It’s 50: Siler’s Wren Memorial Library celebrates golden anniversary

BY DAVID BRADLEY, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/10/19

SILER CITY — They help the community find jobs, learn new languages, and work with updated technology, and the public can access it all at a surprising cost.

The Wren Memorial Library in Siler …

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It’s 50: Siler’s Wren Memorial Library celebrates golden anniversary

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SILER CITY — They help the community find jobs, learn new languages, and work with updated technology, and the public can access it all at a surprising cost.

The Wren Memorial Library in Siler City opened its doors on May 9, 1969, and is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Older library concepts and ideas are being replaced, as the Wren is changing the paradigm of “library,” and with that comes a new attitude. Computers and technology have brought new patrons — an average of 200 per day — through their door, to find new methods of learning, living, and enjoying the world and knowledge around us.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the history of most libraries, the concept was a building with cramped, ill-lit spaces, a moldy card-catalog filled with book titles, periodical guides to look up magazines and their contents, and a librarian who would whisper “Shhhh!” It didn’t invite you in, and seemed to want to get rid of you.

A committee to organize the Siler City library was established in February 1941, and included vice chairman E.A. Resch, father of Alan Resch, the former publisher of the Chatham News and Chatham Record. The Wren started in the basement of the Siler City Town Hall with 4,000 books, according to 1969 story by the late newspaper publisher.

After two bond issues to raise $100,000, and a $25,000 donation by William M. Wren, the library found a new home in its own building, in 1969.

Fifty years later, the library has used the foundations of that starting point to continually update the services offered to the community.

When current branch manager Mike Cowell started working at the library, the state-of-the-art was a card catalog or printed periodical guide to look up references.

“Twenty years ago when I came in as a temp, we used the card catalog and a stamping machine,” Cowell said. “Before that, a woman who had been here 16 years said that when she started, they actually stamped the books on the card in the back.”

The Wren has been replacing those outdated concepts with improved customer service, contemporary technology and concepts, and materials that suit the needs of the various demographics in Siler City. It is a hub in the community, offering technology, meeting spaces for clubs and businesses, as well as the classic offerings of a library including a wide selection of books, DVDs, and other materials.

One of the first concepts they got rid of was the idea that a librarian was always glaring at you, keeping the public quiet, and not interested in helping.

The Wren staff has a different attitude, and a customer-friendly approach.  

“It’s the bedrock, and foundation, of the services provided,” said Cowell. “To meet the needs of patrons and community.”

For the library’s staff, it’s not only about the books, or tech, or movies, or e-books. Rather, it’s the personal touch that goes beyond mere “customer service,” and it’s that special gift that turns a simple help experience into something far more powerful.

For example, one patron who had experienced a bad job interview visited the public library, just needing someone to talk to about her experience, said librarian Mary Earle.

“It feels like that is so rewarding when something like that happens,” Earle said. “We help people look for jobs all the time, and when they tell us that they got the job, that we helped them write their resume and send it in. There was one lady that was coming in for over a year, but something told me to go over at the computer, and she was just exhausted and had been looking for a job forever.  I sat down with her and we filled out a job as a substitute teacher, and later that week she got the job, and it was very powerful. It was one of those moments where I realized how important it was for us to take the time to help someone, because you can change their life just for a simple gesture of being there for them, and smiling.”

“I hear a lot of people say the library is going away because so many are reading on their smart phone,” said Angie Ritter, the Wren’s outreach coordinator. “I think the library is making changes that will still gonna be vital to the community because we still offer great programming that you can’t get online and also I think we’re focusing more on customer service and people will come back for that.”

And the services go beyond the four walls of the Wren. Ritter, as outreach coordinator, carries the library to the people. “I really feel connected to the community and I feel like what I do makes a difference. Just on the individual level, people are so excited to have that access to the library when otherwise they wouldn’t.

Ritter goes to homes throughout the county to deliver books, DVD’s and other requested materials to people who can’t go to the library.

“I take the library to people who can’t come to the library,” Ritter said. “It’s super exciting, because for a lot of them I might be their main social interaction. So it’s good on that front because, I really get close to my patrons, and it’s exciting to them because they have access to everything in the library and that opens huge doors for them personally.”

New technology has changed the concept of visual aids at the library. Flannelgraphs were used years ago, but now the library has a projection TV system that can be controlled with a smartphone, and computer technology is available for the public. Anything that can be done on the computer can be done at the library.  

“Even four or five years ago people went to an employer to get a paper application,” said Cowell. “Now people come in and we assist them with making an application online.  Lots of people come here to do their internet services, pay bills, do Facebook, whatever they want to do.”

A classic library concept of the bookmobile has changed to be an outreach service by the library.  When the economy went bad a few years ago, Cowell said that they had to close down the bookmobile because of the costs involved.

The new outreach services don’t use a bookmobile, but they do deliver books, DVD’s and other materials to patrons that can’t get to the Wren. They also have a courier service available to get materials from other libraries.

“We have a courier service that we do Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” Ritter said. “If someone came in and requested something on Monday, it would be here by Wednesday from Goldston or Pittsboro, and that’s a free service as well. And we even have agreements with other libraries in the state; if there’s something that you are really interested in, but it’s in a library in Randolph County, we could also get that sent over, but that does cost. It’s only $4 from anywhere in the state, and that just covers charge of getting it.

But there are some things that are really rare, and that’s one of the only ways you could get it. But Ritter takes the library all across Chatham County with types of materials that have been requested.

“I go to assisted living centers, and they have book clubs there,” Ritter said. “I collect things for them, like puzzles, and games, you know, stuff that they can do.”

Some community members are wanting to do more with the library, but only speak Spanish, and so the library has adapted to this as well. Now the library has a Spanish-speaking librarian, and Spanish books and literature. Getting the word out about having a Spanish speaker was difficult.

“That first day I just saw kids; unfortunately I didn’t see their parents,” said librarian Juana Gomez. “When their kids told them, then the adults came in when kids told them there’s a Spanish speaker here. It’s good to let them know that there aren’t just English materials here. There are children’s and adult books in Spanish, and honor books in Spanish as well.”

Some of the patrons who speak Spanish are also interested in learning English, and the library has a selection of these books on the shelf.

“I believe there are some books that help them to learn English,” said Gomez.”I think that’s what they like, because unfortunately they may not be able to go to classes or go online to learn English, so to have that for free, for a three-week period loan, is really good for them.”

“The goal of the library is that they want everyone to be served and helped with a friendly attitude,” said librarian Melissa Stennit. “The staff tries to help everyone with their research, give help with a computer document that they need, put a smile on children’s faces, just to get them the library card when they turn five, or help them socialize. The library offers story time for the little ones, sometimes a parent will ask what age is best. But all are welcome to come in and try out programs.” 

The Wren is an informational hub, with technology, a variety of reading materials for their patrons, and access to the world around us, but after 50 years of life, they’re just getting started.  The libraries’ services continually adapt to meet the needs of the community with technology, computers and wi-fi, outreach, and multi-lingual services. 

“I think it will grow, not only just with physical books,” said Gomez. “We have a lot of programs, and online programs, not just Spanish, that the patrons want to learn. We have some that want to learn French. Whether it be a certain language, or multiple languages, I think it will grow. Or vice-versa, someone that may not speak English will have those resources. I think it will grow.”

To borrow a book or a DVD, access the computer to just look at Facebook or interact with the world, get an e-book must cost a fortune, right?

What does it cost if you can’t get to the library to pick out a book or DVD, and need it brought to you?

To buy all this equipment, projection televisions, computers, and wi-fi to access the internet would have a high cost, and yet, it’s available for everyone. It’s free with a library card. It costs nothing.

“It’s a place where the poorest of poor can come, and get treated just like the richest of the rich,” said Cowell. “And everybody needs something from the library sometime.”


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