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Kentucky's new library association chair sees libraries as 'community centers'

Marshall County Public Library System director Tammy Blackwell was recently elected chair of the Kentucky Public Library Association.
Derek Operle | WKMS
Marshall County Public Library System director Tammy Blackwell was recently elected chair of the Kentucky Public Library Association.

The Kentucky Public Library Association membership recently elected Tammy Blackwell as its new chair during the organization’s annual conference in Owensboro this March.

Blackwell also serves as director for the Marshall County Public Library System in far western Kentucky. The library leader served as the group’s vice chair last year. Now, she hopes to advocate for the state’s public libraries and promote the ways those institutions are evolving to meet the needs of their patrons.

“My main goal is to communicate with the public at large the amazing thing that libraries across the state are doing,” she said. “Libraries are so much more than buildings full of books these days.”

Public library programs – outside of remotely viewed and recorded programs – have bounced back across the board from the COVID-19 pandemic era, according to the latest Kentucky Department of Library & Archives data. That includes initiatives like mobile internet hotspot and laptop lending programs that allow patrons to better access the internet and bookmobile programs that bring materials to people without reliable access to transportation.

Blackwell, a Marshall County native who’s worked in the system for nearly 18 years, said one area that’s experiencing massive growth in Kentucky libraries and across the country is digital content.

“When I first started, we still had VHS that we were lending out. More and more people are discovering audiobooks, people who have never read at all, are now hooked on audiobooks,” she said. “Libraries themselves are becoming more of community centers and community builders than they've ever been before. Our programming gets tons of numbers, we are learning how to focus our programming on specific populations that really need that community being built such as senior citizens.”

Because of this digital growth, Blackwell said libraries are now better able to target population segments and target programs that can help them to build connections and community.

“A lot of our older patrons don't have a lot of interaction … so we build programs around them to make them comfortable so that they can build relationships with each other,” she said. “We have gone from very service-oriented to very community-building-oriented.”

Libraries in Kentucky and across the country have dealt with increased book challenges in recent years. According to American Library Association data, the number of challenges filed in Kentucky libraries fell to 11 during 2023 – just half of the 2022 total. Though fewer systems experienced challenges, the number of challenged titles grew by more than sixfold from 70 to 448. The number of titles named in Kentucky challenges was higher than all but three other states – Florida, Texas and Wisconsin.

Blackwell said that, while her system hasn’t experienced difficulty with challenges, she feels libraries are not responsible for telling people what they can read or watch.

“It is the role of the parent to determine what is right for their child, and we believe that 100%. That's why we encourage parents to come with their children to the library [and] to talk to them about the material they check out,” the KPLA chair said. “A library cannot be expected to know your individual family's values, because each family is unique and different. There needs to be things in [a library] collection to reflect every single type of taxpayer that we have. Sometimes those people's views are not going to align with yours.”

“We have a duty to the taxpayers, and you have a duty to your family. And those are two separate jobs.”

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