Thirteen years ago, Veronica Pacella, the new director of the Ellwood City Area Public Library, was at a crossroads. The 1990’s was a bad time for libraries, and the new century would only be worse.
When Pacella was a child, libraries were a regular part of her social life . Now, it seemed the library would be obsolete by the next decade.
Pacella, her staff and the Board of Trustees decided to take a stand. There would be no going back and no decreasing of the library’s functions.. Instead, the library would be reinvented. Who it served, what it did, and how it did it all needed revamped.
The library needed expanded and the community reminded of its relevance. To do this, the purpose of the library needed to change.
“Libraries in the 20th century were vaults of information full of wonderful books and materials,” Pacella said. “While a library still needs to be that, it needs to be more to have a place in the 21st century.”
The library needed to become a center of activity. Pacella’s plan was to create a multitude of programs and renovations that would turn the library into a cultural hub for all demographic groups. She felt confident that the community loved the library, they just needed reminded of that. Once people rediscovered the library’s importance, they would return.
That fall, the library participated in the Halloween parade, with an Alice in Wonderland float. Pacella portrayed the Mad Hatter, and children’s director Nancy Wallace, the White Rabbit. The appreciation the float got reinforced the belief that the library had a community that would support it.
The campaign worked beyond anyone’s expectations.
By 2009, when other libraries were cutting staff and shortening hours, the Ellwood library was too small to host all its activities. For 82 years, the bottom floor of a Masonic Temple served as the library’s home, but the Board of Trustees and Pacella realized it was time for a change.
The library took its second risk in a decade by purchasing an old Rite Aid building on Lawrence Avenue. The building was larger and had the advantage of being downtown. On its open house, before business actually started, over 700 people visited the library, validating the move.
Pacella remembers that some women cried when they saw the new library, so moved by the progress of such an important community location. “People were expecting a Rite Aid with books,” she said. “What they saw surprised them.”
When Pacella started her job in 2002, the library had 3604 registered cardholders. Now, as the library approaches its centennial in March and the fifth year anniversary of its move, there are 14,285 users, more than the population of the Ellwood borough and Wayne Township.
In 2002, there were about 65 programs held annually. Now, there are over 300, including summer readings programs, guest speakers, and movie nights for adults.
On average, 190 people visit the library daily. Every month, 1300 people use the 16 public access computers. In addition, people bring their laptops to use the WiFi service. During any given month, the Library has around 10,000 books and materials in circulation.
The reason for this success: the library is proactive. Other libraries react to budget cuts and changing technologies by belatedly adapting or eliminating services. The Ellwood staff is always staying ahead of the latest technology and trends.
The new move helped significantly. Before, parking was extremely limited and access by handicapped and senior citizens was difficult. The library’s new location comes with a parking lot and a larger entrance.
Before, the library had to store reference books behind the circulation desk and resorted to shelving books in front of windows. Activities were held upstairs in a room that could barely hold the influx of participants.
Now, all books can be stored in strategic locations. There is even a large-font shelf. The new event room has a capacity of 80.
The library also targets multiple demographic groups including children, teenagers, families, adults and senior citizens. On any given day, senior citizens read old reference books or newspapers. Adults use the computers or bring their laptops. Besides regular Internet activities, the library also offers practices for tests such as the SAT and ASVAT, and 42 language-learning programs.
“People don’t just come here for books,” Pacella said.
The new library includes a teen section. After school, students come in to read, do homework, meet with tutors or sleep.
“If teens feel welcomed, they will come,” Pacella said. “It gives them a safe place to be after school if their parents are working.”
Despite budget cuts, the library refuses to decrease hours or services. In 2006, the library lost 37.5% of its funds. In 2009, the library received about $91,000 from the state and other sources. That number is now down to $55,715. To make up the money, the library holds fundraisers.
It is a testament to the community’s love for the library that the fundraisers succeed. Pacella credits the dedication of the Board of Trustees, the hardworking staff and a community that is “more than we could hope for, absolutely phenomenal. Everything we’ve envisioned has happened.”
The library’s success shows not only that a library has a place in a modern community, but that people still read.
“We have so many books and eBooks in circulation,” Pacella said. “Whatever the case may be about reading nationally, it’s not that way here.”
The library’s success isn’t just recognized in the community. The library has won state awards for its services, beating competition that includes much larger institutions such as the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Harrisburg Library. This success has put the library on the spotlight for prominent guest speakers and authors who overlook other local libraries in their tours.
Pacella loves her job and role in the community. An English and Political Science major with a concentration in journalism, she worked in that field and owned a book shop before joining the library.
“Those jobs were wonderful, but I didn’t feel the rewards that I feel here. It’s an honor to do this. The library really impacts the lives of people in the community, and that’s been pretty cool.”