Lantana’s Public Library : Marching to a Different Drum.
By Sid Patchett, former Lantana Public Library Director
Lantana’s library history starts like those of many other public libraries: the Lantana Woman’s Club established in 1947 a lending collection in the Lantana Community Church on Oak Street with 900 books donated by the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach. For the next four years Lantana’s Library, like fledgling libraries across the country before it, relied on donations for its collection and opened a few hours a week with a staff of enthusiastic volunteers. Individuals’ book donations and purchases by the Woman’s Club between 1947 and 1951, combined with growth of the church’s membership, impelled the Club to seek new quarters. This posed a challenge as the Town’s 773 residents could not afford to build a library and the Club had insufficient funds to rent new premises.
Here the library’s history veers from the traditional path. A 1947 hurricane wrecked the wooden draw bridge connecting Lantana and Hypoluxo Island. The bridge tender’s house remained intact, and when a concrete bridge replaced its wooden predecessor, the Town moved this house to a site by the waterway near the new bridge. There it languished, first as a fisherman’s shanty, then as an empty eyesore, until it caught the eyes of Mrs. Donna Hickam, chairperson of the Club’s building committee, and Club President Mrs. Abbie Wadell, who persuaded Lantana’s Town Council in 1952 to lease the building to the Club for $1.00 a year. Armed with gifts of $500 from Madam Jacques Balsam, a Hypoluxo resident and the former Duchess of Marlborough, $250 from Mrs. Harold Vanderbilt, and smaller donations of cash and materials from local businesses, the Club enlisted the voluntary help of members’ husbands and generous contractors to raise the building, refinish its interior, paint the exterior, and build shelving and furniture so that it could proudly open Lantana’s new library in late 1952. This imaginative repurposing of a piece of Lantana’s history gave the Town the only library housed in a drawbridge in Florida.
43 Years of Progress, 1952-1995
For four decades Lantana’s Woman’s Club, assisted by the Town and generous donors, gave Lantana a free public library service. In the 50’s Mrs. Nancy Bauskett, who had worked in other libraries, cataloged the collection and opened the library. Her colleague, Mrs. Lena Carson, a presenter of children’s radio programs in Detroit before moving to Lantana, conducted popular children’s story hours. Other Club members cut the grass around the building. According to a document in the library’s archives, all worked “harmoniously,” which says a lot for the grass cutters. The Town gave the Club $100 a year, maintained the building, and paid for electricity and insurance. Library teas raised money for new books and the Club received many book donations as well as its first sign listing the library’s opening hours, provided by the Bomar Sign Company. What these hours were, the archives do not disclose, but they probably did not exceed the six hours a week recorded in the early 60s.
In 1963 Mrs. Norman Ball became the chairperson of the Club’s Library Committee. In February that year the Committee was hard at work processing 600 donated books. Two of their husbands, Mr. Charles Hamblin and Mr. Norman Ball, were building new shelves to house the books. The Committee opened the library on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 2 and 4 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 to 12. This pattern continued for the decade. By its end the library held 7,000 volumes and spent $1,200 a year on book purchases. The Town’s annual grant had increased to $300, while the Club’s library teas and open houses raised $900.
By 1971 the library required more space for its growing collection. In April work began on a 12 foot extension to the building. The Town provided $1,100 for materials and a volunteer crew led by Councilman Paul Seppalla built the walls and roof. May saw Library Committee Co-chairs Ball and Mrs. William Wetton moving books into the extension. The library’s hours expanded to include Monday evening from 7 to 9. The library had 1,000 registered borrowers. In 1974 the Club spent $1,400 for 328 books. Mrs. Ball lamented the price increase of an average book from 1963’s $1.74 to 1974’s $4.26. Undaunted by rising costs, she was busy reclassifying the collection to the Dewey Decimal Classification, and had completed the project before her retirement, after 15 years as Library Committee chairperson in June, 1977. The decade’s end saw the library offering 8,091 books to borrowers who found the Library open for 20 hours a week.
A new decade brought a new Library Committee chairperson, Mrs. Ginny Spence, and more books- 9,500 in May, 1980: 1.18 volumes for each of Lantana’s 8,048 residents. 18 volunteers worked 3,960 hours between June, 1980 and March, 1982. They lent 15,083 books. The Club spent $4,061 in the same period to purchase 516 books. The library now rented best sellers for ten cents a week and charged non-residents a fee. By 1986 the Town’s grant was $1,500. Overdue fines brought income also, but Mrs. Spence made a practice of forgiving the fines while collecting books at borrowers’ front doors, a practice most public librarians would not emulate.
From 1947 to the end of 1986, the Woman’s Club Library flourished in a penumbra of good will. Library volunteers enjoyed providing a community service, residents could borrow or rent the bestseller they had learned about in the local newspaper, and by providing a small grant of taxpayer money, the Town avoided inclusion in the new Palm Beach County Public Library Special Taxing District. December, 1986 saw a temporary end to this era of good feeling. Mayor Robert McDonald and Councilman Dave Adams suggested at Town Council meetings that the library occupied valuable land which could be used for commercial purposes. This proposal provoked a spirited defense over the next months by Woman’s Club members, library users, and some Town Council members. The privatization proponents then perused the 45 year old State of Florida document granting the Town the land comprising Independence Park , including the land under the library. It contained a deed restriction limiting the property’s use to a public purpose. The library issue faded away, but it left a general feeling that Lantana’s library service needed to move to an expanded level.
Lantana’s Imaginative Leap From Woman’s Club to Public Ownership : 1994-1996
A casualty of the late 1980s savings and loans financial crisis was Carteret Federal Savings and Loan, whose 4200 square foot building in downtown Lantana at the corner of Ocean Avenue and East 3rd Street, fell into the Resolution Trust Corporation hands in 1991. On a drive past the building in September, 1994 Mayor McDonald noted the RTC’s sign inviting bids for the half acre property. The Town Council enthusiastically agreed that the building, located next to Lantana’s post office, and across the street from one of its shopping centers, would provide space for a new level of library service. It instructed the Town Manager to submit the Town’s bid for the property and at the end of November, 1994 the RTC sold the property to Lantana for $226,000.
1995 saw the building’s renovation and modification for library use, the purchase and installation of furniture and equipment, and employment of a professionally qualified library director. The Town also established a fund raising charitable organization for its new library, the Lantana Library Foundation, chaired by Mrs. Nancy Canter. Mrs. Canter and her fellow board members raised over $16,000 by the year’s end.
Lantana’ Woman’s Club participated fully in planning the new library and offered its collection as the library’s nucleus. Interviewed by the Coastal Observer in February, 1996, the Library Committee’s Chairman for 16 years, Mrs. Ginny Spence, said, “I think this is the greatest event for the Town of Lantana and I hope the Town residents who have been wanting a new library will now pitch in with their time, effort, and money to help support the library.” In the same month, Brandon Moving and Storage donated their equipment and staff to pack and move the Club’s 9,000 volumes to their new home. After 48 years the bridge tender’s house’s retirement career as a unique library ended. A building of many lives, it has since found a new role as part of the South Florida Show Ground’s Heritage Village.
A Public Library Marches Off the Beaten Path
Imagination and celerity (Mayor McDonald saw the RTC’s “for sale” sign at the beginning of September and the Town owned its new library building at the end of November, 1994.) hallmarked the library’s transition from private to public ownership. Transforming a branch bank building into a public library was unique and cost effective. So was the Town’s decision to provide a public library service run solely by volunteers led by a single professional director. Only one other Florida full scale public library, the Indian Rocks Beach Public Library in Pinellas County, uses this model. In 1996 Lantana stood alone: Florida’s public library black swan. Could such an oddity survive and flourish?
Despite the loss of its director early in the year, the Town dedicated its new public library in a grand ceremony on the afternoon of Sunday, April 21, 1996, and the library made its first loans the next day. Volunteers, several of them veterans of the Woman’s Club library committee including Mrs. Spence, opened it for 20 hours each week: Mondays and Wednesdays 3-8 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. By June 500 borrowers had obtained library cards. There were almost 1,000 by September when the new director arrived.
From 1996 Lantana, in contrast to the “charge them for almost all services” trend in public librarianship, has hewn to the original 19th Century tradition of the free public library whose services are available to all regardless of ability to pay. It has not charged overdue fines. In 1997 it began its free public faxing service. Staff and volunteers have sent thousands of faxes within the continental U.S.A., a service much appreciated by those sending documents to government agencies and insurance companies, home health workers sending time sheets, job seekers, and small business managers. The library began its photocopying service with a charge of a nickel a copy. Its 2017 charge for a letter size black and white copy remains a nickel. Use of this service, the least expensive offered by any of Florida’s public libraries, continues to grow.
Planning for an automated circulation and cataloging system and for a public computing service began in 1996. Public computing came first, in mid- 1997, when the library offered a single personal computer with an attached ink jet color printer for internet searching and another computer and printer for word processing. The library was the first, and remains the only, Florida public library offering free color printing. Seven grant funded public computers and printers were in place by 1998. The Gates Foundation’s Library Initiative, with a generous 1999 $18,556 grant, enabled replacement of six and the addition of a content server. A second Gates grant in 2006/2007 provided nine public access computers, allowing the retirement of the intensively used 1999 devices. A 2006 statistic demonstrates this intensive use: 16,091 individuals prepared resumes, read and sent e-mails, completed forms, and browsed the web that year. The library’s computers remained free for anyone who walked in- no library card required- on a “first come” basis. Each user was guaranteed an hour’s use and could stay longer if no one else was waiting. Each got up to 10 sheets of free color printouts.
Right from the start of the public computing facility in 1997, Lantana’s library provided free instruction for folks just learning the new meaning of “mouse” and “surf.” For three years it provided “hands on” evening classes for up to eight learners of the basics of computer operation, art of e-mailing, word processing, and web searching. Led by a professional librarian, these classes required prior registration, and they had waiting lists. After 2000, individual “one on one” tutorials replaced formal classes. Library volunteers provided these one hour tutorials, for which learners applied in advance. Another volunteer scheduled these tutoring sessions by telephone. In 2009 our volunteers conducted 245 tutorials, tailoring them to the specific topics learners had requested.
On January 27, 1998 Mayor Denise Bleau and Mr. Harvey Rafofsky of HealthTrust America, whose $50,000 1996 grant had funded the initial public use computers in 1997 and paid for a new automated loans and catalog system, cut the ribbon on our Windows NT based Athena catalog. Over 6,000 title records were in Athena and the names and addresses of 2,800 registered borrowers. The library’s volunteers had worked throughout 1997 recording authors and titles of the books on the shelves, typing lists of these for Athena’s vendor to locate MARC catalog records and upload them to the system, and entering borrowers’ details in the system. For many of the volunteers this project was their introduction to computer use. All of them enthusiastically mastered the skills to loan books, enter new borrower records, run overdue notices, and assist users of the online catalog. By 2013 our Athena system was an antique as was the server it ran on. In August, 2014 the library’s new system, Koha, went live. Used by libraries across the world Koha is an open source system (the software is free). Though it can run on a library server, Lantana opted to contract with Bywater Systems to provide a web based version, convert borrower and book data from Athena to Koha, and house the data (and backups) on their servers across the country. Lantana was the first public library to use Koha in South Florida. It provides an integrated library system with almost all the capabilities of the vastly more expensive systems used by other Palm Beach County public libraries. Taking the road less travelled in its neighborhood, Lantana decided to spend its limited funds on the collection rather than a costly commercial system that ordinary borrowers rarely master.
Lantana Joins the Library Cooperative of the Palm Beaches
Five years after its 1996 grand opening Lantana’s library was open 34 hours a week, had built its collection to 9,000 mostly new, carefully selected volumes, offered 50 periodicals including 3 daily newspapers, provided eight public computers, and had navigated the sea change from card based catalog and loan systems to an integrated, automated catalog and lending service.
Two support groups helped develop the community’s awareness of its library’s services and provided funds to supplement its budget. The Lantana Library Foundation, Inc. had since 1995, before the library opened, solicited donations and by 2000 had donated $15,000 for book purchases. In November, 1997, a group of library volunteers and other library supporters led by Eileen Bayer held the inaugural meeting of the Friends of the Lantana Public Library. For twenty years the Friends have provided publicity for the library in local newspapers, raised funds through book sales and quarter auctions, organized monthly evening meetings featuring local authors and other speakers on topics of interest to Lantana’s residents, and run the library’s book discussion group. The first issue of its newsletter, The Bugle (with its subtitle “We blow the Library’s Horn”) appeared in March, 1999. Now published twice a year it still alerts readers to Friends events and new library services. Sent to local officials and to all Library Foundation donors its reach well exceeds the 170 Friends members whose $5.00 dues – the same as 1997’s- support it.
Addition in its 2000/2001 budget of funds for two part-time library assistants enabled extension of the library’s opening hours to 51 a week. The library opened from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10-6 on Fridays and 10-2 on Saturdays. Its extended hours made the library eligible for State Aid to Libraries annual grants and met the requirements for membership in the Library Cooperative of the Palm Beaches. This Cooperative, including the Palm Beach County Public Library, and the libraries of Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Palm Springs, Lake Worth, Lake Park, West Palm Beach, and Riviera Beach, gave reciprocal borrowing privileges to the residents of each member town. A resident in any of the members’ towns could obtain a free library card from all the member libraries. Lantana joined the Cooperative in October, 2001. Now Lantana residents borrow books, audiobooks, and DVDs and use the electronic resources of several of Florida’s largest public library collections.
The Library Grows Web Feet
Serving a coastal town which began as a fishing village and located for almost fifty years beside the water in a building once spanning the same water, Lantana’s library has had an amphibian ambiance from its start. Since introducing its public computing service in 1997, the library has been guiding its users to the World Wide Web and providing online access to an increasing range of resources: the World Book Encyclopedia (funded by the Friends of the Library), e-books (started with a Library Foundation grant), e-magazines, and full text newspaper back files. A second generation library volunteer (both parents had been library volunteers) with a recently earned an MLS gave the library its new web feet in 2011 by creating its web site, www.lantanalibrary.org. Using free software and housing the site on a free hosting service, the library grew its web feet at no cost to the Town and has a continually updated web presence. Another dedicated volunteer spent the summer of 2012 cleaning and scanning 430 slides of historic buildings in Lantana. Collected over many years by the Town’s official historian, Mary Linehan, these slides, given to the library by Mrs. Linehan’s daughter, were an invaluable resource for those interested in the Town’s past. Uploaded to Flickr with a link from lantanalibrary.org, the Linehan Photograph Collection was “opened” by Mayor David Stewart in a ceremony at the library on October 3, 2012. Using a grant from the Lantana Library Foundation a team of Chancellor Charter School 6th grade students, the school principal and an enthusiastic teacher, had produced a set of older residents’ videotaped recollections of 1950s and 1960s Lantana. The library’s volunteer webmaster uploaded these to YouTube and linked them to lantanalibrary.org in 2013. Drawing on the skills and enthusiasm of its volunteers using free web hosting services, the library since 2011 swiftly paddled from access provider to no cost content producer.
David and Goliath, or, the Walmart Effect Turned Upside Down
Palm Beach County Public Library opened its largest, 29,000 square foot branch a mere 2.8 miles west of Lantana’s library in April, 2009. This handsome building had much to attract users: over 50 public computers, shelves of DVDs and audiobooks, multiple copies of bestsellers, a vast children’s room staffed by several experts in children’s programming, and a large, qualified staff enabling it to open 56 hours each week. The “Walmart Effect” is a frequent retail phenomenon: Walmart comes to town and small mom and pop stores on main street, unable to match the newcomer’s prices or item variety, go bust. Would Lantana’s library succumb to an analogous situation?
Far from it: the two libraries in fact complement each other. They have proven, to use another analogy, to be David and rather than versus Goliath. The County’s Lantana Road Branch has provided Lantana’s residents, who all qualify for a free county library card because of Lantana’s membership in the Library Cooperative of the Palm Beaches, with the public computers, DVDs, children’s programs, and audio books they seek. Lantana’s library has since 2009 attracted a smaller but growing group of users seeking a quieter, comfortable space in which to work and study. The two libraries’ selection policies differ: about 1 in 4 books added to the Lantana library collection are not at the Lantana Road Branch. The Lantana library’s first rate Florida Collection has attracted readers. Many visitors have remarked upon the friendliness and unhurried attention of the library’s volunteers. In 2010 the library added high speed WiFi service for its users, and it envisages the lessening need for public computers as portable devices become the normal computing mode. In October, 2014 it revamped its public computing as a “by advance reservation only” service, referring walk-ins to the Lantana Road Branch. Those making a reservation by telephone or in person have continued to enjoy the library’s generous time limits (1 hour versus the County’s half hour) and free color printing. Many people make use of our print from a flash drive service, introduced in 2016. Far from a competitor, Lantana’s library perceives its neighbor as a tremendous complement to its own service. Marching to different drums, the two libraries have increased exponentially the library resources available to Lantana’s residents. They have turned the Walmart Effect upside down.
Seventy Years on the Road Less Traveled
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Like the protagonist of Robert Frost’s famous poem, Lantana’s library has for seven decades taken the “road less traveled.” Its reliance on volunteer librarians, its adherence to the original idea of the free public library, its determination to avoid expensive automation at the cost of materials citizens can actually use, and its vision of complementing rather than vainly competing with the behemoth next door demonstrate this. Honoring the generations of volunteers who have built it, the library will continue its march to a different drum as the 21st Century unfolds.