As the daughter of a military service member, Bridget Christenson moved often during her youth. Adjusting to new towns, new people and new daily routines was necessary, but there was one place Christenson knew she could go where everything would feel familiar: the library.
“I read this series of Mandy books when I was young,” Christenson said. “And as long as you knew where you were at in the series, it didn’t matter whether you were at a library in South Carolina or a library in Illinois… You could get the next one.”
Chistenson’s love of libraries followed her long after childhood.
“It’s an equalizer,” Christenson said. “Everyone comes here equal.”
She would go on to work at the university library while pursuing her college degree and later pursue a career in library services. Christenson saw firsthand how the library’s role grew as technology evolved. Working at a library in Hancock, she saw the value of offering internet access to customers.
“I remember when these migrant workers would come in and we had one computer,” Christenson said. “They taught me how to use it, and they would email their families back in Mexico. That was amazing… They already were emailing, and so they showed us.”
More than books
Christenson works as the Director of the Hatch Public Library in Mauston.
“The library is a social place,” Christenson said. “That is different, I would say, than it was 20 years ago. We do a lot more programming and we do a lot more encouraging of social activity… particularly small rural towns (this) is a place for kids to congregate after school, whether they’re waiting for a ride or just for somewhere else to go, where we have high speed internet.”
Christenson said the stereotyped image some have of libraries as quiet, stodgy places is long outdated.
“We’re not this academic research library, we’re more of a community center,” Christenson said.
The Hatch Public Library offers programming that may surprise some locals, ranging from hot chocolate contests and prom dress giveaways to antique appraisals and free one-on-one technology help.
“We don’t care about your socioeconomic status, we don’t care where you live,” Christenson said. “It’s for the greater good, just like for the roads. Everyone benefits from it.”
The library also hosts the Heritage Room, an archive of historical materials available for reference and regularly used by the Juneau County Historical Society.
Christenson sees the library as a place where community members can come to enjoy access to services they might not be able to have on their own, extending beyond just books.
“We subscribe to 122 magazines, so I always tell people ‘Don’t buy a magazine subscription,’” Christenson said. “(They) pile up in your house, when you can check on out here, the latest one… We do guest author talks, we do book clubs… We subscribe to Ancestry.com library edition (which) is accessible for free.”
The idea that e-books are a threat to libraries is also a misconception, Christenson said. The Hatch Public Library offers e-books for checkout and has seen the service grow over time.
“E-books is up a ton,” Christenson said. “I think they compliment each other… I don’t think there’s that many people who only read e-books.”
Reaching new people
Kilbourn Library Director Cathy Borck also sees e-books as an opportunity for libraries rather than a problem.
“The new way of reading on tablets now, (people may think) it took away business from the libraries but actually it connected us more with people because we were the ones they turned to to learn how to use those devices,” Borck said.“Maybe they’re not checking them out from the library, but they’re putting them on their Kindle and putting it on their device and reading it that way.”
Kilbourn also seeks to make the library’s services available to more than just those who visit their building by packing books, games and other library materials into their Bookmobile.
“(It’s) something that makes us a little more unique,” Borck said. “We are able to go out into the community and take library materials and library services… We are able to go out in the summer and see kids and take the library reading program out to them. We visit nursing homes and assisted livings and senior apartments. (It’s) connecting with people and they really appreciate it.”
The Bookmobile even has a wireless hotspot.
“That’s a place people can come and connect for half an hour and catch up on their emails and Facebook,” Borck said. “Now we offer so much more (and) we’re going to help people keep up with the technology… We might be the best place to keep up with change and to keep up with what’s going on in the world.”
Borck sees the library as the ultimate form of community service.
“The library is the perfect place to work in and work for the community,” Borck said. “A lot of people in our book club are transplants from Illinois or other cities and they’ve come and moved here.”
Meeting people through the book clubs can be a gateway to the community and beginning to make it feel like home.
Kilbourn is also in the process of establishing a historical collection room.
“All our programming is aimed at bringing the community together, and that’s such a fun thing to be a part of,” Borck said. “Every time something new happens in the technology world, it affects the library… When I first started, we were still filling out the little cards and putting them in the card catalogue. And now everything is in the computer.”
The perfect job
To Borck, evolving the library’s services with the pace of technology isn’t just a necessity it’s a responsibility.
“It’s something that we not only have to learn, but we have to be able to teach our patrons,” Borck said.
In Reedsburg, Library Director Sue Ann Kucher is overseeing a an expansion of the children’s area to provide a new service desk and an extra 20 person meeting room.
“I do see libraries increasingly fulfilling the role of community whether that’s through programing, whether that’s through services, or finding ways to connect people with one another or with the resources that they need,” Kucher said. “Twenty years ago, you applied to a job by filling out an application. And more and more that requires using a computer… I think the library is the place where people know they will get the right answers and the right assistance to do the things they need to do.”
For Kucher, library work is the perfect career.
“I really can’t imagine my life any differently,” Kucher said. “It’s a career path that allows you to always keep on learning.”
Helping out at the library doesn’t have to be a full-time commitment with college degree requirements though.
“We have volunteers that come in to help and we have staff that have their Master’s Degree in library science, so there’s a lot of different ways to get involved with the library,” Kucher said.
In Sauk City, the library is letting customers take internet access home with them.
“Our e-book usage has gone up each year,” Judd said. “Our digital circulations went up 30 percent this past year from 2017 to 2018. It’s now 9 percent of our total circulation, so it’s becoming a significant part of what we offer.”
The Sauk City Library is also looking into getting Canopy, a streaming service for digital media.
“As we’re becoming more technologically focused we’re adjusting our services to meet those needs,” Judd said. “We’re offering more digital products and ways to access technology… we’re offering training to help people with basic technology skills through our Book a Librarian service.”
Kucher said the variety at the library is part of the appeal. “(We have) everything from people coming in and using the library to read the morning paper to people coming in and doing in depth research in the library on a project,” Kucher said. “I have a background in customer service and I think librarianship, that’s a lot of what we do.”
For rural areas often challenged with poverty, internet availability and spread out populations, today’s libraries are offering free services, hot spots and packing products into a van and going out to meet customers.
“Everybody is welcome at the library,” Kucher said. “All of our programs are free, from our story times to our historical organizations to our learning programs.”