Photo by Timothy Hursley, provided by Duvall Decker

Written by Hannah Saulters

“People talk about, ‘Now that there’s Amazon, we don’t need libraries,’” Susan Liles says walking through the first-floor art gallery of the Mississippi Library Commission’s light-filled, Prairie School-inspired facility. “Libraries are more than just books. Books are just a minimum of what we do.”

And Liles isn’t exaggerating. The Commission is responsible for serving the state’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. “Anyone can call and say ‘Hey, I need to know what Elvis’ pant size was,’ or whatever they’re looking for. Anytime you can’t find the answer to something, these guys will hook you up,” explains Liles.

Elizabeth Scott, one such librarian, notes that many of their requests come from the incarcerated. “They can write and ask legal questions or if they need help finding legal precedents. Some just want to know song lyrics or what’s the tallest building in the world. They have just as much a right to know as anyone else.”

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 “She told me that we were helping a senior citizen achieve her dream of going back to school! School books are so expensive and she couldn’t afford to purchase them so we were happy to get to do that.”

Serving those with limited access to resources is a common mission across MLC’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 “if someone requests something we don’t already have on file, then someone comes in to record it.”

This passion for engaging the public extends well beyond the walls of the Commission’s office. Liles has spent the past few years visiting and raising the profile of Mississippi’s rural libraries. “They are so critical to those communities,” 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.

“Sometimes people wonder where their tax money is going, but just go to your public library and you’ll see your tax dollars hard at work. The great thing about libraries is that they’re open to everybody. No one is treated differently in the library.”

MLC is open to the public, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday – Friday, at 3881 Ridgewood Road.