Beyond Books: Library is a gateway to knowledge
Two-year-old Oliver Hancock reads a book he picked out with his mother at the Marion County Public Library Headquarters. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Editor’s Note: Sadie Fitzpatrick uses this space to explore the character and quirks that make Ocala uniquely wonderful and occasionally irksome.
Smiling animals nestled beneath the branches of an old oak tree greet the little ones toddling into Story Time in a small room of the Ocala Public Library. My son and I take our seats on scratchy carpet squares. We join a dozen toddlers and their moms and dads as we clap, sing and wave our hands in unison with Miss Sally before quieting to listen to the day’s stories.
After Story Time ends, we wander the aisles of the Children’s Library, touching the spines of the books and pulling out ones of interest. My son loves the crackle the plastic book jacket protector makes as he opens each book. This journey to the library is our favorite part of the week, a ritual we’ve maintained since he was six months old and got his library card.
That was in early March 2020, and there were rumblings of a deadly virus quickly sweeping the globe. Toilet paper was beginning to sell out. Sporting events were being canceled. However, life remained normal in Ocala for the most part.
And then, in just mere weeks, life was anything but normal as the nation went into lockdown. We were heartbroken when we realized that our beloved library was among those shuttered in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The absence of this weekly sojourn to the library made me feel unsettled, unmoored. My son was at the perfect age where he’d climb into my lap with a book he’d picked out and snuggle into me, his head fitting perfectly under my chin. I loved reading to him in hushed whispers as he turned the pages with his chubby fingers. I had come to depend on these trips to the library to provide structure and stability to our week. My childhood was shaped by visits to this Mecca, and I yearned to continue providing this for my own children.
Just like the heroes in the books that line its shelves, the library’s amazing staff rose to the occasion to continue providing vital resources to its patrons.
“Many people told us that we served as a lifeline to them during the shutdown period,” explained Karen Jensen, community liaison for the Marion County Public Library System.
Although the building was closed, the staff found creative ways to get library materials to the public. Online ordering and curbside pickup allowed patrons to check out new reading materials. A public access computer remained open outside so that individuals needing to apply for government assistance could do so. WiFi also remained available for those that needed it.
The library serves as a lifeline for Ocala, global pandemic or not. It is so much more than a building that houses books. It is both a vital resource and a refuge for our community. It is a meeting spot for all types of clubs to gather, a place to further learning through both books and classes and a computer lab to apply for a new job or to complete an online class.
Most of us have access to computers and printers in our own homes, but many people in our area depend on the library to gain access to the Internet and printer services. According to Jensen, in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, there were 87,729 uses of the 230 public access computers available as part of the Marion County Library System, proving this to be a vital part of the library’s offerings.
The library system’s programs provide a way for both children and adults to learn a new language, hone their gardening skills or take an art class, all at no cost. This free programming is made possible through the financial support of the Friends of the Ocala Public Library, which provides funding for the children and adult programs of the libraries in Ocala, Fort McCoy and Reddick. There are six additional Friends branches that help meet the needs of the library system in Marion County, comprised of more than 900 volunteers.
In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the library system was able to offer 1,552 library programs for all ages with 37,804 individuals participating in these programs (due to COVID-19, these were mostly held virtually).
The Friends of the Ocala Public Library provides funding for the Zoom license the library uses to continue hosting its virtual classes. When it is safe to gather in large groups again, a movie license paid for by the Friends will provide movie nights and snacks for children and their families at no cost.
Story Time has returned as Fresh Air Story Time, held under the outdoor pavilion at the Ocala-Marion County Veterans Memorial Park located just steps from the library headquarters. We sit on the same itchy carpet squares six feet apart with all adults wearing masks. Miss Sally is now joined by Miss Faith, Miss Jessica and Mr. Jerome and the fantastic literary world of characters and adventures is alive and well.
In the story of Ocala, the library serves as the unsung hero of this narrative. It is so much more than a place where books are kept; it serves as a sanctuary for those seeking to learn, to escape, to improve. We must continue to support its staff and their mission to provide a safe, nurturing and welcoming environment for all of Marion County’s citizens to discover the magic of the library.
Note: Support your local library! For just $15 a year, you can become a Friend of the Ocala Pub-lic Library by visiting http://friendsoftheocalalibrary.org. All proceeds fund the adult and chil-dren’s programs.
Advocate for increased funding for the library system by the Marion County Board of County Commissioners by calling or emailing them here. (https://www.marionfl.org/our-county/board-of-county-commissioners).