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More than books and a place to study: New library chief takes district forward

Updated September 7, 2021 - 7:45 am

The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District has endured setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but while physical attendance has plummeted since an emergency was declared in Nevada, virtual visitation has soared.

Traffic to the district’s website reached more than 19 million page views between July 1, 2020, and June 30, an increase of roughly 23 percent over the prior fiscal year, according to district figures.

There were nearly 2.5 million unique homepage visits during the same yearlong period through June 30, the figures showed, up from about 2.1 million visits during the fiscal year before it.

Library officials are not surprised about the sharp uptick in people seeking out e-books, audiobooks, news, streaming videos, story times, and education and career resources.

There are obvious reasons: The district’s 25 branches closed in March 2020 for more than two months and then again briefly in December. Schools were virtual until recently. People continue to be leery of public spaces.

The pandemic had certainly slowed momentum at the district’s brick-and-mortar locations, where districtwide visitation was down 45 percent in fiscal year 2021 over the pre-pandemic fiscal year 2019. The district extended Wi-Fi to parking lots and administered curbside pickup, and even a book drive-thru at a few locations, while branches were closed.

But the pandemic has also served as a reminder that local libraries have long provided more than physical books and a quiet place to study.

“We didn’t change,” said Kelvin Watson, the district’s newly hired executive director. “More people just became aware of what the library can and could offer.”

New leader takes the helm

Watson, 49, arrived in February from Broward County, Florida, where he led its 38-branch library system. His career in libraries spans more than two decades including in the private sector.

When he worked in retail distribution for the defunct Borders bookstore, the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District was one of his clients.

It is one of the 15 largest public library systems in the U.S., with more than 600,000 library cardholders and a $70 million annual operating budget. The district serves most of Clark County except for Henderson, North Las Vegas and Boulder City, which have their own library systems.

It holds more than 3.3 million items in its collection, which it points out is nearly 20 times more than the number of slot machines in Las Vegas.

“The district certainly has a reputation for (being) one of the best libraries in the country,” Watson said, “but I also saw that there were opportunities to expand the technology offerings that we have here as well as continuing to help bridge the digital divide.”

In one Watson-led initiative, the district partnered with the Macmillan book publishing company to make Dan Rather’s book, “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism — The Graphic Novel,” available electronically this summer to anyone in Nevada. The promotion, which ended Friday, was not nationwide but unique to the district.

Expanding the library’s reach

Watson calls libraries a “community anchor” that are able to connect anyone, regardless of their demographic, to a wide array of resources. And there are plans on the horizon for other initiatives that can broaden the district’s influence.

The district is considering putting antennas on top of libraries to provide Wi-Fi services to neighborhoods, with broadband access being a challenge particularly in rural locations. Discussions are ongoing to host college classes so people do not have to leave their community. And the district is exploring partnerships to install library vending machines at different valley locations.

Digital libraries were installed on buses in Broward County during Watson’s time there, but it appears unfeasible to do so here due to the Las Vegas heat, he said. Instead the district is starting a program expanding library card access to transit riders in September.

“So over my tenure, that’s my focus, is to expand the reach of the library in our communities, both inside as well as outside,” he said.

Welcoming back students

As students returned to school on Aug. 9, district officials were preparing for a steady increase in physical attendance at East Las Vegas Library, the newest district branch, which opened in 2019 at a cost of roughly $26 million.

There are 14 elementary schools, two middle schools and three high schools in the immediate area, and an estimated 71 percent of nearby residents are young parents with children, according to the district.

Libraries have been a popular after-school stop for students, but attendance in children’s programs across the district slumped 56 percent during the pandemic, district figures show. In the early stages of the pandemic, the district purchased Chromebook laptop computers to support Vegas Strong Academy, the city of Las Vegas’s childcare program held at roughly a dozen libraries and community centers.

“People are nervous about coming back into public spaces so there’s still … a lot of online interactivity. That’s become a huge part of what we offer,” said Betsy Ward, the district’s branding and marketing director. “But we want to get people back in the building, especially with (students) back to school now.”

A modern library

On the first day of the new school year, district officials showed off what awaits students at the state-of-the-art East Las Vegas Library. Only about 10 percent of the 41,000-square-foot library holds books, according to John Vino, the district’s general services director. The rest is interactive space.

Many rooms have glass walls, allowing passersby a clear view of the activity inside: There is a conference room to support entrepreneurship, a podcast studio, a recording studio and a teen zone, where young people can play video games and hang out. Tutoring and free meals are available at the facility, too, and local art is routinely on display.

There is also a STEAM lab (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) with a 3D printer. The library provides career support, adult and English-language learning, and media production classes. For children, there is a toy library (kids can borrow them to take home) and one of the district’s first playgrounds.

In addition to the main library and classrooms, a 3,400-square-foot multipurpose room, where a rolled stage can be set up, holds public and private events. It has hosted a range of events including government meetings, federal pandemic relief funding discussions and quinceaneras.

Quiet no more

Officials say they are now ramping up slowly, looking forward to the return of regular programming inside the STEAM lab and at the library’s plaza, among other services that have been stymied by the public health crisis, such as cafe operations and a long-term master plan to upgrade district facilities.

Modern libraries, they say, are no longer simply a repository for books but instead seek to foster engagement, and the image of librarians urging patrons to keep hushed is an antiquated one (although there remain traditional study areas).

“Libraries started transitioning from being those quiet spaces probably about 10 to 15 years ago,” Watson said, adding that the focus is to attract youth and teens into the facilities. “In doing that, you can’t necessarily have it be the same quiet that it used to be.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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