Written by Hannah Saulters
â€œPeople talk about, â€˜Now that thereâ€™s Amazon, we donâ€™t need libraries,â€™â€ Susan Liles says walking through the first-floor art gallery of the Mississippi Library Commissionâ€™s light-filled, Prairie School-inspired facility. â€œLibraries are more than just books. Books are just a minimum of what we do.â€
And Liles isnâ€™t exaggerating. The Commission is responsible for serving the stateâ€™s over 200 libraries, providing myriad services to their various branches, including grant opportunities, continuing education courses and website development.
Their support also extends beyond the scope of the institutions to serve the public directly, hosting close to 30 visitors per day. Their collections of law and medical texts, a patent and trademark research center, shelves and shelves of large-print books and an exhaustive collection of Mississippi authors are all open to the public. Large tables and chairs make it a perfect place to study. When the weather is nice, visitors can go upstairs to the reading porch.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of that accessibility is the full staff of reference librarians. â€œAnyone can call and say â€˜Hey, I need to know what Elvisâ€™ pant size was,â€™ or whatever theyâ€™re looking for. Anytime you canâ€™t find the answer to something, these guys will hook you up,â€ explains Liles.
Elizabeth Scott, one such librarian, notes that many of their requests come from the incarcerated. â€œThey can write and ask legal questions or if they need help finding legal precedents. Some just want to know song lyrics or whatâ€™s the tallest building in the world. They have just as much a right to know as anyone else.â€
Their interlibrary loan (ILL) program is equally significant. Scott notes of an encounter she had just a week prior, when a woman picked up her ILL books â€œShe told me that we were helping a senior citizen achieve her dream of going back to school! School books are so expensive and she couldnâ€™t afford to purchase them so we were happy to get to do that.â€
Serving those with limited access to resources is a common mission across MLCâ€™s many programs, like Talking Book Services, a collection of cassette books for anyone who has trouble reading the printed word, whose collection includes 90,000 titles. There is a recording studio on-site that is entirely volunteer-run, so â€œif someone requests something we donâ€™t already have on file, then someone comes in to record it.â€
This passion for engaging the public extends well beyond the walls of the Commissionâ€™s office. Liles has spent the past few years visiting and raising the profile of Mississippiâ€™s rural libraries. â€œThey are so critical to those communities,â€ marvels Liles. She recalls that in Coffeeville, the librarian recently helped one woman get her college degree online and another to find a job. In Indianola, the public library offers a basic computer skills program for senior citizens.
â€œSometimes people wonder where their tax money is going, but just go to your public library and youâ€™ll see your tax dollars hard at work. The great thing about libraries is that theyâ€™re open to everybody. No one is treated differently in the library.â€
MLC is open to the public, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday – Friday, at 3881 Ridgewood Road.