CATEGORY: Lafayette County

AUTHOR: EILEEN

HED: A captive audience

By Eileen Bailey

Daily Journal

OXFORD - Oohs and ahhs echoed through the Lafayette County-Oxford Library auditorium as Steve Thomas performed his magic.

For 30 minutes more than 100 children sat spellbound as the magician performed card tricks and sleight of hand.

Programs for children at the library, such as magic acts, are nothing new. Library employees and patrons consider themselves lucky to have the monetary and volunteer support they receive from the Oxford and Lafayette County communities.

"We couldn't live without our volunteers," said Nancy Opalko, children's librarian. "We have wonderful people in our community."

But other libraries in Northeast Mississippi don't enjoy such a bounty.

Challenges

Louann McDonald, librarian for the Lee County Library, said the library provides what programs it can for children, but the lack of funds and staff makes it difficult.

"We can only provide the most basic programs," McDonald said.

About 15 to 20 children visit the Tupelo library each afternoon. Most are older children who have come to work on homework, the Internet or to read.

McDonald said "very few" libraries can afford to offer after-school programs.

The Lee County Library offers storytime once a week during the day for children and special programs during the year, especially during National Library Week. There are guest volunteers who perform or read to children throughout the year.

"The board and I have not looked at changing our services at this point," she said. The library's board developed a long-range plan to improve the total library system, especially its financial base.

"When you improve your financial base all areas improve," McDonald said.

Hoping for more

Kathy Bailey, librarian for the Evans Memorial Library in Aberdeen, said her library tries to offer programs to youths.

But most of those are one-time projects funded by grants, such as the Aberdeen photographs project where children were armed with cameras and documented scenes of Aberdeen. There also are programs, such as a storytime provided by the Aberdeen Junior Auxiliary, that are volunteer-based, she said.

"These are not ongoing programs and we suffer for that," Bailey said. "We are grateful for our grant funders, such as CREATE Foundation, Lucky Day Foundation and the Mississippi Arts Commission."

Children in Aberdeen are able to use the resources of the library, such as books and Internet access, she said.

But it's not enough. To provide what children need, Bailey said additional funds and volunteers are necessary.

"I feel trapped because we can't offer more. We don't have trained personnel (in a children's department) and we don't have trained personal because we can't afford them," she said.

The library receives additional funding from a support group called the Friends of the Evans Memorial Library, but those funds are used for capital improvements.

"There are plenty resources but there is a need for someone to do it," Bailey said. "We can't afford to hire a children's librarian.

Community volunteers

The volunteers at the Lafayette County-Oxford Library come from all walks of life. Residents who are retired and who have expertise or knowledge in certain areas often perform programs for children, Opalko said.

In the past, Opalko said a professor from the University of Mississippi did a program on bugs. Children have heard from park rangers, artists and magicians.

Other special programs provided by the library include a movie time once a month for both adults and children.

In addition to the special programs, the library, with funding help from the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors and the Oxford Board of Aldermen, is able to offer updated materials, books, videos, puppets, art shows, computer access and other educational offerings.

Librarian Dotsy Fitts said the library receives $216,000 from the county board of supervisors and $100,000 from the city leaders.

The Lafayette County-Oxford Public Library, which is the only library in the county that's not part of the University of Mississippi or a school, is part of the First Regional Library System, which is made up of 13 libraries.

The funds earmarked for the library are sent to the system headquarters then are spent for the county where they originated.

In addition to the funding from the supervisors, the library also benefits from supervisors' support to take care of the maintenance of the building, to pay the electricity bills and to have the building cleaned, Fitts said.

On the days there are special programs the library is crowded. But for the librarians, like Opalko, that's all right.

"I think it gives kids something to do. It brings them to the library and lets them know there are other things here than books," Opalko said.

Parents and students alike said they enjoy what the library has to offer.

Cynthia Parker of Oxford took her children and a friend to the magic show.

"I love it (the offerings by the library)," Parker said. "This gives them access to books and movies."

Older students from the nearby high school make up a majority of the youthful patrons in the afternoons.

Some students are there to work on the computers. Fitts said the library sees between 675 to 700 computer uses a month.

"Many of these kids don't have computers at home. For a lot of kids this is their only source for a computer," Fitts said.

One student who enjoys working on the computers is Charles Washington, 15, of Oxford.

"I come each day. I like it a lot," the Oxford High School student said.

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