National Library Week kicks off Monday with the theme of “Welcome to Your Library,” which promotes the idea that local libraries extend far beyond the building. That’s certainly the case with the Vigo County Public Library, a resource that many call the hidden gem of the Wabash Valley.
The main branch has been serving the Vigo County community since 1823, and its West Terre Haute branch opened its doors to the public in 1961. It’s estimated that one in four county residents has a library card; and approximately 1,100 entered the library doors each day, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic did not stop the library from providing services to the community. In fact, its virtual doors opened wider and new programs and existing services were welcomed by library patrons.
Whether it’s a children’s story time or providing help with genealogical research, what drives the VCPL staff, librarians and all the programming is the same: a commitment to the community.
“We are driven to generate change and transform lives, said Kristi Howe, executive director of the Vigo County Public Library. “Our own experiences and interests help us form personal connections to various aspects of public library service – information as power, technology and science, breaking free of addiction, strengthening neighborhoods, and more.”
More Than Books
When most people think about a library, the most common thought is books. While VCPL has its share of printed texts, its services reach far beyond the printed word. One of the relatively unknown services the library offers is the free Gale Courses, which are 60 different highly interactive online courses with topics ranging from healthy cooking, learning guitar or a new language, business skills, and creative writing, just to name a few.
Patrons can also stream and download music, movies and audio books through the Hoopla tool. Niche Academy provides online tutorials with topics ranging from how to start using Twitter to searching for jobs on Indeed. All of these services are free to library card holders.
The library also has a full-service print shop available at no cost to patrons, which includes the use of a 3D printer. Guests can send items to the library for printing and faxing, including color laser printouts, items on cardstock and large-scale 11-inch by 17-inch documents and creations. There is also an audio booth that can be used to create recordings of things such as podcasts.
Commitment to Past and Present
With a history as rich as Vigo County has — and a library going back nearly 200 years — the VCPL has an extensive array of services and teams dedicated to genealogy and local history.
The Special Collections Department is dedicated to preserving several collections of books and historical documents related to the history of Terre Haute and the Wabash Valley. Patrons can browse the book and document collections within the library, as well as accessing many materials digitally from home through the VCPL website. Vigo County high school yearbooks are available online and in special collections, as well as historic photographs and oral history transcripts of past influential community members.
The special collections librarians and staff are available to assist community members with personal family history archival requests and genealogy projects. Library card holders can access genealogy records on database websites such as AncestryPlus and HeritageQuest at no cost. Additionally, the library has several databases available on the website, including locating marriage records and obituaries from 1900 and beyond.
With a commitment to the past also comes one to the present and the future, and that is in the form of creating public access opportunities to local legislators through the regular Crackerbarrel programs.
“Not everyone can visit the state house and interact with state legislators,” said Elizabeth Scamihorn, the library's strategic communications manager. “Through our Crackerbarrels, you can ask questions and talk one-on-one with the individuals who can have influence in our community and our state.”
While the Crackerbarrel programs have transitioned to a digital format, Scamihorn is quick to point out the virtual program is still engaging. The events typically yielded 80 to 100 attendees in person. The virtual programs are seeing those same number of guests. She also notes those numbers show just how civically engaged Vigo County residents are, and how the library can provide a critical venue to create dialogue.
Youth Programming Beyond Story Hours
The Youth Services Department serves Vigo County youth, from the tiniest of infants to 19-year-olds. From homeschooling programs to creative writing classes, Youth Services has always created engaging kids' programming with the community in mind. Lauri Chandler, youth service librarian, believes it’s the feedback and requests from parents and kids that make their events popular and successful.
One of the ways youth services was able to successfully pivot during the COVID pandemic was through hands-on learning kits and Beyond the Classroom videos. There are currently 20 Beyond the Classroom videos that are available on demand from the library’s YouTube channel. The free kits are essentially boxed collections of ideas, instructions, educational materials and supplies that are given to kids to learn at home, and they could be used in conjunction with the online videos. For example, one was all about the science of popcorn. Others included bubble geometry and using pipe cleaners to create 3D bubbles, as well as the science of invisible ink and weaving.
The kit idea was actually talked about before COVID forced the library to close; however, the pandemic gave youth services the opportunity to further explore and implement the kit projects, said Chandler. They started by offering a small number of kits and within 15 minutes, the kits were taken. They doubled the next batch to 50 and those were also sold out within minutes. Youth services plans to continue offering learning kits, even after library life returns to “normal.”
A Commitment to Serving All Community Members
Sarah Trover, project and event manager for the library, believes one of the reasons the VCPL is such an asset is because it provides accessibility to the entire diverse community and they help reduce barriers to entry.
“It can be something as small as the library’s train night during Christmas in the Park,” said Trover. “Not only do we provide free train rides for kids and families, but we also give each child hot chocolate and a cookie. Not every kid in Vigo County may have an opportunity to enjoy a Christmas cookie on their own. Money is an issue in this community; so the library serves as an equalizer. If they can’t get a cookie from anyone else, they can get it from us.”
This commitment to serving the diversity of Terre Haute also includes programs such as the HIV testing the VCPL offers each month, or the recovery forums and programs that are offered each summer in partnership with the Wabash Valley Recovery Alliance/Center. It’s also the equal opportunity job fair in which Trover makes sure that individuals who have served prison time can obtain access to job leads.
“The library brings the community together and providing those opportunities for dialogue about subjects like recovery and HIV allows for open communication that’s free of stigma,” Trover said.
The Future of the library
With the effects of the pandemic showing signs of lessening, VCPL is preparing to resume more in-person programs and services in 2021. But, some of the programs that were begun during COVID will remain in place, including curbside pick-up and home delivery of library books. Additionally, librarians and staff plan to continue using the knowledge they acquired during the closure to strengthen the programming and commitment to the community in the months ahead.
“The public health emergency interrupted some of our strategic efforts, but it also accelerated our commitment to learning new skills and exploring creative service possibilities,” said Howe. “Ultimately, public libraries have to continue to adapt and change in response to community needs. Whether at the main library, the West Terre Haute branch, or other service delivery options, VCPL is always working to do better and to serve all of the residents of Vigo County.”