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There are more than 80 kids lined up to register for the Robertson County Public Library Terrapin Race, but Johnetta Kelly’s turtle is surely the most spoiled. Isabella has her own terrapin condo, a beautifully appointed cardboard box complete with lace-curtained windows. Kids have gathered from all over the county, carrying terrapins in buckets, laundry baskets, and picnic coolers. In the first heat of the race, Isabella waddles purposefully down the plywood racetrack to beat out five lazy competitors, amid whoops and cheers.

All this fun has a serious purpose. When kids come to register for the race, librarian Carol Mitchell gives them information about the library’s summer reading program, encouraging them to sign up. During the second heat, Isabella gets distracted and stops to think things over, finishing in the middle of the pack. The terrapin may have lost the race, but its 8-year-old owner is surely a winner, along with all the other patrons of the Robertson County Public Library. “I go to the library to read horse books,” says Johnetta. “And I like to use the computers and learn about stuff on Web sites.”

From the Mississippi River to the easternmost mountains, 188 public libraries serve the people of the Commonwealth. You probably know them as places to check out books, or to use a computer for free. But Kentucky’s public libraries have expanded their role, and their vision, to give Kentuckians of all ages a place to meet and learn.

Robertson County may be Kentucky’s smallest, with a population of only 2,260 people, but it supports a very busy library, in a gleaming new building. Built in 2003, the facility has shelves of new books, a room for genealogy and historical materials, and 17 state-of-the-art computers. The children’s area has low tables with colorful picture books, and adults can relax in rocking chairs by a fireplace. In the late afternoon, a couple of senior citizens browse through “recommended reads” chosen by the staff, while a toddler sits on his babysitter’s lap, happily chewing on a book in the shape of a tractor. “We don’t have a movie theater here in Mt. Olivet, or a skating rink,” says Mitchell. “So we try to provide lots of activities for the community.”

Summer reading, the program promoted by the terrapin race, aims to help kids maintain and build their reading skills over vacation, a time when students often lose ground in their reading skills. Participants attend events and keep a tally of everything they read, with prizes for all who read a certain number of pages.

As the terrapins are lumbering toward the finish line, 75 miles away in Warsaw, 21 teenagers are locked into the Gallatin County Public Library, trying to figure out who murdered a guy named Jerry. Children’s Librarian Amy Riesenberg has set up a crime scene complete with a “trench,” a shovel, and a “rock wall” made of paper. The teens will read about 10 different suspects, comb through the “police evidence room,” then work in pairs to solve the crime.

One evening a month, from 6 p.m. to midnight, the library is off-limits to adults during Teen Night. Kids 11 and up come to play games, eat pizza or hot dogs, and use the computers as long as they want. They might also read poems or jokes aloud in a circle, or play a guessing game based on books, with candy rewards for correct answers.

With so many other demands on their time, from classes to jobs to extracurricular activities, teenagers today are devoting less and less time to reading. By offering activities like Teen Night, libraries encourage them to pick up a book for pleasure, and keep developing their reading skills.

Libraries today are making a real effort to reach out to every member of the community. The Johnson County Public Library in Paintsville takes pride in offering programs “for everyone from 1 day old, to 100 years” according to librarian Karen Daniel. “In the evening, we have our Lap-Sit program for kids from birth to age 3. They even come in their pajamas.” Sitting with their parents, they listen to stories, and pass around toys and noisemakers from a bag of surprises. “It teaches them to share,” says Daniel.

At the other end of the age span, the library’s computer classes are very popular. “We had one gentleman who’s 94 who came in to take two classes. He took the basic computer class, and then he wanted to learn to send e-mail to his children.”

The Johnson County library aims to hook readers early. Their Blankets, Books, and Babies program sends representatives out to maternity wards to meet new mothers, giving them books and library card applications for their babies—there’s no minimum age to sign up. And these efforts have received an enthusiastic response: more than half the county’s residents now have their own library card.

And if you can’t come to the library, the library can come to you, via its bookmobiles. Kentucky was a pioneer in the field in 1934 with Leslie County’s Pack Horse Library, created by the Works Progress Administration. Today, bookmobiles serve rural areas across the state, as well as several counties that don’t have their own library. In far western Kentucky, librarian Marda Pate even drives the Fulton County Public Library’s bookmobile through Tennessee to reach the New Madrid Bend, the tiny scrap of Kentucky land cut off by the Mississippi River. “We have two patrons who live out there, and they borrow lots of books and magazines.”

Pate drives over 500 miles a month, making stops at homes, senior centers, preschools, and even the Fulton County Jail. Along with books and CDs, she brings puzzles and games for preschoolers, large-print publications for seniors, and educational materials for homeschoolers. “I enjoy the scenery while I’m driving,” she says. “And the people are really appreciative.”

Kentucky has the largest fleet of bookmobiles in the nation, spending 120,000 hours on the road every year and circulating more than 2 million items.

Today, Kentucky’s public libraries have gone far beyond their traditional role of lending out books and answering kids’ homework questions—though they’re still glad to do both.

Carol Mitchell in Robertson County says, “We don’t want to be just a museum for books. We want to be the hub of the community.”

It’s all free and it’s all yours. Check it out!


Some of the more unusual programs at Kentucky’s libraries:

  • Patrons can borrow fishing poles at the Scott County Public Library.
  • The Boone County Public Library has a book discussion group for men only, called Real Men Read.
  • At the Lexington Public Library, kids with reading difficulties can practice in a program called Paws to Read and read stories to a therapy dog.
  • The Woodford County Public Library had a 12-week Health and Wellness program this past spring for senior citizens, featuring health assessments, nutrition advice, and fun exercise activities. This fall, there will be a four-week program focusing on Zumba, a combination of Latin dance and aerobics.
  • Every spring, the Clark County Public Library offers a hands-on program showing how to grow vegetables from organic seeds.This program travels to as many as 18 other county public libraries as well.
  • The Summit branch of the Boyd County Public Library features Dog Days, a series of animal programs with a guest veterinarian, programs on pet care and training, and a pet parade.


At public libraries, you can:

  • use lightning-fast Internet connection
  • borrow movies on DVD and VHS
  • read newspapers from other cities
  • join a book discussion group
  • check out all kinds of music CDs
  • get computer help from patient teachers used to working with the technologically challenged
  • research your family tree and get help with genealogy

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To see the video and learn how McCracken County’s Linda Bartley became famous in “The Adventures of Super Librarian” on the Internet, click here: Super librarian.

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