Polk’s Libraries: More Than You Think
By Elizabeth Morrisey

Gone are the days when the library was just a place to go and check out books, quietly read and head home. Today’s libraries are relevant and keeping up with today’s technology, offering a variety of classes for adults, teens and children, and reaching out into the communities they serve.

“Each library has something special about it,” says Gladys Roberts, coordinator of the Polk County Library Cooperative. “Each one is serving the community and knows its needs, but as part of the cooperative each one sees the bigger picture.”

The PCLC was started in 1997 to help oversee seamless countywide library services. Each library in the county is operated autonomously through each city, however, the cooperative allows them to share resources. “It’s the best of both worlds,” Roberts says. “We serve the county and local areas. We try to make sure we are a resource for the community and all its needs.”

Here is a roundup of the different offerings of the major libraries in Polk County.

Auburndale

The City of Auburndale’s library is not only focusing on books, but is helping people grow herbs, flowers and vegetables. The Auburndale Seed Library allows locals to pick out 10 seed packets per month. All one needs is a library card and it’s free. “We want to encourage locally-grown herbs, veggies and we offer some flowers,” says Head Librarian Kristal Holmes. “We try to offer what we can for the current planting season.”

On Mondays, a therapy dog, Simba, visits children so they can read to him; this program is called Paws for Reading. “He’s not judging or correcting,” Holmes says. “They get to enjoy reading.” Auburndale library also offers teen and adult programs, such as game days, teen fun night, and adult coloring.

“We don’t have money or resources like the big libraries,” Holmes says, “but we have our knowledge and skills and we are customer-service oriented and provide different programming.”

Bartow

One focus of the Bartow Library is helping people get healthy. It provides Tai Chi, yoga classes, and nutritional programs to help fight obesity. “We teach the fundamentals of nutrition and low-cost food items,” says Vic Nunez, interim head librarian. “We teach that good nutrition can be affordable.”

Another popular program is Shredder Day, allowing people to come in and shred documents once a month. The library also offers bilingual story time, a teen Anime club, a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program, quilting, and a master gardener program. “We try all different things,” adds Nunez.

And although Bartow’s population is only about 20,000, the library is pretty sizable at 40,000 square feet. “Our circulation goes up all the time,” he says. E-reading and video streaming are also increasing. “We feel we still have a foot in the traditional library, but also a foot in the future.”

Haines City

Liz Ramos, Haines City Library’s community outreach coordinator, wants to be sure they are reaching the needs of the people in the area. “You can find your niche within the building,” she says. Whether it’s children, teens or adults, visitors can find something that fits them.

There are group or one-on-one computer classes in Spanish and English, a popular needlework club, nutrition classes, book clubs, Scrabble clubs, and resume classes for adults. Teens will feel at home during Table Top Tuesdays where they can create and develop new things like robots and learn coding and animation. On Fridays, they can watch movies and play games. “It gives them their own space,” says Ramos.

The library also holds a Lego Bricks Club for children and showcases their artwork in a display case in the lobby

“We go out in the community and see how we can help each other,” Ramos says. “We get involved in the community.”

Lakeland

Polk County residents may not know that Lakeland Public Library has a Lakeland History Room — a treasure for finding out about a historic home’s history, information about Lakeland’s well-known former residents and historic photos. They also host a series in which local expert researchers and historians present a variety of topics about Lakeland.

“People like to reminisce about the past,” says Lisa Lilyquist, city librarian. “Most people appreciate the resources we have here. It’s great for research and discovering new things.”

Along with the physical collection of maps, photos, building plans, scrapbooks and postcards, more than 6,000 images are available for viewing online. “It’s a way of telling our story without having to step foot here,” Lilyquist says.

Vanished Lakeland is a virtual exhibit using images of buildings formerly standing in Lakeland but have since been demolished, removed or changed. “We have an engaged community who enjoy our programs,” she says.

From painting and crafts to adult education and story time, it’s hard to name all of the Lakeland library’s programs. A unique free program now offered is DIY Digitize. Library staff will teach people how to convert old photos, papers, slides, VHS tapes and vinyl records to a digital format. LuAnn Mims, special collections librarian, says they’ve had a good response. “It’s easy to learn and a fun thing to share.”

A big focus of the library is adult education and providing tools to help the community. Microsoft certification, Excel, Twitter and Gmail basics are just a few classes offered. Lilyquist says they are focusing on teaching and helping others dive in and get hands-on experience. “We try to make everything convenient and teach them how to use the tools,” she says. “We are a guide to engage them in their interests.”

Lakeland library has a strong Friends of the Library group that has a book sale area and renovations will be starting soon with new administrative offices and a coffee shop.

Lake Wales

The Lake Wales Library has an average of 13,000 to 14,000 people who come through its doors each month, says Tina Peak, library director. “Outreach programs are big for us,” she explains. The library provides the community with books by mail, a book mobile service, book talks at schools and extra books in schools, community centers and nursing homes. “Everyone in the county is impacted. We are proud of the fact that you don’t always have to come to the library to take advantage of what we offer.”

The library offers Gale courses, which provide online classes in finance, healthcare, technology, law and many other topics. Also, log on is offered to Lynda.com, an online learning platform offering 6,000 courses in business, software, technology and creative skills and they are available 24/7. The best part is they are all free.

Like the other libraries, Lake Wales also has children and teen programs, such as Wiggles and Giggles story time, crafts, Excellence in Reading, a Pokémon Card club, Lego Mania and a teen book club. For adults there is yoga and adult coloring as well. Library patrons can also view work from local artists in the gallery each month.

“It’s all relevant and important,” says Peak. “There are a lot of people who still love to read and it’s the best deal in town — it’s free.”

Winter Haven

The award-winning SEEDLab (Science, Education, Exploration, Design) at Winter Haven’s library is helping increase the community’s digital literacy skills, says Cori Greear, public services librarian. Classes are offered regularly, such as Appy Hour, Microsoft Excel and Facebook 101. It also offers free access to the Adobe Creative Cloud and other software.

In 2016, the library became the first gigabit library in the state providing lightening-fast internet via fiber optic lines. “This milestone is significant from a technological standpoint, and also in showing our city’s dedication to increasing digital literacy and accessibility for our community. We are constantly listening to our community and trying to meet their needs and expectations as far as programming at the library,” says Greear. “Our community is very social and enjoys the arts and humanities.”

The library is in its third year of offering an annual lecture series. The topic this year is Florida Water Stories, which has included presentations about Boca Grande Pass, hurricanes, and the Winter Haven Chain of Lakes.

Some other free resources offered by the library are: Rocket Languages — a language tutorial software that includes Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian and many others. Kovels.com is a guide to antiques and collectibles that helps identify, date and value items.

There are also two special libraries in Polk County: Stephen H. Grimes Law Library, and the Polk County Historical and Genealogical Library, both in Bartow.

For more info on any of the libraries in Polk, visit MYPCLC.org (My Polk County Library Cooperative) and click on the “Library Information” link.