In 1970, three library systems merged to form the current countywide public library system. Library officials contend that in subsequent years, the logic of that merger has been demonstrated repeatedly in improved service, increased usage, and more effective use of tax funds.
“We’re proud of the services we deliver,” said Meg Delaney, Main Library manager. “We are excited and committed to continuing to change and evolve. We’ve lasted and endured because we’ve been responsive, we’ve listed, we’ve changed, we’ve updated—and that continues today.”
The downtown library branch manager drew a parallel between today’s library system and what the country and region were facing back when the library first opened.
“When we opened in 1838, you think of what was happening in the country, what was happening during the Civil War, during the last part of the 19th century,” said Ms. Delaney. “Boy, you talk about a communication revolution then. Railroads were coming in and the speed of communication was accelerating. I think we’re on a parallel track right now where we think ‘Holy cow, the speed of communication is accelerating again.”
The library in 1838 was all about books. Today, books are only a small part of what a library does—considering it also offers music, movies, and a ‘virtual library’ with lots of downloadable information in the form of databases, e-books, and the like. An outreach department also operates bookmobile, cybermobile and book hauler services to nursing homes, retirement centers and rural residents, as well as provides library materials to correctional facilities, daycare providers, and homebound patrons.
“To some degree, we’re always in this transitional mode—and it’s our job to keep an ear to the ground. What are the programs and services? What are the materials that people need to help them navigate those changes? How may we help with that?” asked Ms. Delaney. “That should be our motto: how can we help with that—whatever somebody’s going through.”
One example of changing to meet people’s needs occurred during the recent economic downturn, when the library rebranded itself as a source of job search information for the unemployed. The library system invested in a number of databases, then offered its many computers to assist people in their job hunt. The library even hosted resume writing workshops and other helpful sessions to broaden the skill base of those seeking work.
“How do I apply for a job online? I’ve never done that electronically before. I’ve always gone in person and now they don’t want that anymore. Or from an employer perspective: I’ve got an idea. As an entrepreneur, I’ve got an idea for a business and I’ve got to find out whether this is viable,” outlined Ms. Delaney of the many questions people in the community were facing. “We have a lot of resources to help with that.”
The virtual library provides services for smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers so the library is wherever people happen to be. One such service called Zinio provides a subscription to 150 different magazines where library patrons can read an issue page-for-page online at no cost. Many of those magazines also have interactive features. For example, a library patron can click on a video while reading National Geographic online.
Another online service the library added is called “hoopla.” Library patrons can download and view videos and TV shows. Those aren’t current episodes at the moment; most of the TV series go back at least one season and earlier. However, content is being added all the time to rival the likes of Netflix.
Downloadable databases also are proving popular with library patrons—especially ones containing health and consumer information.
“Those can help with the daily decisions you may be facing in your life,” said Ms. Delaney. “But that’s the trick: how do we help the community-at-large understand what we’ve got for them.”
Despite its online resources, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library set a new record with nearly three million patron visits in 2012. Library officials contend that the recent renovations at each branch that a tax levy funded keep the physical locations relevant.
“The physical branches are still really wonderful places. It’s what sociologists term ‘a third place’: meaning it’s not home, it’s no work or school. It’s another gathering place. The buildings themselves are beautiful—modern, updated, the materials are current and fresh. It’s a place where you can go as an individual, in a small group. It’s a place where you can go have a gathering, a meeting, a program,” explained Ms. Delaney, who has been with the library system for nearly two decades.
The main branch manager also has managed the Sanger branch library and worked at the Washington branch library, as well as headed the humanities department downtown. In that time, she believes the single-biggest challenge—and accomplishment—for the library system has been staying relevant and cutting-edge during the digital revolution.
“I think that we’re figuring out more ways to connect. We’re figuring out how to take care of and tending to the folks who already know we’re here,” said Ms. Delaney. “But we’ve broadened our base a lot.”
The current system started when 66 residents paid a $2.00 annual fee to use a new public library, organized by the Toledo Young Men’s Association. This first library had 500 books. In 1873 the library reorganized with the Toledo Board of Education and created the Toledo Public Library, which was completely free to the public.
The Toledo Public Library quickly outgrew its space, and a downtown building was constructed to accommodate the new Main Library. It opened at Madison and Ontario in 1890. This library was the first in the nation to feature a department exclusively for children.
By the mid-1930s, the Main Library became overcrowded yet again, prompting the library board to buy an entire block in downtown Toledo for a new building. This “Department Store of Information” was a federal WPA project and featured many hallmarks of the Art Deco style. The first full service branches started when Andrew Carnegie funded Locke, Kent, Mott, Jermain and South locations in 1917 and 1918.
Outside of Toledo, in 1918, Lucas County opened its first separate library, also a Carnegie building, in Maumee. The Lucas County Library then opened its own branches: Washington Township in 1928, Reynolds Corners in 1958, Waterville in 1964 and Oregon in 1965. In 1937, the Lucas County Library also launched the first Bookmobile Service in the nation.
In 1927, the Sylvania Public Library opened, creating a third library system in Lucas County.
By 1970, the three separate library systems all agreed to merge and form the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, creating a stronger system and a better way to serve the entire county through all the Toledo and suburban branches that had opened.
The computer age brought the installation of public computer labs, a computerized materials catalog, and an automated borrowing system throughout the 1970s and 80s. Technology and services continued to flourish in the 1990s: annual borrowing topped 6 million items and the Authors! Authors! lecture series began.
From 1996 through 2007, all branches were renovated, updated or completely replaced. When completed, Library Director Clyde Scoles appropriately referred to the combined structure as “the community’s gift to itself.”
The library will mark its 175th anniversary in a number of ways, starting with its Summer Reading Club for kids and adults. Many of those activities will touch on the milestone.
“We’re just trying to make people aware of it and an appreciation of things that were happening along that continuum of time,” said Ms. Delaney.
The Library Legacy Foundation will host a gala fundraiser on Sept. 7 entitled The Library's Epic Journey - Celebrating 175 years featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough, who will speak at a black-tie dinner followed by other entertainment.
“We’ll announce other events into the fall and winter, just to celebrate something that’s really unusual,” said Ms. Delaney.
Other anniversary-related events and activities will be announced on its website www. toledolibrary.org throughout the summer.