New public library director stresses importance of adapting to future needs

BUCKHANNON — The director of the Upshur County Public Library checked in to the Buckhannon Rotary Club last Tuesday to discuss the role of libraries generally as well as specific happenings at the county library since he’s been at its helm.
Ralph Oppenheim, who was hired as director in fall of 2016, said libraries have been around since the invention of writing and books.
“Libraries have always been forward-looking institutions and have reconfigured themselves many times for temporary needs and anticipating what will be in the future,” Oppenheim said. “It’s not very well-known that libraries are always one of the first agencies to adopt new technology and are, of course, huge providers of material.”
Oppenheim, whose graduate thesis in television won a Sony/American Film Institute Award in 1982, worked for many years in public affairs programming for television shows and won a local Emmy award for a children’s show that aired on WBZ-TV.
“One of the principles underlying libraries is collaborative consumption,” Oppenheim said. “It’s renting or borrowing something that someone else owns; public libraries have served as a model for sharing economies.”
The way information is consumed, however, has changed a great deal over time, Oppenheim pointed out.
“Technology has changed the expectations of library patrons,” he said. “People today expect to find and access information from wherever they are, which is why libraries have increased access to computers and mobile online access to e-books.”
“The internet is absolutely indispensable, and everyone has to become technologically literate, at least, to some extent,” Oppenheim added. “Even if you just want to be a Walmart greeter, you have to apply online.”
Oppenheim cited a recent study in which 71 percent of public libraries reported that they were the only provider of free access to the internet in their communities.
“Given that fact, doesn’t it sound like public libraries are indispensable to the community?” Oppenheim asked. “And, to answer those people who come up and say, ‘I like having a book in my hand, I can’t do e-books’ — that’s missing the point about libraries, which is about accessing information in whatever format.”
Oppenheim says the Upshur County Public Library staff makes it a point to assist people with digital literacy, but that they are also particularly focused on getting readers started young.
“We are focusing on schoolchildren,” Oppenheim said. “Last month, we checked out 349 children’s fiction books, 736 e-books and 166 nonfiction books.”
The director said the library has also begun collecting toys for its new toy library, which will allow children and their parents to essentially “check out” toys that may have already been used by other children who no longer wish to use them.
“Early learning research has shown that 90 percent of the brain’s capacity has developed by age 5, with the most significant development occurring from birth to 3,” Oppenheim said. “Talking, singing, playing is all essential to children’s health as it contributes to their cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being, and it enhances their pre-literacy experience.”
Oppenheim added that the toy library is crucial to providing the experience of playing to kids who might not otherwise have it due to family finances.
“This is important because a lot of kids don’t get toys except for at Christmastime, and children get bored with toys, they outgrow toys and so the toys can be donated to the library and be used by other children,” Oppenheim said, adding that there are no parameters on the toys. “They don’t have to be educational or learning toys. They can be puzzles, board games and we’ve actually started getting a lot of infant toys, too.”
The library is currently seeking donations of children’s toys; if you would like to drop off a donation, the library is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The library is closed on Sundays.
He said the library is also working on developing a delivery service for shut-ins.

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