Orange County Library System turns 100, still finding ways to be an 'agent of service'
The Orange County Library System turns 100 today, Wednesday, Nov. 8, and it seems to be getting younger with age.
Cardholders can learn new technologies, and there are new efforts to lift barriers to service and reach out to residents throughout Orange County.
At the Orlando Public Library
It’s a Monday morning at the Orlando Public Library. On the first floor, in the Papa Bear room, Emily Gingras is leading nine toddlers and their caregivers in children’s songs, stories and playful conversation.
Denise McGirt is here with her grandson Hutton. Years ago, she would bring his two older sisters to the story time program. And she was glad to learn it’s still going on.
"So here's this little 2-year-old that I'm starting to bring back after his sisters now are teenagers," McGirt says. "So that's how much I appreciate the library."
She and Hutton made up a song about going to the library. Here’s the second verse: "We read stories. We play with toys, going to the library to have a lot of – what? – fun."
A few minutes later, Hutton has another song to sing, about the library itself, as he sits in a castle in the children’s section.
"Happy birthday to the library," he sings.
100 years of books and service
That’s right, it’s the Orange County Library System’s 100th birthday. On Nov. 8, 1923, the Albertson Public Library opened its doors in downtown Orlando.
It was an impressive limestone building with 21,000 volumes. But it was segregated. Months later, Black readers got a tiny library, the Booker T. Washington Branch – in a repurposed church rectory – with about 1,200 books.
The Albertson’s first librarian — Olive Brumbaugh — said it wasn’t just a building or a collection of dead books but a “living, active agent of service,” according toa blog post published by the library.
Today, of course, so much has changed. A 290,000-square-foot concrete edifice long ago replaced the Albertson, and there are 14 branches now.
Every year, millions of items are circulated, downloaded and delivered to doorsteps. In its 2022 annual report, the system tallied 11,000 library events and more than 10-thousand technology classes.
And more than 2,500 people got help from a library social worker.
'Great at evolving'
The Orange County Library System’s role as an “agent of service” means a lot more these days.
"We're circulating almost 9,400 digital items per day, along with somewhere in the neighborhood of, you know, 5,000 -- 5,300 -- physical items per day. So, you know, more than just books is the real deal here," Library Director Steve Powell said.
He said they have been focused on removing barriers. A farm worker ID now will get you a library card, and group homes can have one card for all their residents.
One of the barriers to service was late fees. So the library switched to automatic renewals.
"And then in October of last year, we stopped overdue fines," Powell said. "That is a huge hurdle. And, you know, we initially cleared 25,000 accounts and within four months 12,000 of those people came back to the library."
These moves are part of an effort to reach marginalized communities externally. Internally, he said, the library started a diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility department.
Powell said next they’ll do more to meet the people of Orange County where they are.
"[W]e've got a department that we never had before called community engagement," he said. "So mobile services, social workers, storytellers, and we've got a team of outreach specialists that only do library programming and events off site."
Back in the Papa Bear room, Kai Johnson is watching her 2-year-old grandson hammer plastic pegs into a toy bench while a bubble machine rains bubbles all around him.
"Well speaking, especially for Orange County's library system," she says, "they are great at evolving. They don't stick with what was done back in the ‘80s, or the ‘90s or the early 2000s. They keep it moving."
Now, on to the next 100 years.