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Leechburg Public Library reaches out to become community hub

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
(from left) President of the Leechburg Public Library board Susan Gero, Leechburg Public Library librarian Joe Kantor, and Rotarian Mary Beth Girardi work together to process large print books for the Leechburg Public Library on Thursday January 17, 2013. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
(from left) President of the Leechburg Public Library board Susan Gero and Rotarian Mary Beth Girardi admire knitted scarves from the 'Knit Wit Club' that meets on Monday nights at the Leechburg Public Library on Thursday January 17, 2013. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch

Those at the Leechburg Public Library are looking beyond the books to engage, enlighten and entertain patrons.

With the help of the Leechburg Rotary Club, the library's offerings have expanded to include storytellers, computer classes and knitting instruction. And, those are just a few of the new programs.

“It's a new library,” Mary Beth Girardi says. “Libraries aren't the incredibly silent places they used to be many years ago.”

Girardi is the literary chair of the Leechburg Rotary Club, which has been helping the library to create new programs.

In December, classes brought in members of Lower Kiski Emergency Services to teach how to use automated external defibrillators and a florist who demonstrated how to make tabletop Christmas decorations.

More events are on the way, like a Valentine's Day storytelling hour for kids, computer classes for senior citizens and a summer reading program.

The move follows a trend seen in libraries, where they become not just a place to check out books but a hub for all kinds of information and activities.

“In order to survive, a library has to become more or less a community center,” says Sue Gero, president of the library's board of directors.

Leechburg Public Library's librarian Joe Kantor has seen an improvement in some of the library's numbers since the programs started.

Since October, the library's attendance has increased to more than 650 patrons, which is up from the 400 per quarter he usually sees. The programs have also helped to increase the library's cash flow.

“These programs are helping us make a name and to bring new people to this excellent facility,” he says.

“Programs are really the only thing that can help any library today.

“Books do not circulate like they did, and we cannot afford to offer download of ebooks yet,” Kantor says.

“We are pleased that people are beginning to think of us as something of a community center. We want to foster that positive image in order to keep (Leechburg Public Library) viable for the future.”

In a way, the library and the Rotary Club's combined efforts don't just bring the library into the 21st century. They help to promote some good old-fashioned book-lending.

“A very important thing we have learned from our programs is that people who come to the library to learn to knit, to play bridge or to learn basic computer skills often end up checking a book out, too, so it's a win-win situation the whole way around,” Gero says.

The library's efforts began in spring 2012, not long after Kantor spoke at a Rotary Club meeting. He expressed concern over the fact that so few people in the community used the library, which is housed within Leechburg Area High School along Siberian Avenue.

At that meeting, Rotary Club members started brainstorming. Since then, ideas have just kept coming.

Gero and Girardi made efforts to contact other libraries in the region to find out what was working for them.

“Wherever we went, everyone was very friendly, very happy to help,” Gero says. “They were very willing to share what has worked for them.”

And it's not only fellow librarians who have been coming up with suggestions.

“Once we started doing these programs, people now ask us for programs,” Girardi says.

Among possibilities for new classes are another floral-related session and a seminar that would teach people how to use smart phones.

While the latter may seem unnecessary for the younger set, Girardi says, it's one that older adults could benefit from, the same demographic that participated in the library's successful technology-related offerings, like basic computer classes.

The new programs don't mean that the traditional offerings of the library have fallen by the wayside. The library will offer its first summer reading program in 2013 and is expanding its large-print book collection.

The Rotary Club has helped with the latter effort, providing financial support for the purchase of new large-print books.

The changes aren't only about increasing lending or expanding programs. Gero and Girardi agree the library's efforts are also about helping others in ways that go beyond the library walls by building relationships.

“That's the part that's amazing,” Girardi says. “It brings your community together.”

Ten positions are open for those interested in becoming part of the Friends of the Library organization. Volunteers will be able to help with a variety of projects. Applications are available at the library.

Julie Martin is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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