Despite deep budget cuts and a slow economy, Florida's libraries continue to be resilient and essential community treasures.
We can assess the value of libraries by the number of patrons and by how the services are used. For the second year, the Florida Library Association and the Florida Division of Library and Information Services worked with the American Library Association to hold "Snapshot Day," so named because the activities let the public see libraries in real time.
On this day, according to an official website, library staffs compile statistics and gather stories, photographs and anything else that depicts "a day in the life" of their libraries. The Florida Library Association's Public Relations Committee posts the results online.
This year, Florida held two Snapshot Days, one in January and one on Wednesday. The November numbers will be posted soon. Those from January indicate that Floridians love and use their libraries. Here is a sampling of the statewide statistics for a single day:
• 255,268 Floridians visited libraries and borrowed 332,732 books, DVDs and magazines.
• 61,664 used a library computer and 10,090 learned computer skills.
• 44,139 asked questions at the information desk.
• 16,755 children, teens and adults attended programs at 1,290 library programs statewide.
Elaine L. Birkinshaw, manager of St. Petersburg's main library and the branches, said that in addition to affirming the library's social and cultural value, Snapshot Day has a practical side.
"It shows that Florida libraries are a good investment in the community, returning $8.32 in value for every dollar spent," she said. "What if libraries went away, even for a day? What would the impact be on our community and the people we serve? What would happen if there were no libraries? Libraries are busier than ever, providing incredible service in these challenging economic times. … Snapshot Day enables library advocates to prove the value of their libraries to decisionmakers and increase public awareness."
On a typical day at any St. Petersburg public library, Birkinshaw said, dozens of people look for jobs online, apply for unemployment or other services, check out books or collaborate on projects or study.
Since renovations, study tables at the main library have become so crowded that new tables must be added, Birkinshaw said. Reference staff soon will be online answering questions for the statewide Ask-a-Librarian program from 2 to 4 p.m. each day the library is open. It is one of 100 facilities in the state that has a librarian available online to answer questions from 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Birkinshaw said one of the library's most important programs, which I witnessed at one branch on Snapshot Day, is its effort to help parents understand how to be their children's first teacher. Staff members and parents work together with children on, among other endeavors, reading, listening skills and learning color names and counting. Although many of the activities are presented as games, they are serious literacy lessons in disguise. In some programs, children as young as 6 months participate.
"Our presenters use rhymes and songs to introduce children to the sounds that they will need to develop language and reading skills," Birkinshaw said. "Parents are encouraged to share a board book with their little ones so that children begin to see the relationship between the spoken word and the printed word. These books have simple illustrations and few words."
I visited three libraries on Snapshot Day, and I was most impressed by the number of teenagers I saw doing homework and reading for pleasure at the James Weldon Johnson branch on 18th Avenue S. Some had been dropped off by their parents, but most had walked there from their nearby homes.
Since it was built several years ago, the Johnson branch has become an oasis for kids who otherwise do not have safe and nurturing places to study in their neighborhoods. I have no doubt that some of the teens I saw on Snapshot Day will become lifelong library patrons.