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It’s Not Your Parents’ Library Anymore
Burlington County Library System reinvents for the digital age

There were no calls for silence at the library when the Burlington County Library System (BCLS) held its first ever Chicken Fest.

In fairness, it’s hard to “shush” an excited chicken – and the Burlington County Library in Westampton was the scene of the gathering for more than 75 backyard hen enthusiasts, vendors and experts on chicken therapy, growing feed and the latest in homesteading concepts. But what really brought on the clucks and cackles was the “Miss Queen of the Roost” contest. The most heavenly hen earned bragging rights – plus a five-pound bag of savory meal worms.

Chicken Fest is just one of hundreds of events and activities – some novel and others of a more traditional variety – offered yearlong throughout the 16-branch system that prides itself on catering to diverse audiences in New Jersey’s largest county.

Most recently, the library system has worked to raise the bar on its offerings, especially its live performances. Past shows, as part of the ticketed “Fall Friday Nights” series, have included soul performances, R&B bands as well as the Beatles tribute band, Britishmania! An upcoming Latin American group and a Celtic folk singer will round out the popular, free “Sundays on Stage” series. Each of the library’s concert series consistently draws crowds to the 250-seat Westampton auditorium.

For teens, Tuesdays are set aside for life skills advice, job training and social justice discussions, while every day offers younger children access to colorful computers loaded with STEM-based games in both English and Spanish. Meanwhile, seniors flock to special offerings, like free tax services from AARP, crafts and reading groups as well as technology classes.

And for those spending the day or working remotely at the Burlington County Library, the newly upgraded Best-sellers Café offers sandwiches, salads, Starbucks® coffee and after-hours snacks. Plenty of outlets are available too – so mobile devices don’t go hungry either.

Keeping current with the vast array of services libraries offered to enrich lives in the digital age can admittedly be dizzying, says BCLS Director Ranjna Das – especially as technology continues to open up more and more exciting options. So it may be comforting to know that BCLS remains dedicated to old-fashioned books. All branches are stocked with the latest best sellers as well as classics and other traditional media. In 2017, nearly 78,000 card- carrying library members borrowed more than 1.5 million books, magazines, CDs and other collectibles system-wide.

“Circulation is still probably 80 percent of what we are doing, and books are still at the core of our resources,” says Das, who started as a part-time employee at Evesham branch in 1993 – just as the online catalog was being ushered in – and was appointed director in 2012. “However, the trend with all libraries is that we are moving more towards programs and services that focus on people and what people do at libraries.”

In Burlington County, composed of both suburban and rural enclaves, what people “do” can look very different from library to library. Therefore library staff at each location customize program offerings to best suit their respective communities. For instance, the Bordentown library is one of three locations where ESL classes, taught by volunteers, are in high demand. ESL is also taught at Burlington County Library and Maple Shade. Pemberton and Pinelands will start similar classes in 2019. Many library locations also host Teen Advisory Boards (TAB), at which groups of teens work with librarians on various activities throughout the year. In Borden- town the TAB organized volunteers for the library’s summer reading program, participated in the community’s infamous Halloween festivities and enjoyed many other programs throughout the year.

Across all locations, the traditional children’s areas now feature technology and playspaces creating more of an “early learning center.” Each branch generates programs to expose children to STEM and other learning opportunities based on their needs. Librarian Christian Pulverenti frequently hosts programs that showcase the system’s coveted 3-D printer. He works with schools and homeschool groups in order to expose as many children as possible to the many uses of 3-D printing, in addition to stop-motion animation and robotics programs, notes Das. Meanwhile, younger children system-wide have been devouring stories through the “1,000 Books Before Kindergarten” effort. Each branch has created a dedicated area with age-appropriate selections.

“The fun part is, when the kids reach certain milestones, they get parties and take pictures, which we post on social media,” Das says.

BCLS continues to build relationships with local entrepreneurs and small-business owners. Meet-ups and special events focused on relevant topics have helped owners meet challenges and network amongst themselves. Joan Divor, BCLS business services librarian, recently started keeping “small-business hours” on Fridays at the Burlington County Library to provide more personalized help and mentoring. For her innovative approach to community-building, Divor was recognized last year in the list of movers and shakers published in the “Library Journal.”

If truth be told, the library system is more than the sum of its 16 locations due to the explosion of offerings online. In fact, Das points out that a trip to a library isn’t even necessary to take advantage of some of the most on-demand services. The Libby app offers access to BCLS’s thou- sands of eBooks and audio eBooks. Library users can enjoy free access Lynda.com, which offers thousands of video tutorials on a vast variety of topics. And reserving free museum passes online is also a thing. Cardholders can go online to book tickets for museums as far away as NYC and as close as Paws Discovery Farm in Mount Laurel.

“We call our website the ‘virtual branch,’ and we treat it like it is a branch,” says Das. “This is an extension of our mission to enrich people’s lives. We are really trying to reach every member of our community.”

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