Library at community heart

Can a community library still be relevant in today’s technology filled world?

Victoria Yarbrough firmly believes it can.

Six years ago, the former City of Douglas Library Director arrived in Sierra Vista to take over the newly merged Leisure and Library Services.

At the age of just 29, she brought with her a youthful pair of fresh eyes that have seen her department meet the challenges of connecting to an audience that prefers to download its entertainment.

Since 2011, the number of items checked out from the Sierra Vista Public Library has increased from around 250,000 to more than 320,000 last year.

Attendance at youth programs has skyrocketed from 2,000 to 9,500 over the same period, and in 2016 the library’s wireless Internet service was connected to more than 9,000 times.

Yarbrough thinks the reason behind these impressive statistics is simple.

“A library exists to service what the community needs and wants,” she said. “It’s not about what we think the library should be.”

To that end, the library has expanded its inventory to include audio and e-books, movies, CDs, video games, and even bicycles. You can also check out a telescope to enjoy the area’s magnificent dark skies.

“The only way a library will stay relevant today is to keep looking at what it offers and what the community really needs,” adds Yarbrough. “If all we offered was paper books, we wouldn’t have the attendance or circulation numbers we have. In fact, DVDs have surpassed adult books for the first time.”

Throughout her tenure Yarbrough, who also oversees community parks and facilities like The Cove and skate park, has faced her fair share of budget issues as the city continues to battle a shrinking tax base and cuts in state and federal funding.

But the recession, which hit Sierra Vista a couple of years later than the rest of the country, has also proved to be a blessing for the library in some respects.

“I think the recession has driven a lot of people to the library,” said Janie Fix, president of the Friends of the Library executive board. “We’re also getting more people since Hastings closed. Unfortunately the economic downturn does help us because the cost of books in our store are low.”

Adds Yarbrough, “I think libraries across the country have seen that. The price of books has gone up and many people don’t have the money to buy a new book, or to pay for Netflix, or rent a movie from Redbox.”

One of the main areas of focus has been attracting a younger crowd to enjoy the library’s amenities.

Thanks to the introduction of a full-time children’s librarian, and under the stewardship of library manager Emily Scherrer, the facility has increased its kids’ programs from 60 to 185 annually.

And those activities don’t necessarily include books.

“There comes an age when kids start to slide away from their local library, and that usually happens in high school. So we started focusing on teenagers and introduced more programs like an anime club and laser tag,” Yarbrough said. “The library is the perfect place to play laser tag because there’s so many places to hide and not really anything that can get damaged. It’s really fun and it brings kids into the library for something totally unexpected.”

It’s an area that will remain firmly under the spotlight.

“You’ve got to grow your readers and library population. It makes kids more successful adults and it prepares them for school and beyond. In fact, you have to start at birth, which is why we created an early literacy program,” said Yarbrough.

Adds Fix, “And the parents have to bring them, so that gets more adults into the library.”

The mission to appeal to a wider audience has also transferred over into the long running Friends of the Library bookstore, which raises thousands of dollars annually to help with costs the city is unable to cover.

Back in the day the shelves were stocked with nothing more than used books. Today, you can find DVDs, audio books, CDS, magazines, vinyl records and greetings cards.

“We’ll take whatever the community is willing to donate to us,” said Fix. “We see younger people coming in with their parents because we have a children’s section, and we give discounts to home schooling parents. But we also still have a lot of retirees because our pricing is attractive to them. I think we appeal to all segments of the community.”

Yarbrough, who was the first female to head up a city department and is currently its longest serving director, believes the changes brought in since 2011 have helped the library and its services to grow.

“At first there was a lot of patience and slow change because people were concerned the library would be of less importance,” she said. “But I think it’s been a successful transition. In fact, I think the library is better off because it has more staff, a bigger budget and more resources.”

Published in the Sierra Vista Herald. Photo by Mark Levy.