By Karin Fabry • Photography By John Jernigan
I dashed for the escalator, my ponytail sailing behind me. I excitedly talked to my mom and dad on the way up, the words coming out at a dizzying pace. Once on the second floor, I made a mad dash for the colorful beanbag chairs. I could spend hours there, browsing from one book to the next, getting lost in the pictures and words. It was a given that when checkout time approached, I would have an armload of books. Growing up, my parents always stressed reading to my brother, David, and myself. Weekly visits to the library are one of my fondest childhood memories.
Twenty or so years later, I witnessed that same excitement at the grand opening of the new-and-improved Ocala public library on July 31, 2004.
Jacob, a young boy barely old enough to walk without stumbling, sat contently in a quiet corner of the library. His mom, Denise Handley, read aloud from a Dr. Seuss book. When she stopped reading, Jacob would anxiously point to the page and say, “More!”
“I’ve been reading to him since before he was born,” Denise says. “It’s something we do together every night.”
And, like Denise and Jacob, much of Ocala has been anticipating the opening of the new library facility since the old downtown location closed in June.
‘A Destination In Marion County’
It’s not easy to move an entire library. Just ask Library Director Julie Sieg.
“We first looked at this site as a potential location for the library when I was on maternity leave,” she says. “My son is six years old now. That’s how long we’ve been working on getting this new library up and running.”
And the process hasn’t been simple. From construction delays to budget problems, challenges had to be met and solved along the way. Through state-allotted funds, community support, and money raised by the Friends of the Library, we now have a wonderful new library.
“I see the library as a destination in Marion County,” Julie says. “It’s the kind of place that when visitors come to town, someone will say, ‘You have to see our new library.’ I think that’s what we’ll become.”
‘We’ve Been Waiting For A Long Time’
In the coming months, driving east on Silver Springs Boulevard, splashes of color will dot the library facade. The sixteen mosaic panels that rim the roofline were designed by local and national artists and were handcrafted, one by one, in Mexico.
Although delayed by several weeks, the panels ultimate unveiling will be a welcome addition to the building itself.
Library Community Liaison Gerry Brent says “the panels are one of the highlights of the new location.”
“They’re absolutely beautiful,” she says. “Ten of the panels represent a breakdown of the Dewey Decimal System. The other six, smaller panels represent different elements of Marion County, such as Silver Springs, Native Americans, and the old Carnegie Library.
“There are a lot of really awesome things about each one of the panels,” Gerry continues. “But one of the neatest things is the hidden key. Each artist was asked to incorporate a gold key into their panels when they were designed. We took our library’s theme, ‘Your Library is the Key,’ from those golden keys.”
I asked Julie what that theme meant to her, and it took a few minutes for her to answer.
“A public library is different things to different people. People come here to lose themselves in a book, to research travel opportunities, career questions, home improvement, and so much more. The possibilities are endless. Most importantly, though, I think that phrase means that the library is the key to success, knowledge, entertainment, and personal satisfaction.”
And with all that the new 59,700-square-foot library has to offer, the possibilities are endless.
The Friends of the Library book sale now sits inside the lobby in its own year-round bookstore. What used to be a much-anticipated yearly event will now occur daily during normal business hours. The lobby also houses public telephones, a computer terminal to access the library’s card catalog, and an information kiosk where — hint hint — you can pick up the latest copy of Ocala Style. Soaring, vaulted ceilings lend an air of grandeur to the impressive open space.
Through the lobby and to the right, the circulation department will take care of all check-ins and -outs. One thing it would be hard not to notice about the new library is that the staff is all smiles.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” library specialist (and my mom) Mary Ellen Fabry says. “It’s so nice to see people’s reactions and smiles when they bring their families in.”
And everyone who steps foot in the light, bright library has reason to smile! While the administration didn’t go through a buying frenzy when moving to the new location, patrons will notice more books on the shelves.
“We always had the books in the system,” Gerry says. “We just didn’t have anywhere to put them.”
Julie says walking down the center isle and gazing into the stacks, she sees books she’s never seen before. And with the increase in books, the opportunities for research have improved as well. A new genealogy room features microfiche, computer terminals, and volumes upon volumes of reference books for those interested in ancestral research. Adjacent to the genealogy room, the lifelong learning room is dedicated to teaching adults life skills such as reading and writing.
Visitors are also sure to notice the abundance of computers in the new location. In the past, patrons had to share 18 computers. Now, there are 70 high-tech, flat screen computers spread throughout the facility.
“We will again be able to offer computer training classes,” Gerry says. CLM Workforce Connection is working with us on training programs in resume writing, computer skills, and interviewing. It will be a wonderful opportunity for those adults who are job seekers in the area. Our programs will all coordinate with those at the one-stop centers.”
‘A Fantasyland For The Smallest Patrons’
According to the Reading is Fundamental Website (rif.org), reading to young children promotes language acquisition and correlates with literacy development and, later on, with achievement in reading comprehension and overall success in school. The new-and-improved children’s area should be a fantasyland for the library’s smallest patrons.
Ducking past the oversized alligator, whose job it is to guard the oversized books, I felt like I was walking into a fairytale. I was. On my right, the words of Rumplestilskin, John Adams, Oliver Twist, and Harry Potter all waited to be explored.
“When kids walk through the façade and into the room, they look around in awe,” Julie says. “It’s so colorful and inviting that they don’t know which way to go first. And I’ve heard a number of adults say they wished they were still children when they first see the room. It’s a big compliment.”
This 9,100-square-foot area will allow for an abundance of children’s activities. A new arts and crafts room is stocked full of construction paper, pipe cleaners, and finger paints. The tile flooring makes it a kid-friendly art zone.
“As we go through the seasons, the kids will get the opportunity to create different decorations for the tree that is being designed for the checkout area.”
Storytime also has its own designated room now.
“Before,” Julie says, “we had to put up signs warning that there could be noise because of storytime. Now the kids can make all the noise they want without disturbing the rest of the library.”
‘This Is Absolutely Fantastic’
Of course, the increased space and programming offered at the library increases volunteer opportunities.
“Before, volunteers would mostly shelve books,” Gerry says. “Now we have the ALIVE (A Library Involvement Volunteer Experience) program and offer job descriptions based on what might interest different volunteers. We’ll have library greeters and people to help with computer lessons, arts and crafts, or any of the other programs. We appreciate our volunteers tremendously.”
Since the library opened, I’ve personally been back several times just to explore and walk around. At the grand opening ceremony, Julie invited the individuals and families of Marion County to utilize and enjoy the new space — according to the numbers, the residents of Ocala sure have been!
At the old downtown location, an average of 1,000 patrons visited the library each day. Early estimates show that number will jump to 1,500 at the new location. As a matter of fact, on Monday, August 2, more than 5,600 people visited the library and more than 160 new library cards were issued on that first day.
“Ever since we opened we’ve been breaking old traffic records,” Gerry says. “We’re very excited about the amount of people who are passing through the library.”
With no one-way streets and an abundance of free parking, the new library is a convenient stop.
“This is absolutely fantastic,” former Children’s Librarian Evelyn Hartz says. “This is such a special place for all of Marion County. Everyone should have the opportunity to come and see this. The staff, the facilities, and the programs are all wonderful.”
Julie believes the library is really just getting started.
“This is a celebration,” she says, “and we’ll always be looking to enhance and improve our new library, both aesthetically and educationally. We’re still looking to the future.”
Ocala Public Library
2720 East Silver Springs Boulevard
Mark Your Calendars!
On September 23, Ocala Style proudly presents a “Murder Mystery Dinner Gala” at the Ocala Hilton. Author Edna Buchanan will be the featured guest speaker, and the highest auction bidder at the gala will receive the most unique prize of all — a pivotal role in her upcoming novel. Attire is dressy casual; cocktails begin at 6:30pm. Cost is $150 per ticket or corporate tables can be purchased for $2,000. All net proceeds will be used to support the new downtown library’s enhancement fund and Marion Cultural Alliance. Call 369-1500 or visit mcaocala.com for more information.
By Karin Fabry • Photography By John Jernigan