What makes Marion County thrive? A library that serves

By CHARLIE SMITH,

National Library Week is coming up in April, but the Columbia-Marion County Library is going even beyond that and making it a month-long celebration. That makes it an ideal time to look at an organization where more than 41,000 walked through its doors in the past year.

“If you pass by the library you see that the parking lot is always full,” Library Director Ryda Worthy said in a recent presentation. “They’re there to use the computers. They're there to check out items. They’re there for children's programs. The meeting rooms are huge role. We had almost 3,000 people using the meeting room in the last year. And that’s only two rooms.”

There’s been a library in Columbia since 1912, and it has been in its current location at the corner of Eagle Day Avenue and Broad Street since the 1970s. The library system now includes both Marion and Jeff Davis counties.

The library has a long history of partnering with community organizations. For example, one of its current programs is a 21st Century Learning Grant co-authored with the Columbia School District. The library takes part in the Early Learning Collaborative headed by the Marion County School District, and Worthy serves on the steering committee for the Excel by 5 project and on the leadership class with the Marion County Development Partnership.

One of its most exciting programs is called “womb literacy” or “read to the bump” and encourages expecting mothers to read to their children before they’re born. Worthy said bringing home a newborn is a chaotic time where it’s difficult to read information given to a family and also there is not a birthing center in Marion County. So they are working to hit mothers while they are “nesting” and preparing their home for their babies. For every 10 books they read, as chronicled on a reading record, they receive a free book for their home library.

She said 30 to 40 families have signed up so far, and they’re hoping to partner with other agencies to get the word out more and increase that number.

Read Assisted Delivery comes through a federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences to purchase materials to distribute in the library, but they expanded it to provide access to people in Marion County who want to use the library but can’t physically come in, either because they’re elderly, handicapped or caring for a child or loved one.

“We know that we live in a rural area. That's the people we want to reach,” Marion County Branch Manager Mona Swayze said. “We had 41,000 people come in the library, but what about the other people that didn't come in? A lot of those are repeat users of the 41,000. And we know some people cannot afford to come to town.”

Volunteers from the Friends of the Library will bring up to 15 books to homes at no charge and then pick them up a month later or whenever called. It led to 30 new patrons signing up who didn’t previously have library cards and nearly 400 books have circulated over the past year, often to nursing home patients.

Worthy encouraged people to let members of their churches or community organizations who could benefit from the program know about it.

The library also offers audio books to be checked out. Audio books tend to cost around $85 as compared to print books at around $30, and the publishers limit the number of uses on the audio books. But the library goes through a company called RB Digital and subscription services to provide audio books.

The library system covers Marion and Jefferson Davis counties, but it’s part of a consortium with other systems that include Copiah-Jefferson, Lincoln-Lawrence and, most recently, Pike-Amite-Walthall to share a library automation system. They also physically rotate books once a week and have access to their digital books.

Most libraries do a summer program, but the Columbia library has a twist with a winter reading program. From January to March, the library catches children when the weather is bad and they’re not able to get out. They can fill out reading records and get free books when they fill up the sheet. And all the prizes, at all the library’s events, are books. They just finished the fifth winter reading program and had 31,000 books read system-wide over that time.

Books donations are accepted. If they are in like-new condition and are needed, they’re added to the book collection. Otherwise, they go to the Friends of the Library, which sells the used books and uses the proceeds to support programs at the library.

While there aren’t the old physical card catalogs – that’s all online now – the library still uses the tried-and-true Dewey Decimal System for organizing its books by topic.

Worthy said they’re doing a three-year strategic plan with the library board, which includes members from Marion and Jeff Davis counties. Current members are Frances Washington, Alex Simmons, Cheryl Bourne, Patricia Norris and Dorothy Barnes. One member rotates off every year and is replaced by the Board of Supervisors from one of the two counties.

During April, the board has approved a fine forgiveness program to encourage people to get back into the library, clear up their accounts and start using their accounts again. If people bring in donations for one of three agencies – food pantry, nursing homes and animal pantry – they will be forgiven up to $10 off their account. They’ll have a list of items those agencies need.

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