By Sofia Paglioni
Judith Wright, Director of the Homewood Public Library, advocates for the public library every day. When she is not in her office, you can find her and other public library employees helping people with research, finding obituaries and selecting their next read.
The public library is an oasis for young adults, the elderly and families alike. Wright reminisced on the times her own mother would drop her off at the library where she spent her afternoons roaming the shelves or volunteering for the various programs offered. This interest morphed into a passion that would later shape her career in Homewood, Alabama.
The Jefferson County Libraries have over 40 locations, and the Birmingham Public Library has many of its own branches across the area. These branches provide access to books for over 600,000 people in Jefferson County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Jefferson County Library Cooperative has a long and influential history in the local area.
Executive Director of the Jefferson County Library Cooperative, Tobin Cataldo, dove deeper into its history, stating, “Jefferson County has had some sort of “countywide” library service since 1924. Municipal libraries, such as Birmingham Public Library, may have existed longer. The cooperative library agreement between independent municipal libraries in Jefferson County started in1978. Under this agreement, libraries remain autonomous with their own boards and administrative units, and they are primarily funded by their own municipalities. As times change, public libraries change with it, and the perception of the public library is gradually shifting from a simple place with books to a lively cultural hub.
Public libraries provide plenty of resources beyond books for the local community, but many are unaware of the amenities the public library provides. For example, the Homewood Public Library offers free access to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, publications which may be unavailable to locals otherwise. Telescopes, passes to the symphony and free internet are also some of the amenities local citizens can access with their library card, along with access to the other forty libraries in the surrounding area.
The Homewood Public Library is also evolving with the expanse of the digital age by providing locals with online streaming services. “The library is one of the only places you are not expected to spend money,” Wright commented, “Public libraries are for everyone.”
The local library cooperative has generated much local support and love, which led to North Avondale Librarian Saundra Ross-Forrest winning the “I Love My Librarian” award in 2011. Beyond providing practical resources, there is statistical evidence proving that quality public libraries improve the lives and mental health within their respective communities. According to Pew Research Center, “95% of Americans ages 16 and older agree that the materials and resources available at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.” Public libraries are fundamental to a well-rounded community and continue to withstand the test of time.
In times of uncertainty, people often turn to public libraries for information. With the recent controversies surrounding banned books, Jefferson County’s Public Library Cooperative is actively trying to counteract this violation of freedom. Cataldo highlighted the impact of public libraries, saying, “Where you’re known and welcomed, where you’re safe and respected, where you’re free to idle or engage; this is what makes libraries, particularly public libraries, special.”
Residents themselves can advocate for their local libraries by using the library services, attending events, addressing city council members and simply spreading awareness. “The library is only as strong as the community that values it”, Judith reflected, “and luckily we have a very strong community.”