One of the best things about celebrating a 100th birthday, especially if you are the Contra Costa Public Library system, is throwing a really, really big party. You might even get away with making it last all year long, but regardless, one big bash is justified.

On Sunday, the centenary celebration will be "ginormous." It's a word that sends shivers up a librarian's spine and shoots tingling anticipation along the system's backbone: the kids and families who are patrons in the county library's 26 facilities.

Ian Richards, manager of the El Sobrante and Pinole libraries, says the benefit of being a large system is shared resources. The Pleasant Hill location was the central library, until a countywide review in 2006 determined the designation was no longer viable. Still, many of the library's archival records are housed in the facility, which has a controlled vault.

In addition to organizing Taiko drummers, Lego building, Lindsay Wildlife Museum animal visits, author talks, Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps show, craft activities, music bands and CPR training the day will offer, Richards says special commemorative stamps will be available.

Library administrator Edie Mustard has designed a commemorative image, and the United States Postal Service will be on hand with a special postage stamp, courtesy of the Diablo Valley Stamp Club.

Asked about the library's next 100 years, Richards says, "More than the materials, a library's a cultural meeting point where people gather, share ideas, experience cultural events, discover histories. There will always be a demand for human interaction."


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Deputy county librarian of Support Services Cathy Sanford agrees, although she's a big reason the county library is pitching not just a party, but is winning awards for "throwing" people out of the library.

Her "Discover & Go" program was half the reason the library won a 2012 National Medal for Museum and Library Service from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (the other "half" was the "Snap & Go" smart phone app that puts the library's collection in people's pockets).

Given to just 10 organizations across the nation, the award recognizes innovation and exceptional community outreach.

"This is the Super Bowl/Academy Award for libraries," Sanford says. "It's competitive and a great honor to be selected based on how we served our community. The staff deserves it."

"Discover & Go" allows 24/7 access to downloadable, free passes to more than 40 cultural and educational destinations. Since its launch in January 2011, more than 220,000 passes have been issued to Bay Area families with library cards.

And it almost didn't happen.

"We were offering physical passes during summer programs; dispersing them manually," Sanford recalls. "There were issues reserving them, retrieving them: it was a lot of work just to deliver a piece of paper."

During a library meeting, Lafayette Councilman Don Tatzin dropped in to suggest the library seek corporate partnerships similar to the arrangements museums were using to finance virtual passes.

Subject to a vote, library commissioners chose to table the software purchasing decision, but Sanford and her staff had an "ah-ha" moment and weren't so willing to give up on the idea.

"We looked at existing software, but found the packages weren't sufficient," Sanford says. "We wrote a grant to pay for developing our own."

A $45,000 grant from Bay Area Library and Information System and assistance from web developer Quipu Group was all it took to set up a program that has taken off like a rocket. Not only that, but Sanford's team opened it up to libraries outside of the county.

Today, 50 library systems share the central network of 40 ticket-issuing organizations. A California State Library grant of $84,000 will soon allow it to expand to Southern California and to add 10 Northern California locations.

"We see reciprocity in the long run. We see it as a way to grow culture and increase people's opportunity to enrich themselves," Sanford says.

Partner organizations see increased attendance and revenue. Pittsburg Librarian Chris Brown says the USS Hornet's membership manager reported an additional $5,000 in annual sales -- roughly $500 per month -- generated through the "Discover & Go" program.

Sanford says she now sees co-branding on the partnering institutions' tickets and receives calls from interested museums and cultural organizations asking if they can participate.

"And people who haven't used the library in years are getting cards. The library as an educational, cultural and historical institution is booming. I hate to sound corny, but it goes to the betterment of our community," Sanford says.

Like Richards, she believes physical libraries will always exist. If all the libraries suddenly disappeared, she suggests, someone would start reinventing them.

"It would start small, maybe with two individuals, but that exchange, that sharing and discussing will always be something people want."

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What: Contra Costa County Library 100th Birthday Party
When: noon-5 p.m. Sunday, July 21
Where: Pleasant Hill Park and Teen Center, 147 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill
Cost: Free