There has been a public library in Toledo almost as long as there has been a Toledo. Since it became Ohio’s first library in 1838, our local system has remained an essential community resource, giving Toledoans information, entertainment, education, and countless other ways to make their lives better, at no charge.
Thus its motto: “Open to All.”
Next week, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library — one of the nation’s best — will observe its 175th anniversary with a black-tie gala at the downtown Main Library. The event, titled “The Library’s Epic Journey,” also will celebrate the community that has loved its library so long and so faithfully, in hard times as well as good ones.
“The library is the most democratic of American institutions,” says Clyde Scoles, the local library’s director since 1985. “It’s something that we feel strongly should be celebrated. This is a tribute not necessarily to the library itself, but to the community that has supported it and the staff that has served it so well over the years.”
The library’s user base is larger than ever before. The Main Library and 18 neighborhood branches attracted almost 3 million visitors last year, and Mr. Scoles expects even more this year.
That’s the equivalent of every man, woman, and child in Lucas County coming to the library nearly seven times each year. About three-fourths of county residents have a library card, among the nation’s highest rates.
The library operates a computer-equipped cyber-mobile as well as a traditional bookmobile to reach county residents where they live. Its Web site and other digital resources get more than a million visits a year from around the world. Mr. Scoles describes this electronic library as “our branch in the cloud.”
Toledo’s library has come a long way from its beginnings in December, 1838, when 66 members signed up in a city whose population barely broke four figures. But in other ways, Mr. Scoles says, the library’s mission hasn’t changed.
“Customer service is paramount — we want people to feel safe and comfortable,” he told me. “When you seek out a needle in a haystack and find it, it’s because of what we were able to do for you. We’ve delivered on our promises.”
The library remains a repository of the printed word, of course; Mr. Scoles calls the book “man’s greatest invention.” But that’s only the start of the library’s services. It can help you learn to read, look for a job, use a computer, hold a public meeting, study local history, file your taxes, bid on a government contract, hear a concert or author lecture, and tell your own story.
Mr. Scoles says the information revolution has brought about a “tremendous transformation” of the library over the past two decades: “Who would have thought 20 years ago that you could search the Library of Congress at our library — and through us, at your home or office or dormitory?”
Today, the library can help you read magazines on your iPad. It can help you create YouTube-style videos. It can download books to your Kindle. Next up: three-dimensional printing.
But Mr. Scoles says the library also is sensitive to the other side of the “digital divide” — county residents who lack computer access and skills. The library works closely with local schools and other community institutions to improve literacy throughout Toledo and Lucas County, both digital and traditional.
Less noted is the library’s economic impact on the city and county. A University of Toledo study the library commissioned during its successful millage campaign last year concluded that for every dollar the system spends, this community gets back $2.86 in economic benefits — through the circulation of books and other library materials, expert help from library staff, and other “value-added” services.
Still, the library has endured economic hardship in recent years. State aid once provided three-fourths of the county’s budget; today, it’s less than half. During the trough of the Great Recession in 2009, state government cut its support of the library by 18 percent.
Those reductions, and losses of tax revenue caused by declines in local property values, forced the library to reduce its operating hours by more than one-fourth. It cut nearly 20 percent of its jobs, slashed spending on materials, and curtailed children’s programs. Yet use of the library still reached record levels.
Last year, county voters approved a five-year property tax for the library, providing nearly half of its operating revenue. Money from the levy has enabled the system to restore Sunday hours at five branches; the Main Library will resume a Sunday schedule shortly after Labor Day. The library also is enhancing other services.
“I think the public appreciates the return on investment they get for their tax dollars,” Mr. Scoles says. “They know we continue to maintain excellence. We’re very grateful for that support.”
At next week’s gala, David McCullough, the popular historian and best-selling author of such books as 1776 and John Adams — and a public-library evangelist — will be featured speaker. Members of many of Toledo’s most prominent art institutions — the symphony, the opera, the ballet, the School for the Arts, and Toledo Repertoire Theatre — will perform.
Proceeds will benefit the Library Legacy Foundation’s Early Literacy Fund. The Blade’s parent company, Block Communications, Inc., is a sponsor of the event.
If any Toledo institution deserves to salute itself, and its hometown, it’s our public library. I hope to see you at the commemoration of the library’s epic journey.
To get information about “The Library’s Epic Journey” or to buy tickets, call 419-259-5266 or visit toledolibrary.org.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.