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Issue Date: September 2005 Issue

The People's University

The Cleveland Public Library is much more than just a collection of books and documents. Whether you’re new to the country or finding it harder to get around these days, nothing can separate you from the Library’s wide array of community programs.��

Most of us have a concrete vision of a library, but it is changing before our eyes. While we continue to reminisce about our childhood story hours, shelves stacked with countless volumes and remarkable research “finds,” the Cleveland Public Library has become much more.

Cleveland Public Library Director Andrew Venable Jr. likes to refer to the library as “the People’s University.” He talks about the importance of the library’s “preservation of books in the hands of the masses.”

“The individual has options,” Venable says. “There are a plethora of facts available here, whereas so many other societies want to destroy or legislate people’s minds. Books are such a threat to others. But here, we recognize that you can be self-educated if you surround yourself with books. There is power in books.”

He knows this. He believes this.

In the past, a visit to the library was simply that. A person would walk to the nearest branch, take out a book and bring it home. Today’s Cleveland Public Library is much more than that. But, before revealing the many external changes, let’s take a peek at what’s happening inside.

Recognizing Cleveland’s increasingly large immigrant population, the Cleveland Public Library circulates foreign language materials. Interesting, you might say. But, did you know that the circulation of foreign language materials in the Main Library exceeds the circulation of English language materials? Amazing, isn’t it? So is the fact that Chinese and Russian materials lead this list. And, it’s not just about books. It’s about fashion magazines such as Vogue translated into Indian, Chinese and many other languages. It’s about weekly newspapers that give immigrants an insight as to how their countries are portraying what’s happening. And, of course, there is fiction and lots of it. Much to the happiness of those who have emigrated from Russia and could not gain access to classics there, the classics may be found here. … and in Russian, no less.

But there are more surprises within these walls. The Cleveland Public Library serves as a depository for U.S. government documents, all of which are open and available to the public. These documents, designed to create a record for the government, represent the largest collection in Northeast Ohio. They include part of the patent collection, available so that anyone may check patents or copyrights. And none of these documents may ever be destroyed.

It is also the only library in the state to be designated a “Center for the Book” by the Library of Congress, according to Head of Main Library Joan Clark.

“There is only one library in each state to receive this designation. It means that we stand for and promote the use of the book,” she explains.

And, there’s more. The library is home to the Computer Learning Connection, a learning environment that offers classes to help everyone become more computer-proficient. Branch libraries located in Spanish- and Arabic-speaking neighborhoods offer word processing instruction in those languages.

“We try to place these programs in communities to cater to their demographics,” Clark explains. “Our aim is to meet the demand where that demand lies.”

The demand sometimes takes the library someplace that might be considered atypical for a library department, like Cleveland City Hall. Yet that is precisely where the Public Administration Department is located. “The department has been in City Hall since 1912,” Clark says. “It is one of the oldest municipal reference departments in the country.”

This department’s primary goal is to provide a reference for city officials, but it is open to the public. Located on the first floor of City Hall, the department serves as a repository for the City of Cleveland and features not only papers that may be important to the public but also statistical information that compares Cleveland with its suburbs and other cities across the nation.

Yet there is more happening outside the Cleveland Public Library than meets the eye. No longer is it necessary to make a trip to the library. For seniors and the disabled, the Cleveland Public Library is now as close as their computers.

The library has become involved in numerous outreach programs. According to Jan Ridgeway, Head of Branch and Outreach Services, community partnerships have been established that enable both parties to extend their resources. As part of an American Library Association initiative, 10 libraries across the country — including Cleveland’s — have partnered with Walgreens pharmacies to conduct workshops on topics pertinent to the senior population, including new Medicare laws, prescription drug interactions, modern epidemics (with a focus on diabetes) and alternative medicines like yoga and herbal remedies.

“It has been established that residents of urban areas don’t do preventive medicine,” Ridgeway explains. “We are teaching them how to manage and seek healthy ways of living.”

But health isn’t the only topic covered by the partnerships. The NAACP and the Cuyahoga County Bar Association offer a legal literacy series that outlines information on landlord and tenant laws, small business, wills and probate and employment and hiring. This particular program targets low-income African-American and Latino populations.

The Cleveland Public Library also partners with local museums. A program with the Western Reserve Historical Society not only introduced children to Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” but also encouraged children to go to the museum and explore exhibits they otherwise might not have seen. Similar programs with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland have promoted tie-ins between materials available at the library and the museums’ resources.

For those who can’t come to the Cleveland Public Library, the news keeps getting better. In more and more ways, the library is coming to them. Ridgeway describes the library’s mobile unit as “bursting at the seams.” With a waitlist of more than 15 organizations begging for it, the mobile unit alters its route slightly over the summer to accommodate community recreation centers. It reaches what Ridgeway refers to as “nontraditional patrons — the ones who can’t normally come to us.” These may be people who have transportation issues, health concerns, are residents of a residential treatment facility or simply aren’t located near a library branch.

The unit, which has its own wheelchair lift, is now in its fourth year. With the capacity to hold 26,000 volumes, including books, DVDs, music cassettes and magazines, it is, according to Ridgeway, “larger than a couple of our branches.” It has its own summer reading program and typically accommodates 700 to 1,000 reserves each month. Sixty percent of those utilizing the mobile unit are seniors.

But seniors aren’t relying on the mobile unit alone. In fact, many are visiting the Cleveland Public Library through their computers and a program entitled “Seniors Connect.”

“There is a huge digital divide with seniors,” Clark says. “They become more isolated. This connection with the Web puts them in touch with our culture and services.”

And then there’s the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, an extremely progressive branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Ridgeway refers to program director Barbara Mates as “one of the most innovative in the nation.”

Mates’ commitment to the community is apparent. She has introduced computer chat room technology and implemented programs to inspire her audience.

Mates uses adaptive technology, which incorporates voice output, refreshable Braille and a large-type keyboards, to help her patrons.

“I’ve always wanted to do a program with schools for the blind, but wondered how they could commute,” she says. “Now it’s like they’re in the same room.”

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