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When I was 4 or 5 years old, I lived on West Barr Street across from then Lancaster County librarian Robbie Horton. Miss Robbie often invited me to spend the day with her at the library, which at the time was located on East Gay Street – and I eagerly went along every chance I got.
We would walk in and she would turn on the lights one by one before rounding up a cart that held books that had been recently returned. I remember how special I felt to be one of the first people in the library on those mornings. Miss Robbie let me help her replace the books to their proper places on the shelves. She would move books over so I could slide the book in the space she had created.
Miss Robbie gave me free rein of the library and I remember gathering four or five books from the children’s section and sitting at the desk in the office at the back of the library pretty much looking at the pictures to “read” each one. That was usually my routine each time I visited.
Miss Robbie explained that there was only one rule and that was I had to whisper if I had a question.
Back then, a musty smell that I grew to love emoted from the pages when one first opened a book. I also remember seeing people go over to the stack of little oak drawers and flip through card after card in search of a certain book. Miss Robbie said this file contained something known as the Dewey Decimal System that helped residents quickly find the location of every book in the library.
Back then, in the early 1960s, the small building met the needs of Lancaster residents, whether it was to check out the latest release or conduct research in the reference section.
But Lancaster grew through the years. And in 1969, a new 16,000-square-foot facility opened on North White Street in the location that had been the genesis of the University of South Carolina at Lancaster. Residents proudly flocked to the new facility that was several times larger than the former one.
At the time, Lancaster boasted of having one of the most modern libraries in the state. In addition to increasing the number of volumes, the library also added subscriptions to many magazines and newspapers, which many residents viewed free of charge. At the time, that was sufficient to meet the needs of county residents.
Things have changed since the new library was built 34 years ago. There is now a branch in Kershaw. And thanks to the forethought and generosity of a developer, a new library branch was built in Indian Land at no cost to Lancaster County residents. That branch is thriving with activity as area residents make use of the new facility.
Under the leadership of present librarian Richard Band and his staff, computers were added. And many unemployed residents rely on the free use of these computers to conduct job searches and fill out online applications and update resumes.
According to library statistics, users logged on to these computers more than 50,000 times during 2012.
Also under Mr. Band’s direction, the Lancaster County Library joined 17 other counties last October in a consortium to share resources. This saves taxpayers an untold number of dollars in each county.
Lack of funding
During the past three decades, Lancaster’s library has endured a dramatic increase in use by its residents. Unfortunately, the library has fallen way down the list of importance with other issues facing the county. Because of this lack of funding, our library is in danger of falling behind the times. And we cannot let that happen.
The library is already forced to hold some of its summer children’s programs at First Baptist Church. While it is commendable for the church to pitch in and its assistance is appreciated by the staff and participants, the church’s help just should not be required.
The Lancaster County Library already owns the vacant land where the former city swimming pool used to be located on the corner of Market Street and Chesterfield Avenue. Lancaster County taxpayers would not have to spend anything for land. The library could easily expand onto this property.
Literacy is the underlying foundation of education. Without these literacy skills many of our children will never develop the comprehension skills required to achieve a basic education.
I have enjoyed a successful writing career that I only recently realized probably grew from the seeds of reading planted by Miss Robbie Horton. Writing has allowed me to travel throughout much of the country. I have spoken at writing conferences from Amarillo, Texas, to Richmond, Va., and Florida, North Carolina, Alabama and several other states. I have been invited to hold book signings in most states east of the Mississippi River.
I am not claiming that every child who uses the library will one day become a writer. But don’t we owe to our children to create as many opportunities for success as possible? Without a firm foundation upon which to build, many Lancaster County students will only drop further and further behind as their studies progress.
I challenge Lancaster County Council to put our children first when finalizing its budget and include the necessary funding for our library to remain a place where some children will get their first introduction to reading at the same place I did – the library.
Who knows, maybe the next John Grisham, Mickey Spillane or Pat Conroy will come from Lancaster? Ours kids deserve a chance.
Former Lancaster resident Ken Bell works for Shaw Air Force and has written several books.