When Director Barbara Flynn is invited to speak about Contra Costa County Library's approaching 100th anniversary, she has a novel way of bringing context to the magnitude of the moment.
"I do a whole talk called, 'I was there,'" she said, "as if the library was speaking about what it's seen. I begin with 1913 and go through my list of milestones, beginning with World War I, then the stock market crash, the Great Depression, World War II, our only four-term president ..."
By the time she ushers Barack Obama into office, listeners understand the longevity of the institution and the generations who have benefited from it.
Woodrow Wilson was president in 1913. A first-class stamp cost 2 cents. Commercial air travel did not yet exist. The library was established on July 21 of that year, with two modest facilities in Walnut Creek and Concord. Today it blankets the county with 26 branches and serves more than 560,000 cardholders who borrowed 7.5 million items last year.
Flynn, who has worked in libraries for more than 30 years, marvels at the evolution she's witnessed since she first checked out books as a young girl.
"I remember a library card that had little squares on it," she said. "When you borrowed a book, they'd put a stamp in the square. When you returned it, they stamped the square next to it."
Every aspect of the operation is automated now. Lenders check out books with bar code scans and reserve them through online requests. Reference materials are available 24 hours a day with the click of a mouse.
"Remember those big Chilton auto repair manuals?" Flynn said. "In the early days, you couldn't even borrow those -- you had to photo copy the pages. Now they can be downloaded and you can take them with you to work on your car."
Library offerings long ago expanded beyond printed materials. Among the items available now are DVDs, CDs, e-books, audio books, film programs, Wi-Fi access, speaker series, even foreign language lessons.
"People use libraries for many different things," she said. "One example is job seekers who are out of work and can no longer afford Internet at home. They see an ad, and it says apply online only. They come to the library.
"I read an article recently that said it best: A library is a place where we can get things for free we otherwise would have to pay for."
A fascinating website (http:/guides.ccclib.org/100thbirthday) presents a thumbnail glimpse of the Contra Costa library's evolution, with archived photos and a timeline of important events. One of those was last year when it was awarded the Institute of Museum and Library Service's national medal for community service.
The library will celebrate what it's achieved during its first 100 years on July 21 at Pleasant Hill Park, with music, games and programs for all ages. As always, everyone is invited.
For all that's changed, Flynn notes, one thing about libraries has not. She relates the observation by way of a history lesson, recalling the many early libraries funded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
"A Carnegie library was usually a very striking building," she said. "It always had stairs leading up to it, and the reason was very pointed. When people went into a library and learned, they were raising themselves up."
One hundred years later in Contra Costa County, that's an everyday event.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.