By Anita Debro
For the Birmingham Times
When Erica Threatt began her career as a community chef advocating the benefits of healthful eating and delicious low-calorie recipes, she had one place in mind to share her knowledge and food: The Birmingham Public Library (BPL).
“I had been going to the library since my children were young for story times and other programs,” said Threatt, also known as “Chef E.” “I knew there was a need for what I was doing, so I decided to do it at the library.”
The BPL has become more than a book repository. It oftentimes serves a gathering place where job seekers can hone their computer skills, a mini-theater where families meet for story times, quilting classes and a respite where seniors can find fellowship and get tips for staying healthy.
People still consider the library the most economical way to borrow books, movies, music, and other materials. In fact, BPL patrons have already checked out about 63,623 items in 2017 — up from 50,443 this time last year.
But, the library system, with 19 branches throughout the city, also has kept up with the pace of a rapidly changing community, offering digital support and resources like computer classes and e-books, as well as providing myriad programs that range from aerobics to business classes and serving as a space for human interaction and learning.
‘Places to Make Noise’
BPL Executive Director Floyd Council Sr. said libraries are no longer a place where you have an expectation of traditional quiet, beautiful reading room.
“Libraries are places to make noise …, start your business, or have business-to-business relationships,” said Council, who pointed out that libraries also have meeting rooms for groups like homeowners’ associations and civic organizations.
Council cites a shift in public libraries, going from a research-centered environment to an information-centered space. Unlike 20 years ago, there’s very little research going on in public libraries.
“We’ve adjusted our staffing models for that reason,” he said. “We no longer have exceptionally trained and skilled reference librarians who sit at a service desk waiting for somebody to come and access information.”
Today’s library model calls for librarians to perform community engagement.
“We’re actually going to businesses,” Council said. “We’re actually going to people who are doing research and saying, ‘Let us do embedded librarianship.’ Now you have librarians embedded at City Hall, embedded at Alabama Power.”
Here are some other activities that can be found in and around the BPL.
At the Southside Library earlier this month, Threatt entertained and educated about 15 patrons—a mixed group of seniors and middle-age and young adults—during an hour-long cooking demonstration. She urged those in the room to use portion control and incorporate fresh vegetables into their holiday food menus.
“It is all about color, color, color,” she said while whipping up a batch of Chef E’s Mexican Chicken and Cauliflower Soup.
One patron said, “I don’t like cilantro.” Another had reservations about cauliflower.
“Well, this soup might not be for you,” said Threatt, who passed out samples of the hearty soup.
After trying the dish, both patrons were converted.
“The library is not just for reading now,” Threatt said. “It is a place where you can learn how to live a healthy life and take care of your body.”
Jean Petties, who was among those attending Chef E’s healthy cooking demonstration, commended the library and its workers for welcoming community connection and involvement. Petties and her daughter have been going to the Southside branch for nearly 30 years, she said, mostly for books and fellowship. She has high compliments for the librarians who know her so well that they set aside books she may be interested in reading.
“The libraries today are so vital,” Petties said. “They are a daytime respite for so many seniors and students. We definitely need to make sure they are funded.”
Strains of upbeat gospel music accompanied by the sounds of tapping feet and snapping fingers filled a spacious meeting room at the Pratt City Library on a recent Tuesday morning. About seven women sitting in chairs, each holding a towel for added weight resistance, raised and lowered their arms in rhythmic motions. The women, all senior citizens, were gathered for a weekly session of Chair Aerobics led by librarian Candice Hardy.
“Remember, everything we learn in here, you can do at home in a chair in your living room or bedroom,” Hardy said.
While the women cooled down after the 45-minute workout, Hardy invited them back for a livelier session of popular line dances the following week.
Wealthy T. Ferguson of the Westchester community said, “I will be back. I need the exercise.”
Pratt City resident Bobbie Lewis said of the Chair Aerobics class, “It is nice to have something to do. This library is a safe place, and the librarians seem to really care about the people here.”
Pratt City Library Director Tracy Simpson said she learned about the community’s large senior population when she took the job in June of this year, and she visited the nearby Dugan Avenue Senior Living Apartments to get an idea of their needs.
“I just went over and asked what they wanted to see at the library,” she said.
The seniors responded with suggestions for programs that focused on wellness, which led to the Chair Aerobics program.
“The seniors here are very active, and we can help by connecting them with both books and programs on healthy living,” said Simpson, adding that she also has booked a nutritionist to talk about preparing healthy meals on a limited income.
A study by the Pew Research Center, released in fall 2016, indicates that 47 percent of U.S. adults are either “reluctant” or “unprepared” in terms of digital readiness, a finding cited in the 2017 State of Americas Libraries Report. Armed with that knowledge, many libraries across the country have strengthened their technology programs and access to computers in low-income communities.
This is where the BPL’s Maurice Harley comes in. He is the education coordinator responsible for developing and teaching the weekly computer classes at the Central Library downtown Birmingham. The library has a computer lab that offers classes on Microsoft software programs, as well as instruction on using tablets and smartphones, and free word processing through Google Docs.
Harley has worked at the branch for the past seven years, and the number of computer classes — about 10 scheduled each week— has remained consistent. But as patrons become more familiar with the programs, he has had to offer more challenging classes.
“We haven’t really increased the number of classes, but we have added to the [complexity],” he said. “We now offer several advanced classes for Microsoft Word and Excel office software [because] we want to help people looking for jobs compete with their computer skills.”
In addition to the computer software classes, Harley hosts programs that help patrons learn how to use the library’s many digital options to check out and read books, listen to music, and watch movies.
“We have evolved with technology, but most people still come to the library to get paper books,” he said. “We have digital copies of most things, so now we are trying to get people to use those digital copies.”
Digital copies, or downloads, of movies, books, and music are available to library users through services such as Overdrive and Hoopla. And more outreach and promotion are needed at other branches, so people understand all the digital offerings available through libraries, Harley said.
At the Pratt City Library, people can drop in on certain days for guidance on using their digital devices, including their smartphones, something very much of interest to patron Lillie Cameron, 74.
“I want to learn how to text,” she said.
Chef E worked at the Bessemer Library as a college student while attending Lawson State Community College; after graduating, she worked in computers for BellSouth. She recalls taking her children years ago to Ms. Eve’s Story Time at the Avondale Library.
When Eve “Ms. Eve” Parker started her program in 1998, there were only a handful of children at the library located next to the sprawling Avondale Park. But over the past 20 years, the neighborhood has changed and is now a destination for young couples and families.
Ms. Eve’s Story Time has become so popular that Parker and children’s librarians Carla Perkins and Cassandra “Ms. Cas” Scott offer about eight programs a week. On a recent Tuesday morning, one of the library’s meeting rooms was packed with about 60 toddlers and their parents, all clamoring to build gingerbread houses—for which Ms. Eve had spent the day before making the buttercream icing the children would use to glue their cookie houses together.
Ms. Eve and Perkins credit the neighborhood — one of aging, historic houses and residents both black and white — with embracing the library as a place to educate and entertain their children.
Ms. Eve said, “We have a dynamic neighborhood. It has seen tremendous growth as young families have moved in.”
Perkins said, “It is just a nice blended neighborhood. It is interesting to see people who don’t know each other meet at the library and then form playgroups and come to story times. It is really building a community.”
Birmingham Times content provider Solomon Crenshaw Jr. contributed to this article.