for senior services, social services; we’ll direct you where to go. And getting kids excited to read, oh my gosh!”
   
They also help with employment. With a library card, visitors gain access to Job Now, a free online database that offers resources like one-on-one interview practice. “One of the coolest features is the resume lab,” says Brown. Just upload your resume and “they’ll get back with edits and suggestions within 24 to 48 hours. It’s free and all you need is a library card.”
   
“Education is economic development,” explains Brown, “so we are doing anything we can do.” This means adjusting to meet the growing and changing needs of the community.
   
Brown shares a quote she heard from a teacher: “The public library is the last great place for democracy because it’s equal access to all resources.”
   
That doesn’t mean just books, but also technology. “We’re still that old version of the library; we’re just in the modern age where you have technology,” says Brown. “And if you don’t know or understand technology, that’s why we have computer classes, so you can get ahead. We’re trying to bridge the gap. And that’s what a public library has always been about.”
   
Of course, you’ll still find the books and a quiet corner where you can read to yourself. Or, if you prefer, come on a Tuesday afternoon and read to Piper, “who is the best listening dog in the library,” says Brown.
   
This fall, the library will develop a strategic plan, and Brown hopes the community will participate in forums, workshops and focus groups to shape it. Because the library wants to know, “What is the priority for the City of Tulare, and what does the Central Valley really need?” The modern library, says Brown, is here to help people grow.

Tulare Public Library • 475 North M St., Tulare • (559) 685-4500
Open Tues.-Fri.10am-7pm, Sat. 10am-5pm
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