Evesham library serves community by adapting to the times

The local branch has kept pace with 21st-century trends and tools to serve a modern town

Madeleine Maccar The Sun: The Evesham Branch Library’s Branch Manager Sue Szymanik (left) and Youth Services Librarian Chelsea Michelfelder show off some of the ways the library caters to a younger crowd, which include offering youth crafts and a monthly teen reading selection, like “Scythe” by Neal Shusterman

Membership might have its benefits, but you actually don’t need a library card to access everything the Evesham Township branch of the Burlington County Library System (BCLS) has to offer.

According to Branch Manager Sue Szymanik, wielding a library card can unlock a world of entertainment and education that goes way beyond just borrowing the latest bestseller or gathering up reference materials for a research project. But most of the time, all it takes to benefit from the programs and presentations the library hosts is to simply show up.

“There are a lot of things that you can access just by being in the building,” Szymanik explained. “Sometimes, people will ask, ‘Can I attend this program? I left my library card at home.’ But you can attend our programs even without a card!

“We‘re certainly not going to screen people for their cards — we’re just delighted to welcome people who want to attend.”

Szymanik’s tenure as branch manager began in 1993, when the Evesham library was situated at its previous home in the since-redeveloped Tri-Towne Plaza, now known as Shoppes and Residences at Renaissance Square, off Route 70.

In that time, she has watched as libraries in general made the seamless transition from the stereotypical image of a stern librarian waiting to shush anyone who dares to speak above a whisper, to thriving, living centerpieces of a 21st-century community.

By adapting to modern patrons’ needs, libraries have secured their status as meeting places, classrooms, technological hubs, exam rooms for long-distance learners and  veritable cornerstones of the community that reflect a modern town’s various needs.

Part of that evolution comes from staying abreast of technological advancements and trends. As patrons become more and more tech-savvy themselves, librarians need to stay ahead of the curve — partly to keep pace with a user’s expectations and partly to be knowledgeable enough about technology to help people first navigate it, and then understand its potential as a useful tool.

“You can’t help but stay sharp when things are constantly changing, and people come in expecting assistance with things that range from pretty routine to something I have to really figure out,” Szymanik noted.

“As an example, if you apply to a job now, it’s almost always online,” she added. “But at first, we had lots of people coming in who didn’t need to use computers in their daily lives, and uploading a resume is pretty daunting if you don’t know how to do it.”

It also helps for a librarian to cast a keen eye on larger trends that impact the literary world, like watching an entire genre burst onto the scene and cater to a notoriously underserved category of readers.

“There was a time when there were children’s books and there were adults’ books, and there wasn’t a whole lot for teenagers to read,” recalled Szymanik.“Those teens could certainly read adult books, but they wanted subject matter that was more about what their lives are like, what they hear about or they’re curious about. And then there was a whole genre created for young adults.”

Young adult novels have become an in-demand genre for hungry young readers who were once starved of books where “the subject matter could just be a little bit deeper, and about the kind of things that you’re not going to find in little kids’ books, like battling addiction and the fear of death.” The result, Szymanik maintained, has encouraged many libraries — like the Evesham branch and the BCLS’s “mother ship” in Westampton — to not only carve out a niche for young adult readers but also hire a teen-focused librarian.

“Like all of us at a branch, she does everything, but her specialty and the programs that she plans all have to do with teens, who can be anywhere from 12 to 16,” said Szymanik. “I think that’s a huge change, and part of it is the fact that the books being written for teenagers are of such quality now that young adult readers are coming back to the library because there’s clearly something there of value to them.

“The library was always here for them, but now it’s offering something they want.”

And then there are places where technology and trends converge, like the meteoric rise in popularity of eBooks — one area where a library card is still crucial.

“I think in the past 20 years, one of the biggest changes is probably eBooks,” Szymanik confirmed. “We circulate more and more eBooks, and every year it’s exponentially higher. As long as you keep your library card current, you can download an audiobook or an eBook from your phone, from your computer or from your tablet to read on your eReader.”

Szymanik notes the ease and convenience of “borrowing” eBooks from the library, as well as their role in an increasingly digitally minded culture.

“Downloading eBooks has really skyrocketed for not only the books that people read, but also the audiobooks that they listen to,” she explained. “There’s no money involved and what people really like about them is that they’ll never be overdue, because when it expires two or three weeks later, it just disappears.”

BCLS Director Ranjna Das affirms that the Evesham Branch’s desire to stay relevant in quickly changing times reflects the library system’s overall philosophy of making sure that all its patrons have unpatrolled access to its resources regardless of their lifestyles or limitations.

“Libraries are doing more to stay nimble and adapt to changing community needs,” Das said. “Each BCLS library, including the Evesham branch, does this … Whether it is a visit to a branch location, 24/7 access to a wide range of digital resources, community visits via our Mobile Library or our Library-by-Mail service, we understand that our customers are busy but want to use their library in a manner that fits their lifestyle. BCLS gives them this choice: A busy family can have books mailed to their home while a commuter may need to download an audiobook before heading to work. Likewise, a resident of a senior-care facility can have the library come to them via our bookmobile.”

But for all the changes libraries have seen in the past few decades, Szymanik promises that one area won’t change: the passion with which librarians serve their community and its patrons, and the tireless support of the Friends of the Evesham Library. The group started it all in 1964 when they drove door to door collecting books to share at whatever building would host them — “until their floors started sagging underneath the shelves.”

“The Friends essentially created their own library, and then the county took over — but the Friends still fund us generously with programs, new materials, prizes for summer reading and quality speakers or entertainers,” Szymanik said.

“They continue their mission as a civic group, and the library would have never come to be without their help.”